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Philanthropists asked to donate 'a little love' to city

Corus Quay City Centre in Toronto


On Tuesday night, a group of about 100 select Torontonians will gather in a spacious apartment at Bloor St. and Avenue Rd. to hear a simple plea: give your city a little love.

The financial goal is to raise $100 million in three to five years. The broader goal is to spark a new burst of generosity and community spirit in a city that too often gets wrapped up in aimless debates and pointless quarrels.

The Toronto Community Foundation is asking people of means to demonstrate their affection for their town by making a donation through its new Bond for Toronto campaign. A contribution creates a fund in the name of the donors or their families. The TCF will manage the fund and help the donor connect with community groups and projects that help make the city a better, more humane place – forge a bond between citizens and the city.

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The foundation is using the cocktail reception at the private apartment of a generous donor to introduce the campaign. Governor-General David Johnston will be there to lend his voice. So will movers and shakers like former University of Toronto president Rob Prichard and businessman Richard Ivey.

"I think it's fair to say that the narrative in the city in the past couple of years hasn't been all that positive," says TCF chief executive Rahul Bhardwaj, a former Bay Street lawyer who has led the foundation for five years. "We're bogged down in a series of conversations that are distracting and not all that productive, whether it's around governance or transit."

That's a shame, he says, because Toronto is a great city, ranked number four in the world for livability in one study. All it needs is a little love.

"It sounds corny, but this city is lovable. What we are creating is a vehicle that allows people the opportunity to demonstrate their love for the city – and that's something that the city needs right now, is a demonstration of love."

The foundation has been in the business of giving since 1981. It was the dream child of businessman Fraser Deacon, who saw similar groups channel donations in U.S. cities and thought Toronto should have one.

Banker Frederick Goff founded the first community foundation in Cleveland in 1914. The idea was to pool the resources of the city's philanthropists to finance "such charitable purposes as will best make for the mental, moral and physical improvement of the inhabitants."

Today's community foundations work along the same lines. They pool the money from donors into an endowment fund and use the investment income to dole out grants to needy groups and causes. The TCF is relatively small, with about $250 million under management. That makes it only fifth in size among 180 community foundations in Canada. It is a piker beside Tulsa's, with one and a half billion dollars in funds, or Chicago's, with more than a billion.

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The Bond for Toronto drive is a way of scaling it up to meet the needs of Canada's biggest city and principal immigrant gateway. Despite the city's successes, says Mr. Bhardwaj, Toronto is fraying at the edges. The TCF's annual Vital Signs report shows how. While the downtown is thriving, 43 per cent of residents of the inner suburbs, landing spot for so many new immigrants, live on low or very low incomes.

The TCF tries to spot promising and successful projects and funnel charitable funds their way. Its sports leadership program trains youth in troubled communities to be coaches. More than 400 have graduated from the program. Half of them admitted they were into high-risk behaviour before joining.

The Beyond 3:30 program gives needy kids a place to go after school, providing sports, arts and homework programming that better-off families take for granted.

"It's a really superb-quality program for young people," says Harvey Griggs, who got into philanthropy after he sold his engineering firm. He says that the beauty of the TCF is that it identifies worthwhile programs, taking the guesswork away for philanthropists and relieving them of the hassle of running their own foundations.

Natalie Townsend, a managing partner of NorthRock Capital, is just starting up a charitable foundation and decided to work through the TCF. "It makes it very easy to make your dollars have the most impact," she says. "There are so many needs and so many organizations that it's hard to develop a strategy for doing it effectively."

Under the TCF model, philanthropists can choose to direct funds straight to programs that they like. TCF's role, says Mr. Bhardwaj, is to connect them to "the best and the brightest," pairing private capital with public need.

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" 'Love your city' is not a phrase you hear often in this city," he says. "Let's create a movement of loving our city."

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