• Dr. Günter Kast

Where the future stands on the c(l)ippe.


Philanthropy. Zita Cobb, who has made a fortune in the glass fiber industry, wants to save her home Fogo Island in the Canadian province of Newfoundland from bleeding and give her an economic perspective with an extraordinary, non-profit hotel and a foundation. She is convinced: "Our success can be imitated by other dependent communities."

"You know, the people in my family and on our island die early," says Zita Cobb. "It's better not to postpone dreams until the day after tomorrow." Therefore it was not difficult for her to stop earning money at a certain point and start something new: "Erasing poverty".

The lanky woman with the short hairstyle does not have to adjust herself to look down-to-earth. It's her - more than she cared to be. Cobb was born in 1956, nine years after Newfoundland became a Canadian province. She grew up in the 700-soul nest of Joe Batt's arm on Fogo Island. The island is even by Eastern Canadian standards a long way off the beaten track, a short day's journey from Newfoundland's capital St. John's, situated on the storm-tossed North Atlantic and its iceberg avenue, which the Titanic once was a doom.

Cobb's father Lambert was a fisherman in the eighth generation. Neither he nor his wife could read or write properly. "Our house had no electricity and no running water," says Cobb, who grew up with six brothers. When she fell ill with tuberculosis at the age of six, she survived - it made her tough, she once said.

Nevertheless, she found her home "idyllic" as a child. Only her father couldn't buy any of it. Fewer and fewer fish landed in his nets. They now caught the big trawlers that had appeared years before and emptied the cod stocks. Cobb still remembers well the day her dad came home, peppered the only captured cod on the floor, and shortly thereafter began to block the shutters and front door with planks. On 10 July 1975, the Cobbs left their homeland to make a fresh start in Ontario.

The daughter enrolled in economics at Carleton University in Ottawa and hired Alberta's oil industry after graduating. She then moved to California and worked for JDS Fitel in the fiber industry for ten years, most recently as CFO. In 1999, the company merged to form JDS Uniphase. As head of strategy, Cobb made more than 40 acquisitions. In 2001, at the age of 42, she announced and silvered her stock options worth 61 million US dollars. According to Forbes, she was the third-best paid female executive in North America at the time.

"It was a super-intensive time. But that step was necessary. Two weeks of golf wasn't enough for me to recover." She takes a long break, sails the oceans for five years. Then she receives a letter in which the local council complains about the state of her parents' house on Fogo Island. She's ashamed, travels there at once, renovated. And a short time later she moves her residence here to save the whole island. Looking back, she says with a wink: "At that time I had no idea that I would work harder than ever before in the next twelve years. Donating is truly a full-time job."

Zita Cobb doesn't know exactly how to help her home at first. In 2007, together with her eldest brother Tony and her youngest brother Alan, she founded a charitable foundation and contributed most of her private assets. It christens the foundation "Shorefast" - the name given to the bracket that anchors a traditional cod trap to the shore. It's a memory of her late father. Cobb has a penchant for art and therefore wants to get involved in this field. The idea: to promote contemporary artists while preserving and reviving the old traditions of their homeland such as quilt embroidery and boat building. In 2011 it will open six studios in which guest artists can work and live for a certain period of time. The studios are planned by the Canadian architect Todd Saunders, financed by the Foundation.

The project is getting off to a good start, but the patron quickly realizes that, although Fogo Island is making a name for itself in the art world, it is not necessarily improving the living conditions of the islanders. The exodus had already reached its sad peak in 1992, when cod was placed on the Red List of Endangered Species and its capture was banned. Of the once 6000 descendants of English and Irish fishermen, only about a third remained on Fogo. That is why she now wants to create a tourist lighthouse project in her home country and thus create jobs - a hotel that the world has never seen before.

Zita Cobb takes her time. Travel the world, collect ideas. Visit traditional Japanese hostels, so-called Ryokans, Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island in Australia, Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino on Vancouver Island, Lapa Rios Lodge in Costa Rica, Lofoten, "because nature in northern Norway has much in common with Newfoundland".

Then she goes. Again with Saunders as planner and architect. In the end, the Fogo Inn was to cost 41 million Canadian dollars, 75 percent of which came from the Foundation, the rest from public funds. Because nature and the wild Atlantic are the stars on her island, she wants to put the hotel as close to the surf as possible and eligible for approval. You have in mind a building consisting of several white cuboids stacked on top of each other, some of which rest on supporting pillars on the bare rocky coast and are thus modelled on the design of Newfoundland fishermen's huts. All furniture, all interiors should be made by locals. 25 designers from all over the world fly in to exchange ideas with local craftsmen. In addition, the Fogo Inn should operate as energy-efficiently as possible and also focus on regional products in the kitchen.


After its opening in 2013, the Inn will quickly become a magnet for architectural tourists and friends of exclusive hideaways. The 29 rooms and suites are almost always fully booked, despite prices starting from 2000 Canadian dollars per night. "We were profitable in our fourth year, much earlier than expected."

On the ground floor there is an art gallery presenting works by guest artists from the Fogo Island studios. All the furniture and accessories of the hotel, handmade by the islanders, can be bought by the guests. A punt chair, for example, is well above the 3000 euro mark. The restaurant is also popular and is even voted one of the ten best restaurants in Canada by gourmets. Most of the approximately 80 employees come from the island, many are returnees. Besides the Fischer-Kooperative, the "Inn" is the largest employer. Visitors praise the great hospitality of the staff. "It's in our blood," says Cobb. "During the training of the staff, we had to expressly point out that we should not embrace the guests at check-in.

