• David Grammig

Christoph von Toggenburg, CEO of World Vision CH about Covid-19, hunger and family office partners


Christoph, I had the pleasure of meeting you several times and each time you shared some incredible stories with me. Please tell our readers a bit about your background.


We all have dreams when we grow up. Some of us dream of becoming doctors, firemen, professional cyclists, leaders or Indiana Jones. For me, it was the latter as I wanted to become an adventurer, discovering and exploring territories beyond my upbringing in the Swiss Alps.

At the same time, I wanted to help people in need and found my way to combine both.


At the age of 21, I initiated ‘Run for Help’, a solo run over 270km across the Alps raising funds for homeless children in Romania.


In 2001, I initiated ‘Bike for Help’, a solo bicycle expedition over 10’000km from India to Switzerland to fundraise for people suffering from leprosy. The war in Afghanistan as well as the dispute between India and Pakistan turned into an adventure that made me negotiate with the Taliban for my safe passage, fighting wolves and crossing 4000km of desert.


In 2010, I cycled across the Himalayas, mastering 3500km along the highest tracks in the world. That time I was raising funds and awareness for mentally-ill and marginalized people. Nearly killed by rock-fall, I fell altitude sick and hit once again all my limits. The expedition’s documentary won more than 55 international film awards and was screened in more than 50 countries. Both expeditions had a global reach and touched millions. It was my way to make a difference and impact people’s lives.


Apart from my expeditions, I worked during 10 years with the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and the UN on the frontlines of some of the most active conflicts in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America.


In 2014, I became Global Leadership Fellow and Head of Social Engagement of the World Economic Forum. A few years later, I changed path once again when I was appointed CEO of World Vision Switzerland.


My personal motto in life is: Be brave, Be Kind, Be Bold!


Not only do you have an impressive professional background, but you are also part of the von Toggenburg dynasty, a Swiss-Austrian noble family. Tell us more about your family please.


The Toggenburg family is an old Swiss patrician dynasty and has been politically active throughout the centuries. After the beginnings in today's Toggenburg region, the family had been resident in Switzerland since the 16th century where they held important political positions either for Graubünden or, as was customary at the time, for the Spanish or French. Through the administration of the possessions that the Habsburgs had in Switzerland, our direct ancestors came into imperial service. As governors in Venice and Tyrol, as ministers of trade and finally as ministers of the interior under the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, they acquired a great reputation in the province of Tyrol and among its population. Since that time, that is for about 200 years, a part of the family has been resident in South Tyrol (Northern Italy).


Today you are the CEO of World Vision Switzerland, a humanitarian aid, development, and advocacy organisation. How does your professional and family background influence your work?


I always knew that I was living a life few were able to have. Just by living in Switzerland I have privileges few have. Therefore, the saying ‘Noblesse oblige’ has been my North Star from an early stage. My parents, both medical doctors, were a great inspiration and introduced me from an early age to work with physically challenged people. They laid the first stones to the path that has marked my life ever since.

Driven by curiosity and my love for adventures, I combined my sense of service with my career and have worked and lived in more than 15 different countries around the world. This has not only helped me to widen my perspective but to learn so much about what makes us human and all the wonderful things that unite us.


Who are the typical supporters of World Vision?


Until a few years ago, we thought that our typical supporters are families with young children. But we are having many young new sponsors who don’t have children yet and we also have a number of people who are 60 years old or older. So right now I would say that we have all age groups from 20 years + amongst our supporters and also all income groups as far as we can tell from the data we have.

Are family offices important for your work?


They are, particularly where we share a common interest in making the world a better place through transforming the lives and opportunities of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have been catalytic to this, as so many more people are recognising the need to collaborate and partner towards the elimination of extreme poverty… World Vision is motivated by the belief that we can bring extreme poverty to an end by 2030. Having clear and shared strategic goals is a huge step forward.


It is a core value of World Vision to work in partnership with others, and that is no different for family offices. Where we share a common goal, we will seek to work together - whether that is in clean water, mother and child health, economic empowerment, education or the environment. The bottom line is that if working together allows for amplified impact, and the ability to radically transform the lives and opportunities of the world’s most vulnerable children and families, then we will seek that partnership.

Do you see a shift in how philanthropy is perceived?


Yes. And undoubtedly organisations like ours are changing to accommodate that shift. Philanthropists have changed in recent history. Many are way more invested in their giving these days, meaning that engagement in the act of philanthropy has become much much more than just writing a cheque.


We’re seeing modern philanthropists seeking partnerships with organisations through which they can achieve the maximum possible impact, and bring their own time and talents to bear. Philanthropists today are seeking to partner around mass-scale improvements, rather than single cases of success. As an organisation of significant size and scale, World Vision is ready for that.


World Vision is a large organisation with nearly 40,000 employees worldwide. Aren’t you too big to collaborate with individual projects of single family offices around the world?


