I am an activist, a philanthropic activist
Everyone can help make the world a better place. That is the message Maria Ahlström-Bondestam wants to share. She prefers talking about investments rather than donations, where the return is a better world.
“We live in a bubble up here in the Nordic countries. If you were to take the entire global population and put everyone in a plane, most Nordic residents would be in first class. We’ve all gone to school, we are healthy, and we all have a home. However, there are so many others in the world who wouldn’t even get a seat on the plane. The challenge for me is to make people aware of these disparities and to help them understand that the world actually looks like this in reality,” says Maria Ahlström-Bondestam, whose many titles include chair of Ahlström Collective Impact and the UNICEF International Council – a global network of all of UNICEF’s private donors and investors.
Maria’s passion is philanthropy, a legacy that runs in the family. Back in the 1800s when Finland still belonged to Russia and not all Finns were able to attend school, Maria’s paternal great-great-grandparents, Eva and Antti, realised that their company would never make it unless they taught people how to read and write. It is that humanitarian commitment that Maria continues to champion today, and her advocacy extends all the way to UNICEF.
“If I hadn’t been born into this family, it would be much harder to do what I do today,” she says.
A duty to use her voice
Maria explains that she has been given a platform where people listen to her, which is also why she feels it is her duty to take action.
“With this platform comes the duty to do something meaningful using the tools I’ve been given. That duty is what drives me forward. To be an activist, a philanthropic activist.”
Maria was born into the Ahlström family and has inherited her fortune from her father.
“Sometimes I hear people say that it’s easy for me to be a philanthropist because I have everything. That may be true. And there are probably a lot of people out there who are smarter than me and have better ideas. However, I was given this platform, and that is why I believe it is my duty to do what I can using the tools I’ve been given. If people like myself fail to use their platform to do good, then they haven’t done their duty to help make the world a better place,” she says resolutely.
Inspired by her years abroad
Maria Ahlström-Bondestam is the second of four children – two brothers and two sisters – who represent the fifth generation in the Ahlström’s 171-year-old family line, which today consists of approximately 420 members. With their roots in Björneborg on Finland’s west coast, the family began making a name for itself in the paper and wood processing industry. Today, the family’s business operations span 33 countries, with approximately one-third of the family members living abroad and the rest in Finland.
With her home in Helsinki, Maria is married and has three adult children. She has lived in 10 different countries across four continents over a 20-year period. Her husband Sebastian worked for Tetra Pak, and it was primarily through his work that she and her family got to live all around the world.
“I am a trained nurse, and my interest in these issues stems partly from my profession but also from all the years I lived abroad. I have seen first-hand how unequally distributed things are in this world. These experiences have led me to want to encourage all of us to care more for each other and to change how we define charity and donations,” she says.
Maria paints a common perception of donations, explaining that people normally donate when they feel they are financially well off enough to give some money to charitable causes.
“I want to change that whole mindset and align our definition of these concepts with our own values and beliefs – what we believe to be right and proper based on global values, such as honesty, empathy, respect and equality.”
The best version of ourselves
Her vision is for everyone to live their best life within the context they are in and to strive to be the best version of themselves.
“I want to motivate and inspire others to share in that vision. I believe that all people want to help make the world a better place no matter what context they are born into. As humans, we all need to feel like we belong, yet that sense of belonging only comes if we contribute to some kind of community, one in which we feel happy, safe and loved. That is what all of us strive for. But we can’t achieve that unless each one of us contributes in some way,” she says.
“Of course, how each of us contributes changes from person to person, depending on where you live, where you are born and what kind of education you have,” she continues. “The road to success means contributing to the context and world you live in.”
“In my own context, my goal has been to transform how we talk about, for example, donations. What you actually do when you donate is invest in society, and that investment will yield a return. The same rules that apply to investing in a company also apply to investing in society,” Maria explains.
“For example, if you invest in children, the return is a safe child who grows up and becomes a responsible adult who contributes to society. This not only benefits families but also creates a better society where companies can also do business.”
Maria explains that if society isn’t stable, companies and people can’t work either, so the end return of investing in children is a stable society.
“We all want stability and to live a happy and safe life. That is the future I want to share with everyone.”
The glue tying the family together
Many members of the Ahlström family have studied economics and have used their education to help the various family businesses. As a nurse, Maria underscores that her contributions are not necessarily of the financial kind, explaining that a family is so much more than its fortune and the businesses it represents.
“Through philanthropy and social responsibility, everyone in the family can get involved. It also provides a forum where we can all work together, especially those of us who don’t contribute directly to the family businesses but instead contribute actively to our family’s identity and culture. Doing good for society also does good for our family.”
Philanthropy has become the glue that ties the Ahlström family together, and Maria is at the heart of all of it. Moreover, it is a way for those family members who married into the family to feel like they belong and like they are a part of the Ahlström legacy.
“Through philanthropy, all of us as a family can identify with our legacy and our history and share in them. We have become more close-knit as a family because we are all taking part in creating something that feels important.”
Proud of their legacy
She wants the day when her children receive their inheritance to feel proud of their family’s legacy, and not just happy for the money. They should understand the work that the whole family has done and take it upon themselves to carry on that work.
“That is why our values, history and responsibility are such integral parts of our legacy. I consider that to be my most important role: to remind us of our values and to ensure that we actually live and act in accordance with those values.”
How do you handle the responsibility you have taken on?
“It goes without saying that it can be difficult. However, I have to say that it is a privilege just having the chance to make a difference and having a voice. I really appreciate feeling empowered. But empowerment requires being knowledgeable, receptive, empathetic, and aware – what does the world need and where are we headed? It is a privilege getting to be a voice that helps guides those questions.”
Ahlström Collective Impact
In 2010, together with 25 of her female cousins, Maria created the Eva Ahlström Foundation in order to start a conversation to promote social causes.
“We realised that money alone couldn’t solve the world’s problems; we had to take action and find ways to get involved and help solve the challenges that our societies and world are facing.
In 2020, she started Ahlström Collective Impact.
“I am chair of Ahlström Collective Impact, which is a value-based collaboration platform for all 11 companies under the Ahlström umbrella as well as our foundations, employees and shareholders. The purpose of the initiative is to help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (No. 4 Quality Education and No. 5 Gender Equality), which we do in partnership with UNICEF.”
Maria ends with a quote that she thinks nicely sums up the importance of helping make the world a better place: ”All that is needed for evil to succeed is for good men and women to do nothing.” – a quote from the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke.
“In other words, the most important thing is to always try to be kind and to be the best version of ourselves. At the end of the day, that is all we can expect of ourselves and others,” says Maria Ahlström-Bondestam.