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Giving until it hurts

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates this past spring called upon fellow billionaires to join them in pledging at least half their wealth to philanthropy. The drive, called the Giving Pledge, quickly attracted 38 other like–minded billionaires, including George Lucas and Michael Bloomberg. Taken together, the billionaires' pledges totalled $600 billion. But not everyone was convinced to open his wallet.

give til hurts

Canadian space tourist and founder of Cirque du Soleil Guy Laliberte adjusts his space suit equipment during a training session outside Moscow in Star City on September 9, 2009. The crew is set to travel from the Baikonur cosmodrome in a Russian Soyuz TMA-16 rocket to the international space station in late September. Photo: Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates this past spring called upon fellow billionaires to join them in pledging at least half their wealth to philanthropy. The drive, called the Giving Pledge, quickly attracted 38 other like–minded billionaires, including George Lucas and Michael Bloomberg. Taken together, the billionaires’ pledges totalled $600 billion. But not everyone was convinced to open his wallet. The world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, argued cash would be doled out in annual amounts too small to make any real difference. German shipping baron Peter Krämer questioned whether charitable foundations were stepping into areas more properly belonging to government.

And there was another question: Should philanthropists be left to donate when they’re feeling generous, or is it up to a few key contributors, like Buffett and Gates in the U.S. or Seymour Schulich in Canada, to crusade for philanthropy and cajole others into giving?

The debate over whether, and how, to donate quickly spread to Canada, where some of the country’s wealthiest reconsidered their giving plans this year as a result. “It forced me to sit back and say ‘Is this right? Is this good?'” says Margaret McCain, who along with her husband founded the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation (MWM). McCain says the idea of wealthy philanthropists steamrolling the government made her uncomfortable, even though she’s passionate about her foundation’s promotion of early childhood programs. “The Bill Gates and Warren Buffet foundations — they’re huge. And we’re just a little, tiny, minuscule pittance beside them,” she says. “Their initiative to encourage top earners to give 50% of their wealth to philanthropy — that is good. But big money has the power to influence public policy from people who are not elected representatives.”

Gates’s efforts clearly had an effect on one Canadian — Jeff Skoll. The first full–time employee and the first president of eBay, Skoll was among the 40 billionaires to sign the pledge, committing more than $3.6 billion to his own Skoll Foundation, which invests in social entrepreneurs to try to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Other members of Canada’s elite who choose not to be big contributors must answer to Seymour Schulich. The billionaire investor has invested in many Canadian universities — the Schulich School of Business at York, and Western’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry are just two of his namesake schools. This year, he tacked the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University to his list of namesake schools with a $15–million gift to the program.

Schulich isn’t content just to donate. He, like Buffett, encourages fellow wealthy Canadians to empty their wallets.

Schulich once lamented the wealthiest Canadians aren’t as giving as their American counterparts. “We give 44% less, per capita, than Americans,” he said, around the time of his donation to McGill. “What better way to give back than to invest in the education of future generations.”

His concern is understandable. Surveys performed in November showed 41% of millionaires said the recession affected their contributions, and that almost one–in–four felt that charitable giving was unimportant, according to BMO Harris Private Banking. Nonetheless, not all of Canada’s wealthy feel that Schulich and Buffett are right to demand donations.

Leslie Dan, the 81–year–old drug magnate, believes that it’s important to lead by example but avoid being pushy about others’ contributions. He’s spent the past 30 years slowly increasing his philanthropic footprint and plans to continue that trend. “My children are all very generous. They learned it from their father, but I would never tell them what to do,” says Dan. He is particularly proud of his son Aubrey’s recent gift of $8 million to build a new facility for the Women & Babies Program at Sunnybrook Hospital.

But sometimes even the most generous philanthropists need a little push in the right direction. Calgary businessman Clayton Riddell, founder and CEO of Paramount Resources, proved that this year when he gifted Carleton University $15 million to create Canada’s first “political management” program. Riddell never attended Carleton, and had no real ties to the school, but decided to invest in Carleton after fellow Albertan, Preston Manning, convinced him that Ottawa badly needed the program.

Randy Moffat, on the other hand, is a good example of how charitable people can be when left alone. Known as the “quiet philanthropist,” Moffat gave $100 million to The Winnipeg Foundation in 2001, the second–largest single donation in Canada, and the largest to a community charitable organization. Moffat made his money in communications and wanted to return some of that money to the communities in which he worked. “The Moffats are very interested in helping children and families from less advantaged communities,” says Richard Frost, CEO of TWF. “They wanted to create an environment in our city where everyone had a chance to enjoy the benefits of our society.”

Of course, not all philanthropic contributions in Canada are about creating prestigious new schools, or facilitating growth in struggling communities. There are some pretty unique causes being championed by Canada’s wealthy. Well–known diamond tycoon, Charles Fipke, is a co–founder of WildAid Canada, which aims to protect endangered species, mostly through awareness. Fipke has been all over the world photographing wildlife, and has an impressive team of celebrities behind him. Bo Derek sits on the WildAid board of directors, and Jackie Chan recently helped with a Chinese commercial against shark fin soup. “Consumption of shark’s fins went down 39%,” says Fipke. If he hadn’t been a diamond miner, Fipke would have liked to try his hand at amateur ornithology, since he’s always had an interest in birds. “We’re trying to support the whooping cranes,” he says. “I think I’m maybe the principal supporter of it.”

Stewart Blusson, who co–discovered the Ekati Diamond Mine with Fipke also has unique interests. In 2006, he donated US$10 million to fund the Archon X Prize, which challenges scientists to invent new technology to reduce the time and cost of sequencing human genomes. Twice each year participants can compete to build a device that can sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days or less.

Reclusive billionaire Robert Miller is also interested in advanced science, and while he usually makes anonymous donations, he has been known to support cryogenics research through the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona.

Guy Laliberté, CEO of Cirque du Soleil, has pledged to donate $100 million over 20 years to the One Drop Foundation, which has the aim to fight poverty by providing access to clean, accessible water. But his methods of raising awareness are unorthodox to say the least. Last year, the 50–year–old billionaire spent a reported $35 million on a 12–day trip to the International Space Station with what he referred to as a “poetic social mission” to raise awareness about how water is the earth’s most precious resource.

And, while considerably tamer, many of Canada’s highest earners just set up charitable family foundations of their own, like the Gates’s. Hundreds of millions of dollars are sitting in the foundations of the Weston’s, the Azrieli’s and Mannix’s waiting to become the next hospital ward, community centre or university wing. McCain knows that there are can be pitfalls to running one of these foundations, especially if the goal is to influence public policy, as MWM Family Foundation’s is. Her family chose to create their own foundation because there just weren’t any organizations that suited the McCain’s vision for children, particularly in Atlantic Canada. But McCain believes her peers should be wary of their power, and focus more on the outcomes of their giving, letting their names fade into the background.

“The scary thing is that big money has to be used wisely, and I think those that have big money to do it need to be cognizant of the fact that we cannot force outcomes that are not evidence based,” she says. “We have to be very aware and cautious of how we use our money and power.”