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McGill donors John and Marcy McCall MacBain, who amassed a fortune in classified advertising, plan to give away the majority of their wealth. 'We think that we should give back to our community, and our community needs it more than we need it,' Mr. McCall MacBain said after their gift of $200-million.Dario Ayala

John and Marcy McCall MacBain are acutely aware of the challenges that today’s university students face. Their record-breaking $200-million gift this week toward a scholarship program at McGill University in Montreal will certainly help alleviate many of those difficulties for their scholars.

“We see how challenging it is to get into university now. It’s a competitive environment, and we appreciate that there is a lot of pressure on students to perform academically but also to support the financial demands of living,” said Ms. McCall MacBain. “And so that’s why we thought the scholarship was so important to help alleviate some of that pressure.”

Mr. McCall MacBain, who founded classified advertising giant Trader Classified Media, is grateful for the scholarships he received during his education. He received financial support toward his education at McGill and Harvard Business School, as well as the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which brought him to the University of Oxford in England.

“[My scholarships] changed my life. When I applied to Harvard Business School, I applied to 37 scholarships. I lost 36, and I won one: the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp., which gave me a full scholarship. Everyone talks about the success in the end, but at that time you think of the 36 failures. And I’ve learned that maybe the failures were the reason I got that success.”

Applications for the scholarships open in the fall of 2020. Within five years of operation, the scholarships will fund tuition and living expenses for up to 75 graduate students in any given year at the university. The gift was developed with the intention that scholars will continue to be selected in perpetuity.

Among the graduate programs they can take are the MBA and more recent offerings, including a master in public policy at the new Max Bell School of Public Policy, or McGill’s newly-created interdisciplinary master of arts and science, which is under development and expected to be inaugurated to coincide with the inaugural class. Additional options include the master of management in finance at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, Desautel’s new master of management in data analytics and, starting in 2020, the master in retail.

Those who wish to pursue a second cycle professional degree, such as law or medicine, will also be eligible to apply for the scholarship, which will allow recipients to devote their time fully to academic, community and professional pursuits, rather than being preoccupied with financial constraints.

“We’re trying to create meaningful opportunities for these scholars. The time that they would have spent working a part-time job [or the like], they can use it to integrate into communities and talk to their mentors. These opportunities will help them think about the real issues they want to tackle in their careers, and not to be too distracted by the things that would otherwise concern them,” Ms. McCall MacBain said.

For Desautels and beyond, the scholarship will focus on high-potential students who may go on to tackle difficult social and environmental issues.

“The world is a complex place,” Ms. McCall MacBain said, “and we’re hoping this money will release some of that potential in students and certainly help define the leaders of tomorrow.”

To the couple, McGill University felt like the ideal institution for this gift, called the largest philanthropic offering in Canadian history when it was announced this week.

“McGill is an international university, and Montreal is a great city for students. It’s cosmopolitan, it’s not too expensive and it’s very diverse,” said Mr. McCall MacBain, who graduated from the university with an honours bachelor of arts in economics in 1980.

The couple hope that the McCall MacBain Scholarships will create global leaders, not just Canadian ones. The program is set to be composed of two-thirds Canadians and one-third international students at any one time, once applications open to international students within three years of operation.

“We believe a lot in Canada’s role [domestically], but given the tough world out there, Canada and Canadians have a role internationally. We’re hoping our students can go and help the world as well.”

To achieve this, the McCall MacBains will invest deeply in the scholar selection process.

“One of the key features of this program will be how we can recruit and select the individuals for it. One of the challenges that some programs have is being able to get the diversity in the room to make the choices that will really define a scholarship program,” Ms. McCall MacBain said.

“We're looking for a type of student who has certainly achieved academic excellence to some degree, but more importantly, they have a proven track record of being a leader of character in their community who has shown resilience in some way. And I think our definition of leadership is that you leave the place where you came from just a bit better. Or a lot better.”

The McCall MacBain Foundation has contributed to similar educational initiatives, such as the Rhodes Scholarship, the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship and the Loran Scholars Foundation. With their gift to McGill, they have the opportunity to reinforce their efforts.

“What we learned in the past 12 years is that you have to have a passion for your philanthropy – to thrive, to keep it going, to bring new ideas," said Mr. McCall MacBain. “Marcy and I both have a passion for scholarships, and we have a passion for McGill, for Montreal and Quebec, and for Canada.”

“We concluded that it was time for us to really double down on scholarships,” added Ms. McCall MacBain, “because we both have benefited from having access to money to help with our education.”

Having spent a considerable amount of their time in the past decade giving many millions of dollars to education, they have become much more aware that students are more stressed than back in their time at university.

The duo comes from different paths. Having completed the sale of Trader Classified Media in 2006, today Mr. McCall MacBain focuses on the business investments that enable the foundation’s work. Meanwhile, Ms. McCall MacBain has an academic background with a focus on evidence-based health care and social policy. In addition to her work with the McCall MacBain Foundation, she serves as a fellow at Kellogg College, part of the University of Oxford.

The couple have committed to continue their philanthropic efforts in the future.

“We want to give away the majority of our wealth and all our future earnings,” said Mr. McCall MacBain. “We are very fortunate, and I was very fortunate to choose a sector and grow that internationally. And we think that we should give back to our community, and our community needs it more than we need it.”

Karl Moore is an associate professor and Dan Schechner is a bachelor of commerce student at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University. They interviewed John and Marcy McCall MacBain for The CEO Series, a one-hour radio show heard on BellMedia’s CJAD in Montreal.

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