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Welcome on board

From personal perspectives to a family foundation: interview with Carlo Mazzola, president of Fondazione Mazzola

The first time I heard about Fondazione Mazzola – through their Secretary General – I thought they spoke a language that resonated to me. Starting from the mission – “to contribute to the well-being of people at risk of marginalization, by expanding the opportunities available for people with disabilities through sport” – which includes one of the most powerful tools that can literally bring out personal characteristics, like sport, which I am passionate about. And continuing with the model adopted, the Theory of Change as a system approach, their transparency on the desired positioning in terms of values and vision.
Looking a little more closely at the Foundation, a dynamic, flexible organization emerges, which inhabits the time and context in which it operates and which has a clear idea of change and the way in which it intends to achieve it, starting from a crucial trait that should characterize those who “practice” philanthropy (not only them, to tell the truth): listening.

With great pleasure, therefore, I share the ideas that emerged from the conversation with Dr. Carlo Mazzola, President and co-founder of the organization.
Enjoy the reading!

The first element that involves on your website is the transparency. Your mission is clearly expressed and precisely described, without mincing words or high-sounding statements. And just as clear is the connection between you family history and the “reason why” of the Foundation.
These are elements that I find valuable from the point of view of developing strategic thinking before being operational.
What were the steps, the decisions and the ideas you started working on to develop the Foundation?

The Foundation is, for us, an arrival point after several years spent supporting the civil sector – I mean projects and initiatives – that met our (both mine and that of my family) personal interests. They have been years of many great experiences that have made us understand what we like to do, what we would like to do, how to engage – literally – our family with respect to a philanthropic vehicle structured as a foundation.
The path that has brought us this far starts from a personal fact which is linked with the past. In our case the figure of my uncle*, quadriplegic and enlightened person to whom I was very close and who passed us the idea and the motivation of sport as a vehicle for development, which allowed us to focus on the area of interest. Beyond this, however, we needed to reflect carefully on the “vehicle”, on how to structure a path with a long-term perspective rather than based on sporadic initiatives: personally I am agnostic towards vehicles, what we were interested in was systematize the many unstructured interventions made, on personal basis, over the years. We have therefore defined what I call a structural thinking: a foundation, despite having costs and presupposing a very strong commitment and orientation, allows you to be credible, to stay on the “market”, to direct strategic and not episodic interventions.
The idea of setting up a family foundation seemed to us the one that best reflected this thought. Moreover, I am convinced that not only people belonging to the family can work in the foundation and that it is appropriate and, indeed, necessary to make use of the skills of external members to circulate different ideas and perspectives. Together with the strategic thinking on the Foundation, we are trying to create this mix: we do not exclude the integration of someone from outside the family, with specific skills and who can bring a complementary, “external” vision and an intellectual contribution that allows us to expand the vision.

And, again on the subject of governance, we are also convinced that the Board becomes effective when the Directors, in addition to having a strategic role, also have operational tasks to be able to grow in their role, as well as to grow and consolidate the Foundation. This is what we are trying to pursue both as a Board and with the Secretary General of the Foundation, with Board meetings from 4 to 8 times a year, an approach for which the strategic lines are identified and the Directors carry out operationally.
Beyond me, the Board is made up of my wife and our two children. We felt it was right, albeit at a very young age like theirs who are about 20, that they should see how a Board of Directors and, in general, the civil sector economy, work, so as to have a broad look beyond the mere investment sector.
As Directors we are all operational in different ways – for me, in particular, it was a life choice in which I deeply believe and to which I dedicate myself with passion.
This is where we have come today.
It was not a short or easy process – because “making” a foundation is not enough to make it work well – and in the past we have made choices that have not taken the imagined direction but, on the other hand, it is part of the culture of our foundation to consider failure as the unexpected outcome of an activity, something we can learn from. The approach we pursue has reached the level of effectiveness we desired and, in addition to this, we have learned to decline it starting from something that we were passionate about, because without passion it is difficult to build something stimulating.


The concept of failure as “choices that have gone elsewhere” is very interesting and, from my point of view, somewhat liberating. How important is knowing that you can “afford” to fail in your cultural approach to the governance issues?

