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.
Those kinds of shifts in society will cause a redefinition of the role of government, and I hope will cause a more 21st-century approach in philanthropy.
What would be the role of philanthropy in job creation?
More public-private partnerships – philanthropic endeavour, along with public services. I am honorary patron of Habitat for Humanity, an organization that would like in the next five years to build as many homes as it has in the last 25 years. Increasingly that organization, which used to depend on voluntary labour and somebody writing a cheque to buy the land and build a house, is working with municipalities and other agencies to deliver more social housing. That would be an example of innovative approaches and partnership with government, rather than two silos.
There have also been examples of people directly going abroad and building a school, not even going through charities, which is a very modern notion of philanthropy.
As we think of philanthropy changing, that business of engaging is quite key. When one is involved beyond the writing of the cheque, one gets much more passionate about the cause; one understands it better and makes better investments.
You touch on collaboration in your speeches quite often. Can you give me a example?
[Research in Motion CEO] Mike Lazaridis has invested now around $300-million of his own money in an institute of theoretical physics and then an institute for quantum computing. He has captured the imagination of governments to see that Canada has an opportunity to be a leader. That’s a brilliant private-public partnership, which started with a philanthropic gift but will build a whole new industry.
Stories about too much money going to salaries and not enough going to the services have eroded trust in charities.
It makes philanthropy more difficult. On the other hand, when you get the sense that by and large charities are well managed in this country, that helps the cause.
The Netherlands has a central bureau of fundraising. Do you think Canada needs a similar body?
The Netherlands actually has a government agency that gives a Good Housekeeping seal of approval to charitable organizations which have agreed to meet certain standards. That’s not the kind of thing the Canada Revenue Agency should do, in my judgment. It should ensure honesty in terms of tax receipts and that sort of thing. But the notion of capacity-building, of encouraging better management ideas, or helping with good governance of charities – at the level beyond the basic – I think there’s a need for a more entrepreneurial type of organization. The Dutch do it well, and I think we could emulate that.
Are we making good use of the expertise of New Canadians?
We need to do a lot more. [I know an] Indo-Canadian who wanted to make a large gift with some fellow Indo-Canadians for military families, especially families of deceased soldiers, as there way of paying respect to their country of adoption. He said, in his background, looking after one’s children and family was almost an overwhelming responsibility so that you didn’t have the occasion to think about anyone beyond your family. He said sometimes there was a mistrust of organizations that would be taking the money and not using it for the [right] purposes. Those are just cultural issues that I think we have to address, to ensure that people new to this country are welcomed and encouraged, consistent with their own traditions to make the lot of their neighbours better.
Do you have a childhood memory of the first act of charity that inspired you?
My grandparents were Methodists. They were very poor, but practised the Old Testament notion of tithing, so 10 per cent of their gross income went to the church for philanthropic-related activities – the first 10 per cent, not the last.
Another story I remember, I was 13 or 14 and had never had a new piece of hockey equipment. A scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs was coming, and a man who ran a sporting-goods store, not a man of great wealth, said: “I have something for you,” and gave me a new pair of skates. I scored three goals that night [and later became captain of Harvard’s hockey team].
How do we encourage families to get more involved when they are so busy?
You have to work smarter, and you can’t work harder. I see it with my five daughters with our eight grandchildren really making careful choices about their time. I think doing things with your children is important for volunteer activities my advice is to try to choose some activities where your children can be involved.
Your five daughters are very active public servants. You talk about inspiring generosity in children. What was your secret?
I don’t think we did anything out of a recipe book. But I supposed they developed an interest in things beyond their immediate needs, and that has taken them into their life’s work. All five from an early age were involved in what I would call philanthropic activities.
I remember we were in England on sabbatical leave in Cambridge, and my [eldest daughter] was four at the time, and we went to the little village church on Sundays and there was a congregation of 40 or 50. A very elderly hunchback man sat in the back pew, and the first Sunday, she went back and sat with him. She did that each Sunday.
What could parents say to their kids to inspire that kind of behaviour in them?
One hopes that parents expose their children to the needs of others, to broaden their appreciation of the society we live in – there is an awful lot of need. And very often, those of us blessed to live in very comfortable homes sometimes get cut off from the realities of society. I think that notion of developing a responsibility to use one’s treasure as well as one talent to satisfy needs other than one’s own are an important part of psychological and emotional development in children.
Where do you see the future going for philanthropy in Canada?
I think a steady progression toward a smarter, more caring nation.
Is there a specific goal we should be setting for ourselves?
By 2017, the notion of helping one’s neighbour is considered a core feature of Canadian citizenship – as opposed to an extracurricular activity.
This interview has been edited and condensed.