An evening with Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou

Last week TSIC was afforded the opportunity to attend an event organised by the LSE Alumni Association entitled Sir Stelios on Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy. The theme of the evening very much captured our intersecting interests at TSIC, and we were keen to gain a better understanding of Sir Stelios’s insights into the same two areas, especially given his extraordinary success in both.

Beyond an erudite and nonchalant presentation from a man who exudes business savviness, Sir Stelios had some fascinating things to say about philanthropy, and the direction he chooses to take it with his foundation. One of the clear takeaways is his determination and commitment to making philanthropy efficient. This is perhaps an unsurprising approach, coming from someone whose family and personal history is rooted in enterprise. But if this approach were scaled, it could have important ramifications for the third sector, and Sir Stelios certainly practices what he preaches, applying a distinctly entrepreneurial vision to his own charitable endeavours.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the Stelios Foundation’s latest initiative to feed the hungry in Greece and Cyprus, serving thousands of people every day at various distribution points across the country.  The fundamental premise of the food provision scheme is to sate as many appetites as possible, as quickly as possible. As such, the foundation provides chocolate bars and other sweet snacks, because in very simple terms, these are the most cost and time-effective products, allowing the foundation to reach the maximum number of people. This spurns some difficult questions about the relative costs to the health of the beneficiaries, especially in the long-term – a question which a Greek doctor in the audience put directly to Sir Stelios – but he remained quite adamant; the possible negative health consequences should be deemed secondary to the intention of filling a pressing need in the short-term. These are the complex questions many organisations have to grapple with, and sitting in a lecture theatre in the LSE, we attendees could not have a sense of the urgency of the decline in Greek standards of living since the economic crisis. Removed and detached from the problem, it becomes reasonably difficult to assess the moral implications of a well-intentioned act of charity.

It was quite clear then, that in Sir Stelios’s view, charities should act more like businesses to ensure maximum market value; even and especially if, as he put it, the market value happens to be zero. Yet, according to Sir Stelios, this approach should not be reciprocal, and businesses should not attempt to emulate charities: a point of divergence between Stelios’s philosophy and TSIC’s, and indeed anyone working to rethink and evolve the way CSR engages with the third sector. The idea of systemic corporate philanthropy was practically anathema to Stelios, as he asserted that stakeholders, and more importantly shareholders, in business are motivated and driven purely by profit, and any engagement with charity should be kept entirely separate. Whilst this may have been true a decade or so ago, our research suggests that in fact there have been paradigm shifts in the way people define ‘good’ business. Increasingly, people are looking to support businesses that seek to make meaningful contributions to society. As the burgeoning B-Corp movement indicates, mission-led or values-driven businesses are becoming more and more appealing, and indeed, more and more profitable.  As a team from Harvard Business Review Analytics and professional services firm EY’s Beacon institute identified in a report published last year, “those companies able to harness the power of purpose to drive performance and profitability enjoy a distinct competitive advantage.”

Sir Stelios concluded his lecture with an important point, on which TSIC is in full agreement. He emphasised the importance of keeping philanthropy local, which we might extrapolate to mean ensuring charities put beneficiaries first, by having in-depth, contextualised knowledge of the problem. This attitude to philanthropy flies in the face of the hegemonic approach to charitable giving; that of top-down assertions of aid, bestowed by a benevolent but critically ignorant donor. Sir Stelios’s foundation operates in the spheres that he himself knows intimately, and as a result, can provide effective solutions to localised issues. Whilst acknowledging that scale and feeling ‘personal’ are not necessarily mutually exclusive, Sir Stelios felt that concentrating on relatively small, local projects would enable him to have the greatest impact, and bring about structural change in specific contexts. It is a laudable approach, and one which has been gaining traction all over the world in recent years.

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Thanks to the LSE for facilitating such a fascinating event, and thanks to Sir Stelios for sharing his remarkable insights into the worlds of entrepreneurship and philanthropy!

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