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November 30, 2020updated 11 Dec 2020 2:30pm

Facebook EMEA VP Nicola Mendelsohn: HNW giving needs to ‘dream big’

By Rasika Sittamparam

Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s vice president for EMEA, has been described as the ‘most powerful British woman in the tech industry’. She founded the Follicular Lymphoma Foundation in 2019

My Earliest memories include my experience at the local old-age homes. My family would be do the whole Blue Peter thing: bake a cake and then go and sell it on the street.


My parents instilled in me the Jewish concept of ‘tikkun olam’, which translates from Hebrew as ‘repairing the world’. It’s an aspiration to behave and to act in ways that are beneficial to others. It is a mantra that we had in our home.


It’s not just about money. It’s about giving your time, your ideas and your energy. Philanthropy is a really big word and it gives the impression that you’ve got to have billions of dollars to make a difference. But my religion has taught me that regardless of your age or your wealth, everybody has got the power to be able to give.


Earlier in my career I was very focused on women’s empowerment and female-led charities. I chaired the fundraising for the UK National Domestic Violence charity for a number of years and was a trustee of the White Ribbon Alliance, which campaigns for safe motherhood internationally, since so many women in developing markets are dying in childbirth. Many of the charities were underfunded – they had not been given the focus or the resources, even though some were promised.

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I was diagnosed with a cancer called follicular lymphoma in 2016. My closest friends who know me well then said to me: ‘You are going to set up a foundation.’ I said I definitely wasn’t going to do that because there should be great strides in medicine and science happening all around us, so I assumed that the cures would be there.


Follicular Lymphoma is an incurable cancer of the blood. What I learned and experienced is that, actually, it was underfunded and there hadn’t been a lot of new breakthroughs. I felt: ‘If not me, who would give it the attention it needs?’ I took everything I learned from the world of work to set up the Follicular Lymphoma Foundation in 2019. Its pure aim is to find a cure as quickly as possible. We’ve got an ambitious target: to raise $15 million over the next three years.


My personal life crossed paths with work when I was made co-admin of a Facebook group with a few hundred members who were living with follicular lymphoma. I told the creator Nikki Greenhill that I think we can make the community bigger and now we have 7,000 members – the largest support group that’s ever existed for patients with the disease. I started to listen to the stories of people in the group and some of the treatments that they were getting, and the lack of understanding of the disease in different parts of the world. I am hopeful that with current advancements in DNA technologies and genetics, we can cure this.


I have been treated with chemo-immunotherapy based on medicine from about 30 years ago, which has put it at bay for now. But my cancer could come back aggressively tomorrow. The mental anguish of not knowing if a sword of Damocles is hanging over your head, swinging backwards and forwards…


HNWs have enormous resources and are ‘super-impactors’. Very often they are waiting for an opportunity to come along that they can invest in, both financially and meaningfully. There’s a huge amount of responsibility placed on their shoulders, especially now, to address first and third-world emergencies because of Covid-19 and we have to honour those priorities collectively, not vie for attention.

HNW giving needs to dream big, be practical, inspire change and give birth to a legacy of sustainability. It needs to speak to your heart, your mind and think of how the rest of the world can benefit – that’s real philanthropy.

As told to Rasika Sittamparam

WEB: The Follicular Lymphoma Foundation 

Read more

James Chen: Why I am a ‘catalytic’ philanthropist

The Charities Aid Foundation: ‘Covid-19 has been a huge shock to the charitable sector’

Dame Steve Shirley CH on Zoom, philanthropy and her upcoming biopic

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