„Peace really must be for everyone, everywhere and anytime“: A chat with Mathias Terheggen, CEO, expert on philanthropy and board member of the Berghof Foundation

10/08/2020

Could you tell us a bit about your career and background?
I am a physicist by education with a PhD in photovoltaics. I don’t work as a scientist anymore. But I’m convinced that a focus on structural problem-solving, which is at the core of studying physics, is valuable for a lifetime.

Having said that, I also had to realise that knowledge alone does not create change. And contributing to positive societal change is why I wanted to learn about natural science in the first place. So, looking for places where change happens, I ventured into business. At McKinsey & Co I was given an introduction to the corporate world ‘from the fire hose’. And I was allowed to focus on social sector clients.

I started a small foundation during my PhD with revenues from an online job platform I’d rather unexpectedly created during the .com boom. This triggered my interested in not-for-profit organisations as agents for change and at McKinsey I suddenly had the chance to make them a professional focus by working with governments, big foundations and aid organisations around the world. An equally rich and exciting experience, for which I am still most grateful and that continues to be part of my professional base. 

From there I went on to become the Global Head of Philanthropy Services at UBS AG, working with private clients and families as well as their family offices on individual giving strategies. After this, I started a platform for the exchange and collaboration of private donors in Asia together with a small group of leading philanthropists in Singapore, a most exciting endeavour. And since 2018 I am working as an independent consultant and partner at Impact Relation GmbH where I focus on strategies and business models for social change. I am also partner and Co-CEO in one of Europe’s oldest and most successful social enterprises, the Dialoghaus gGmbH and Dialogue Social Enterprises GmbH in Hamburg. And I am chairing the board of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women in London.

In sum, I would say that over 20 years of working on social and environmental issues have fostered in me the conviction that market mechanisms and an entrepreneurial approach are most promising to create impact at scale – if guided by the right values. And that equality, diversity and inclusion are the bedrock of any prosperous, just and happy society. 

Together with my partner and our two daughters I live happily in Zurich, love the mountains, can be found on my bike whenever I have a moment and would describe myself as a rather social person.

Why did you decide to join the Berghof Foundation?
Johannes Zundel, Chair of our Board of Trustees, asked me if I would join. But that’s of course not the full answer. I had been aware of the work of the Berghof Foundation for many years. Both for its pioneering role in the field of conflict transformation and peacebuilding and for the great international reputation that its work has earned. I always admired that the Berghof Foundation works in an area that every philanthropist agrees to be vital, but few dare to enter. The absence of violent conflict is a key prerequisite to all other efforts of human development. A fact that I was able to observe first-hand when working after the Tsunami in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. And so what greater privilege, than to support a leader in the field?

How are you planning to use your expertise in helping the Berghof Foundation’s work?
Throughout my career, I’ve been granted exposure to and first-hand experience in foundation work and management across different geographies and cultures but also for different causes, at different sizes or with different approaches – experiences and insights that I am very happy to bring to my role as trustee in the hope of enriching the discussion and widening the space for peaceful solutions. Furthermore, I hope that my experience in fundraising, especially with private donors, and my work on funding strategies will be of value to the Berghof Foundation.

Given your entrepreneurial background, which mechanisms do you believe can support sustaining peace?
When it comes to conflict transformation and peacebuilding, I’m a novice. But one comes with the highest eagerness to listen and to learn from the many experts at the organisation. Only then, I would say, should I attempt to answer this question. But without question, the cornerstones of great entrepreneurship – resourcefulness, the willingness to question current beliefs, the wish to scale, an approach shaped by the needs of those you’re trying to achieve impact with and for, to constantly build and expand a great team, – will be helpful to an organisation trying to foster peace as well.

What is the biggest challenge in bringing together the social and private sectors? Can you give us an example from your experience?
For me, it is a classic challenge of intercultural dialogue. I’ve experienced many times, that differences as little as the use of jargon, e.g. what is profit, or different perceptions of hierarchies, or even small things as the proper attire, suit and tie vs more casual clothes – these can result in questioning individual’s motives and professionalism, on both sides. A lack of trust and mutual appreciation are the result and can derail the collaboration. Here, moderation will certainly help to translate and broaden views, a role I repeatedly find myself in. And in addition to that, moving from a short to a long term view helps so current obstacles can turn into strategic advantages.  

What makes you feel hopeful in 2020 about conflict transformation and peacebuilding?
It makes me hopeful that, until only a few years ago, conflict transformation and peacebuilding were perceived as a problem of the Global South in most high-income countries of the Global North. But recently, the latter is experiencing first-hand a very concerning erosion of national and international dialogue, and willingness to search for common ground and compromise at our own doorsteps. We see more conflicts erupting and escalating, sometimes even into armed conflict. Just consider the pictures that are reaching us from the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA and, as we do that, we realise how important and how difficult conflict transformation and peacebuilding is. Everywhere around the world. 

Personal interest in a topic may not be the most noble of motives to care about social and environmental issues. But it certainly is a very powerful driver for engagement and change. Personally, I would love to see understanding, empathy and prevention prevail over reaction, egoism and mitigation anytime. And if that leads to more support for the work of the Berghof Foundation, we all will benefit.

I hope of course, for other, more direct and positive ways to harness support, too. And I hope that in hindsight current challenges will become examples for successful conflict transformation and peacebuilding. Because peace really must be for everyone, everywhere and anytime.