Cobb says, however, that it became clear to her early on that she could not save her homeland by tourism alone. The hotel is the economic heart of the foundation, the Cash Cow. The profits made there would flow completely back to Shorefast. The foundation is thus in a position to promote social projects, grant microloans to start-ups and arrange business angels.

Sixteen small businesses had already benefited from favourable interest rates and generous repayment plans - including a bakery that wanted to expand, a new Bed & Breakfast, an agricultural cooperative. Boat builders and quilt embroiderers are also supported so that they can make a living from their craft. Cod caught with handlines is sold to gourmet restaurants throughout Canada. Ecological sustainability only works if social sustainability is guaranteed.

She uses an example to explain exactly what she understands by this. Recently, all things that can be purchased in the Fogo Island Shop have a so-called "Economic Nutrition Label". It is constructed like the nutrition table printed on food, even resembling it in design. Only it does not show the fat content and calories, but the percentages for labour, material and packaging costs, the origin of the materials and the profit margin. "This makes it transparent to buyers who and what they support." This is very important to Cobb: even without this leaflet, she can explain the origin of each piece of furniture in the Fogo Inn and the associated cash flows in detail.

"The relationship between the real value of things and their financial value is out of balance," she says, "there is no reference, no sense of why something costs so much and so much." That's why she wants to add an environmental info sheet to the package insert as soon as possible: "So that every guest who comes here can see how big their CO2 footprint is. The hotel itself already has the smallest possible print. This year it will be obligatory to compensate the flight journey with CO2 certificates."

The commercial initiatives are expected to generate ten percent profit. Together with donations, this will be used to support non-profit projects: Programs for artists and geologists, for the protection of cultural heritage. "We want to preserve the knowledge accumulated on Fogo Island for generations." Already in the course of the year 2019 her project could function completely without donations.

Asked how she measured success, Zita Cobb says, the many architecture awards for the Fogo Inn and the international attention she received naturally delighted her. "But more importantly, we have succeeded in stopping the emigration. From 6000 we went down to 2000 - now we are more than 2500 again."


On the neighbouring island, which has no Fogo Inn, no patron, the number of inhabitants continues to fall, from 2000 to 140 at last. This is a topic that concerns everyone: "The growing gap between town and country, the continuing rural exodus is directly related to the shift to the right of those who feel they are left behind. It's a global problem."

That's why she's asking herself to what extent her model for Fogo can be copied by others. She is optimistic and has even just founded an Institute of Community Economics for "Best Practice Sharing". First of all, thanks to the stock boom, there are many wealthy people like her. They often tend to invest in charitable projects without any goals or plans - and are then disappointed if the funds do not arrive in the right place. She recommends that we focus on our own roots and use the lever where our own knowledge is great: "You have to understand exactly what assets a region has. As a benefactor, I have to ask myself: How can I dock remote areas to the global world? The state must, of course, also make its contribution, for example with a fast Internet."

If a fogo blue break is to succeed, the community in the respective region must also be intact. When she presented her plans for Fogo Island for the first time, perhaps ten percent of the inhabitants were enthusiastic. Probably the start with the art sponsorship was simply too far away from the daily life of most of the people here. Then came the hotel, came the other projects. Today, 200 people benefited from it. "With only 900 households on the island, it makes a big difference." Meanwhile, an estimated nine out of ten residents are supporters of Shorefast. Cobb doesn't waste any energy on the remaining ten percent: "There always is. It's not worth it."

At first she thought, "If this goes wrong, I can't show up on the island." In the meantime, it is clear that it will not go wrong. Shorefast is their permanent gift to the eleven villages of the island. "But I'm actually doing all this for my deceased parents. I don't want her home to be orphaned and meaningless." ®


Next philanthropy.

Zita Cobb's example shows that philanthropy is currently undergoing massive change. Felix Oldenburg, Secretary General of the Federal Association of German Foundations, outlines the future of private commitment:

"May I take you on a sightseeing flight? We start on the ground of facts: In the past ten years, more wealth has arisen than in any decade before. The donations or assets of German foundations, on the other hand, have hardly increased. Perhaps you also have liquid assets waiting to take off and pursue a higher purpose?

From a bird's eye view, there are more organisations in the world than ever that are seeking donations and support. But the higher we rise, the more difficult the questions become: Which donations actually work? Do I really make an organization stronger through my money? Or does it come back after a short time with higher demand? Wouldn't one have to change the whole system instead of just supporting a few? How much time would I have to invest to optimize the effect of my money? The smarter the questions we ask ourselves, the harder the decision can be. And then the money stays instead of flying.

No, spending money sensibly for the world is not easier than earning it. But just as you have not organized the investment completely without banks, platforms, consultants, you should go all alone on the search for a convincing sense offer for your hard increased fortune.

Most of them have a very clear target: as much as possible should 'arrive', i.e. no money should be lost on the way to the needy or disadvantaged person or organisation. I find that odd. In the economy, we would not be satisfied with the fact that value is maintained at most. It should multiply through intelligent action within the company. In my opinion, therefore, a genuine social sense offer should also create 'more' resources. Of course, this is only possible if we extend the time horizon. And whoever does this will turn from a short-term donor into a far-sighted philanthropist, an investor, perhaps even a donor.

In my view, the fact that we have recently invested less wealth in percentage terms to solve the urgent problems of our world is a threefold alarm signal. Firstly for many of the organisations that work for the good and perhaps have to offer different effects than in the past. Secondly, for the legislator, who should provide contemporary incentives for social investment on a large scale. And third, for the financial industry, which should finally integrate wealth accumulation and philanthropy."


Author: Dr. Günter Kast

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