It is necessary to understand what mandate the directors have and when and how much they can afford to “fail”, because it is a sensitive matter.
The real challenge of philanthropic capital, especially for small foundations such as Fondazione Mazzola, in my opinion, is to try to use the lens of innovation to generate change; that is, to try to achieve the objectives that have been set for us using “non-standard” criteria – not because these do not go well or contain intrinsic limits but because it is probable that they have already been used by other philanthropic subjects and, in this case, according to it is more effective for us to use the granting commitment by financing someone else, someone who think and work differently.
If you want to reach certain results that realize the vision you are pursuing, you need to “focus” on this approach: –the philanthropic capital and it is one of the points we are trying to pass on to the next generation – must, or should, allow itself to be ambitious on the results knowing that it will generate a social return, in some cases even pseudo-financial. If the distinction between philanthropic and financial capital is not clear, it becomes difficult to define expected objectives. And it is a concept that should permeate the entire culture of the organization. Personally, I am working precisely on the definition of what philanthropic capital means, starting from the assumption that the capital of each individual is made up of the money owned and in conjunction with the personal perspective – human capital, values, orientations. Having clear the intersection between these two aspects means not crushing the concept of change only on the monetary data and considering financial capital and philanthropic capital not perfectly superimposable, so as to open the perspective to wider reflections and developments. And it is precisely in this intersection that the institutions of the civil sector should work to bring about change.


Being in governance is always also a question of transparency and balance. Morevoer, when governance is the expression of a family history. How did you, as a family, split into roles and how did the principle of effectiveness of action guided these decisions? To what extent did the definition of a commitment “engage” the other Board members upstream and how much did it leave them, I’d say, puzzled?

The foundation was born particularly from my personal push and the division of roles came quite naturally, with my wife and I main engagement and a less operational, even linked to the vision, role of our children, who currently live abroad and who, due to Covid, have only managed to follow the foundation from a distance in the last 2 years.
One of the most meaningful moments that this structuring gave us was when, during a Board meeting in which we talked about how to select projects to support – and therefore we entered a lot into the numerical data as a key value of sustainability, which tended to reward certain categories of projects compared to others – one of our children literally told us: “let’s remember that we are a foundation and a foundation must really look at the weakest and those in need, the risk of crushing all our work only on financial aspect would making us lose our social soul, so rewarding only those entities capable of producing expected data, outcomes and outputs, reports, does not exclusively create a philanthropic approach that, instead, should also look at something else “. It is a concept I had forgotten a bit and he reminded me of: the great value they can bring is the diversity in the action of our foundation, and this is crucial because it is what realizes, in our approach, the concept of “good governance”.


I find the systematization of the principles that guide the Foundation’s action in the “Philanthropy Manifesto” very interesting. I believe it is a fundamental sharing to define one’s audience, from the point of view of identity of values and views and, in my opinion, it should be a decisive step for any organization, to express one’s vision of the world and present it to the world itself.
With respect to this issue, how much do you think that Italian philanthropy is on the way to a different awareness – I often use the expression “philanthropy as a lifestyle, instead of an issue for large assets” – compared to the philanthropic history of our country?

I speak on a personal basis: the definition of a foundation as a “financial-emotional ATM” is perceived enough, and I believe it is the result of the way in which the Italian nonprofit sector has historically “worked” in our country.
There is a large part of philanthropic bodies that are oriented towards mere granting activities aimed to fund projects: of course this has nothing wrong and is the fastest way to support organizations – grants are usually able to bring a little relief. However, we asked ourselves how it was possible to “do good” better, because it is true that a philanthropist should be a person who loves humanity but, at the same time, I think he must be a person who, in addition to humanity, loves himself/herself, and if you are misinterpreting the philanthropic role that you have given yourself, the consequences also concern the personal sphere, the impact on your life as a human being, and this is the worst that can happen.
When we started the foundation, we carried on the long wave of projects that we already supported (some of these still exist and are outside the foundation’s scope); however we realized that they are not so efficient, despite being all good projects, and it seemed to us that – especially if you are a small foundation that wants to try to grow and interact with partners and donors – the only way to achieve the approach we intended to pursue was to move from project financing to “brain financing”, similarly to what happens in the world of finance with incubators and accelerators.
We did not do anything new – it is something that I already “practiced” during my professional career – but it seemed the best way to work: at first organizations we interacted with looked at us a bit strange because they were used to to present projects, but many of them have understood the approach we are trying to pursue.
The goal of our foundation is to identify a good number of subjects to be “fed” intellectually and economically within a bidirectional relationship capable of determining, in addition to structural sustainability, also their scalability, to generate a great impact.
This is a logic that we really like. It took us 2 years to define this type of simple, pragmatic and scalable model, both from the point of view of the foundation and the subjects we want to work with.
You help people, social causes in many ways, there is not just one, and I am curious to see what will happen in 3-4 years from the point of view of the results produced by the projects we are supporting: it will not always be easy, but we have put into account.
Let’s go back to the discourse on the ability to listen, which is fundamental: it does not seem to me that it is so widespread, even by philanthropic bodies, but personally I believe it is the best way to spend the resources we have.


