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Canada Toronto South Asian leads swing toward donor diversity

By the mid-1990s, Rahul Bhardwaj had made it to Bay Street, so he figured it was time to give back.

With a couple of cousins, the young corporate lawyer organized the Connaught Charity Golf Classic, named for New Delhi's bustling Connaught Place business district, and invited fellow members of Toronto's South Asian community to tee off.

Mr. Bhardwaj didn't even pick up a club that day; he was too busy running things. Still, the tournament would change his life when it came time to dole out the proceeds.

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Rather than direct the money to a specific South Asian cause, they chose a much bigger pot - the United Way of Greater Toronto - and soon Mr. Bhardwaj was moving in a far bigger circle.

That circle will grow again today, as the 45-year-old takes the helm as president and CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation, a philanthropic organization with $195-million, and counting, to spread around to worthy causes.

In not-so-bygone Toronto, the colour of charity money was usually white, along with those hired to hand it out. Now one of the most diverse cities on the globe, Toronto's mirror has become a prism, reflecting more and more colour as its multiculturalism matures.

"I think there's a real appetite amongst, quote, the mainstream, to share these opportunities," Mr. Bhardwaj said of the city's charitable sector, which he has come to know well. "I've seen that all along."

"All along" was actually a circuitous route, dotted with "soft contacts" he made as a result of the golf tournament, and led next to an invitation to help with Toronto's ill-fated bid for the 2008 Olympics. In turn, this led to work on a couple of political campaigns (John Tory for mayor, John Manley for Liberal leader), while he continued his law career.

That changed in 2004, when his growing reputation as a community bridge-builder drew an offer to lead the United Way of York Region, a sprawling, ethnically diverse amalgam of nine smaller municipalities.

It was a long way from corporate law, a fact Mr. Bhardwaj's Indian-born father duly pointed out, but as he told his wife, Ritu, " 'This is really grabbing me.' Then the question was, 'Do I follow my heart?' "

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He did, which groomed him for the role he takes on today.

Martin Connell, the ACE Bakery co-owner who chairs the community foundation's board, said Mr. Bhardwaj earned the job "strictly, 100 per cent on the basis of experience, his skill set and his abilities," but added, "The fact that he's of South Asian heritage is a great thing for us and for the city."

"The more opportunity people have to interact with each other, the stronger the community becomes," Mr. Connell said, "so this is a great achievement for all of us to see this happen."

Mr. Bhardwaj, who was born in London, England, and grew up in London, Ont., framed his new assignment in similar terms.

Since he became active in community work - serving on boards for the Stratford Festival, the Art Gallery of Ontario Foundation, the Toronto Jazz Festival and others - he has noticed that all have been working to make their boards, staff, leadership and donor bases more reflective of Toronto's diversity.

"I think a number of things are happening," he said. "The city is maturing; people of various communities have earned the privilege of leading organizations like this; and organizations are really smart enough to recognize that, to stay relevant in this evolving city, you've got to reflect all elements of the city."

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Conversely, and perhaps partly as a result, members of minority groups are stepping out of their silos.

"It's not just giving back to your immediate community - and lots of people support them, and that's great, too - but this is also taking it a step further and saying, 'I'm a member of a much broader community,' " Mr. Bhardwaj said.

"Maybe if Alexis de Tocqueville was around these days, he'd look at it and say, 'Maybe this is the natural evolution of self-interest rightly understood,'" he said. "The breadth of that thinking, I think, is starting to see its time."

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