On the contrary, we have major donor partners and family offices all around the world for whom World Vision is their partner of choice and has been for many years. Relationship and partnership is at our very core, and we share a mutual loyalty with many of our private partners.


For many, the very attraction to World Vision is our size and scale. We can offer partnerships that deliver a scale of impact otherwise unachievable. We have “boots on the ground” right in the middle of poor communities, 70 years of experience, proven development models and a strong influence with both international and national partners, including the United Nations. Solving poverty IS rocket science, with many inter-dependencies, which is why partnership is so important.


Through national level strategic programming, we can bring together a diverse range of partners to achieve amplified impact and are considered world class across many areas of our work. There are not many NGOs that can claim to be leaders towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the elimination of extreme poverty, but World Vision surely can, and that is what excites many.


What is it that an organisation like yours can offer family offices with regards to their philanthropic work?


Again, our main distinguisher is size and scale of impact. A strategic investment with World Vision can multiply impact to a scale unachievable alone, or with many other partners. We are recognised world leaders in many areas, with years of expertise and a direct partnership right within the grass-roots of communities. It’s often because of the local relationships we hold and the mutual levels of respect of communities that we are able to achieve the results that we do.


Importantly, we also consider the joy of our donors to be fundamental to this work. We believe giving should be a joy-filled activity, and we want our donors to experience that through seeing the real and tangible impact of their gift. So when a family office partners with us, we want them to realise and feel the impact of their giving in both the head and the heart.

There is a general tendency of family offices and UHNWIs to donate less but rather invest into social impact projects. Does that affect you?


It does. Some of our most successful partnerships have come where we have been trusted to do what we do best. Where partners are willing to draw along-side and leverage our experience for philanthropic return, we have seen amazing results. “Big-bet philanthropy” has been a driver to this - large scale investments to trigger systemic social change. We love having those conversations!


As an example, back in 2010, we were proudly bringing clean water to 200,000 new people every year. We were happy with this, but knew we had capacity to do more; we just needed capital to scale up operations. In 2019, thanks to significant major donor engagement, we celebrated bringing clean water to 4.6 million new people, a 23x increase!! We are now the leading NGO provider of clean water in the world, bringing clean water to a new person every 10 seconds.


We would love to find new partners and repeat that story across other areas of our work, because we have seen and know the impact of those partnerships.


Where are family offices or ultra-wealthy individuals most generous?


Geographically speaking, for World Vision, it is the USA, where our partnerships have had more time to mature. More recently though, we’ve also seen generosity significantly increase in Europe. Our large scale vision for change has helped this. When you’re able to invite wealthy individuals to partner with National Governments to achieve clean water coverage across an entire nation, as we are currently doing in Rwanda, partners get enthusiastic!


The corona crisis is controlling the headlines. Are we forgetting other pressing issues, like diseases or natural catastrophes over this pandemic?


Not at all. Our projects are planned and financed on a long-term basis and the work continues as well as possible under the restrictions that vary from country to country of course. While the Covid-19 pandemic falls under HEA (Health Emergency Assistance) and are funded by one-time donations, our long-term child-sponsorship model finances our long-term development projects and this has almost not been affected by the pandemic.

As low and middle income countries recover from COVID-19, it will be those long term interventions - Water and Sanitation, Health, Recapitalisation of finance - that become the answer. Staying the course through the storm is critically important. What we observe is that the long-term implications on children will be severe and that is what we need to focus on now. Just to give you one example: We estimate that there will be an additional 2 Million child marriages this year alone due to the fact that impoverished parents can’t ‘afford’ their children any more and prefer to marry them off at a young age.


Has the Corona crisis changed the attitude towards charitable causes?


Since the pandemia affects the whole world, one could assume that people have less money to give or they are concentrating their help to people in their immediate neighbourhood. While this is true, we have also noticed a great sense of solidarity and our Covid-19 donation call was very successful. Generally I think that the pandemia has brought the world closer together and that the attitude towards charitable causes will change to the positive in the sense that people understand better that we are all humans, vulnerable and with similar problems.


Do you think we will ever be able achieve a world without hunger? And what does it take to get there?


For many years we know that there is enough food for everybody and that it would be possible - from a resources point of view - to eliminate hunger. It is for political reasons that we haven’t achieved it yet. We were on a very good way until the outbreak of Covid-19 and we will continue fighting the causes of hunger in the world. Our vision is to eliminate hunger completely but the world is very complex and I think that this will remain a vision.


World Vision is fighting against hunger - from different angles - short term and long-term. As the world’s largest implementing partner of the United Nations’ World Food Programme, we were thrilled to see them being recognised recently for the Nobel Peace Prize. Such awards can only help elevate issues such as food poverty and hunger, and what can be done about it. We all have a part to play, and through partnership together, we can achieve so much more.