Another question that is very interesting of you, is the identification of the areas in which the Foundation operates, in particular the mix of grantmaking and capacity building, a practice that is slowly entering the Foundation’s action, sometimes more “conservative” in the intervention model such as banks’ foundations. As if to say: grants are fine but, in parallel, also a support role in terms of capacity building can generate development, growing autonomy and strategic vision for the non-profit organizations in the civil sector.
It is an issue on which I believe that, in our country (Italy), more should and can be done, precisely to focus on growth and not just on timely support for projects or initiatives.
How much has the awareness that a more complex but also more effective strategic approach counted for you to generate development and how much the NPOs are aware that it is necessary to learn to grow and also to learn to ask “better”, starting from a more holistic approach?

I don’t know, we have been working with the Foundation for 3 years, so a short time, and I am a born optimist. On the one hand, there are those realities that are in what I call “the satisfaction area”, which wonder why they should change an approach that, in some way, supports them. Then there are those who feel more at ease with innovation.
I am aware that it is not easy for nonprofit organizations to understand and internalize change, and we do not want to explain to others how they have to work: what interests us and on which we are working is to set up a conversation. If there are those who appreciate it, we support them, otherwise – if they convince us – we are also willing to finance in a more traditional way. It is a bit of the mentality that features an organization like Ashoka and that has to do with the change of paradigm.
In general, I am convinced that sharing perspectives is also useful to define who are the natural partners with whom to walk a piece of the road: it will happen for some of them, for others we are probably not the “right” interlocutors.
A question that I perceive in particular in our country is the need for the generational turnover of the managing roles and governance: there is no judgment on who occupies the same role for perhaps 30 years and certainly has done deserving things but, as far as concerns Fondazione Mazzola, we have a different idea.


What would you suggest to those who, like you, are in governance and are in the phase of defining or re-defining the development strategy? What is the point or points on which you believe there should be particular attention to avoid (or minimize) missteps?

Clarify what your goals are. I decided to set up the foundation when it was undeniably clear to me that one of the macro objectives of my life was support for fragile subjects. It was the initial push, and from there it all started. If you do not focus on your personal objectives, you risk confusing the tool with the objective;
– Have conversations with industry experts to broaden your gaze within an open discussion;
Training: participate in conferences, read, listen to those who live similar dynamics because it helps to focus your own “direction”. Furthermore, a foundation “badly done” or “not born well” does much more damage: setting up a foundation means having the idea of climbing the way in which a topic is tackled, otherwise it is money thrown away that could be used to support individual initiatives.
Identify the governance starting from the motivations and personal involvement that possible directors could have with respect to an organization: it is not a question of favors and, if you decide to take a path like the one we have taken, you need to ask yourself a whole series of questions upstream … because it is not enough to make a foundation, and doing it without asking these questions risks not producing effects and generating a brake on the reputation of the entire philanthropic system.

In general, and to conclude, I would like to add that it is not easy to create a system or work intersectionally, but we must try.
I am available and if my work can be used to nurture new foundation presidents or new philanthropists I am available, even though I know that people sometimes fear facing certain speeches. Personally, I believe that coaching is a powerful tool to generate inspiration and widespread dynamics, which generate an exchange that is not only monetary, and which gives money a value that goes beyond mere financial data.


* Piergiorgio Mazzola, quadriplegic C6-C7, one of the pioneers in spreading a culture of inclusiveness and in contrasting physical and perceptive barriers that could limit the autonomy of people with disabilities.


Founder of Norisk, an independent financial analysis company, Carlo Mazzola was a consultant for institutional investors and lecturer at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. After graduating in political economy from Bocconi University, he earned a Master’s in Economics and Finance from the University of Warwick. He is the author of the book “Investing in ETFs – The challenge to mutual funds and management” (Franco Angeli, 2005), the first text in Italian on ETFs. He is President of Fondazione Mazola, which promotes sport as a tool for the health, well-being and empowerment of people with disabilities through initiatives that allow access to sports or that use sport as a tool for economic inclusion, development skills and job placement (

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