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Research In Motion co-founders Michael Lazaridis, left, and Jim Balsillie at the company’s annual general meeting in Waterloo, Ont., July 12, 2011. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)
Research In Motion co-founders Michael Lazaridis, left, and Jim Balsillie at the company’s annual general meeting in Waterloo, Ont., July 12, 2011. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)

HOWARD BURTON

RIM founders’ ultimate legacy will be their philanthropy Add to ...

In June, 1889, 54-year-old Andrew Carnegie published an article in the North American Review frankly entitled Wealth, where he argued that the rising inequality between rich and poor was both an unavoidable aspect of modern capitalism and a great potential benefit, so long as the super-rich recognize their “duty” and redistribute their vast resources in a socially responsible way.

American philanthropy wasn’t born at that moment, of course. In his article, Mr. Carnegie specifically cites the accomplishments of Peter Cooper, Enoch Pratt, Charles Pratt and Leland Stanford, each of whom founded an impressive array of educational institutions that still thrive today. But it’s fair to say that his words went some distance towards firmly establishing the unique culture of enlightened patronage that has been so firmly embraced by a long line of American tycoons from John D. Rockefeller to Bill Gates, a culture that many believe is directly responsible for America’s consistent edge in so many fields of human endeavour.

There is, naturally, a question of timing: when should a would-be philanthropist stop worrying about making money and start thinking about spending it? Mr. Carnegie’s answer, formulated in his famous dictum, was that a man should spend the first third of his life getting all the education that he can, the second third making all the money that he can and the last third giving it all away for worthwhile causes.

The difficulty here, of course, is that most of us don’t know how long we’re going to live in advance. For the truly philanthropically inclined, then, it’s probably best to start early.

Canada has no grand philanthropic tradition to speak of. Like most other modern liberal democracies, we’ve naturally tended to look towards the public sector to fund our museums and opera halls, our universities and research centres. This is quite reasonable as far as it goes, of course, but the difficulty is that governments, predisposed as they are to spreading resources around to satisfy the widest range of interests, are loath to do what it takes to achieve excellence in any one activity. Excellence invariably demands focus, the resolve to steer an overpowering amount of resources towards a select few. And when every vote counts, there is scant political upside in supporting a minority, no matter how much potential it might have.

It is not impossible to achieve international excellence within a publicly funded system, of course – think of Oxbridge or Max Planck Institutes or France’s grandes écoles – but typically these institutions are able to leverage a grand and glorious past to justify a disproportionate amount of present investment.

For a newer country like Canada, the case is naturally much harder to make.

Yet it is hardly impossible. In fact, it has already been successfully made.

Twelve years ago, when Research In Motion was a dynamic young Canadian company joyfully captivating the world with its funky new BlackBerry pager, its twin CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, stole some time away from their corporate responsibilities to develop their separate philanthropic initiatives: Mr. Balsillie created the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), while Mr. Lazaridis launched Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

This was philanthropy on a major scale – well over $150-million – an unprecedented amount of resources concentrated on a relatively narrow area range of activities. That alone was enough to capture people’s attention.

But what made the story even more intriguing from a public-policy perspective was the way in which these new initiatives had been created: philanthropy Canadian-style. Both men hadn’t just leveraged RIM’s stock price to create valuable new institutions. They had also leveraged significant government support to ensure that these new institutions would have the resources to compete with any comparable research effort worldwide.

As RIM continued to grow, so too did the philanthropic efforts. The Balsillie School of International Affairs appeared, as did the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing. Once again, the two RIM co-founders were leading the charge. And once again, government came to the table as an integral and enthusiastic partner.

Was this a good thing? Well, opinions naturally varied. Foreign relations specialists in Halifax and physicists in British Columbia tended, as one might expect, to be less enthusiastic about the public sector’s participation in what was happening in Waterloo than those closer to the action.

At the end of the day, of course, any institution receiving public funding must justify its record and demonstrate that it has lived up to expectations. But that’s quite a different matter than how best to get going in the first place.

RIM, suffice it to say, is no longer what it was. And neither, correspondingly, is the public reputation of Messrs Balsillie and Lazaridis. Which is, I think, a real shame.

Because however impressive it was to drive a company to international market dominance in one of the most competitive industries around, their true legacy, I’m convinced, will be what they achieved in the philanthropic realm.

By having the presence of mind to capitalize on BlackBerry’s zenith to create a spate of new and promising research institutions in their community, the duo didn’t just boost the cause of quantum computing and global governance, they singlehandedly created a new model of institutional philanthropy for the benefit of all Canadians.

They may not be in the last third of their lives. But I, for one, am glad they didn’t wait.

Howard Burton was the founding executive director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and is the current CEO of Ideas Roadshow

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