This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.
When he became Governor-General last year, former University of Waterloo president David Johnston immediately made philanthropy a major focus of his vice-regal term. In this conversation at Rideau Hall, his official residence, he explains why the subject is so important that he hopes it will be a hallmark of celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
Why did you choose to make philanthropy a key agenda item for your tenure?
It’s so important. It comes from the idea of a smart and caring nation. And I think it’s intrinsic to the building of Canada and will be very important in the future. The definition of philanthropy comes from the Greek love of humanity, and I think, as we love humanity more, society strengthens.
What was a volunteering moment for you that inspire you - a moment where you gave back?
I co-chaired the United Way in Montreal, and I never knew my city. My work was at McGill University. I never realized the depth of poverty and need. I never realized that one-quarter of male children at age five in east-end Montreal had never seen a book. There wasn’t a place where they could do homework, They often came to school malnourished. For me that was just overwhelming – how could I live in a city with so much need and not be aware of it?
You have said philanthropy is a marathon not a sprint. How do we keep generosity going when there’s no disaster on the news galvanizing people?
The marathon versus the sprint is good analogy to emphasize the sustainability and the long-term commitment required. I think that respect for, and helping, one’s neighbour is a feature of Canadian citizenship, something that one hopes would be in the DNA of each person who has the great privilege of living in this country. That it is not a switch you turn on and off because something catches your attention, but something that’s intrinsic and innate and one simply does it because it’s established behaviour.
One of the hopes we have is that, for our 150th anniversary in 2017, one would see helping one's neighbours and philanthropy as a basic feature of Canadian citizenship, something that Canadians are known for.
How do you think we’re doing?
On a comparative scale, we do generally well – one index has us [behind] only the Dutch and New Zealanders, I think. That said, our philanthropy tends to be rather lumpy, not as widespread in our population as we would like. One of the challenges is not simply writing cheques, but ensuring that people can become engaged in their philanthropic activities – that when we think of time, talent and treasure, we think as much about time and talent as we do about treasure.
Do you think treasure gets too much attention?
Having been a university president, the treasure is pretty important. But I think, if it is going to become a part of our culture, one wants to emphasize the time and the talent. It’s also self-fulfilling; as people give time, very often the dollars follow.
Private donations have risen while there’s been a shrinking of public funds. What should concern us about this shift?
Government services, not simply in Canada but in jurisdictions around the world, are going through a degree of revision. I wouldn’t want to see it as a teeter-totter thing – philanthropy less, government more. But as the world becomes more complex, I think we have to reinvent how philanthropy works, be more sensitive to changing needs, more sensitive to new ways of delivering help and, particularly in a society like ours that believes so much in equality of opportunity, ensure that we don’t have nearly so many missing parts.
And we have a lot of missing parts. Our aboriginal communities are for the most part in a very difficult position, and that’s something we should be very concerned about. We have an increasing gap of skills – an economy where there are people without jobs and jobs without people.