Public pledges by Charles Bronfman as well as dozens of U.S. billionaires to give away a big chunk of their fortunes are starting to have an impact on the estate planning of Canadian business owners, private wealth advisers say.
Inspired by the recent high-profile Giving Pledge initiative by billionaire Warren Buffett, owners of small to medium-sized businesses are exploring the idea of establishing charitable family foundations with proceeds from the sale of their businesses, the advisers added. The pledges have "created a bit of a fever among our clients," said Jerry Koonar, a portfolio manager in Calgary with Leith Wheeler Investment Counsel.
"More and more people are talking about it and are doing it," said Marvi Ricker, a vice-president and managing director of philanthropic services for BMO Harris Private Banking.
Pledge-inspired giving has not become a deluge in Canada, but it has sparked conversations. These could prove to be an impetus for higher levels of donations, which have been stagnant in Canada since the 2008 market meltdown.
The conversations intensified this past week after Mr. Bronfman, a Canadian citizen who is based in the United States but is part of a prominent Montreal business family, joined 91 wealthy Americans who have taken up Mr. Buffett's pledge to commit to donating at least half their fortunes to philanthropic causes.
But even among Canadians who can't claim billionaire status, the Bronfmans and Buffetts are role models. Advisers to family businesses say such discussions develop in family companies when the children have no plans to carry on the business and the enterprise is being sold to another party, creating a financial windfall.
It creates a dilemma for parent-owners who do not want to bequeath the entire proceeds to their children – other than, perhaps, the means to gain a high-quality education and a good start. The answer is often a foundation.
"I hear a lot of people say they don't want to give it all to their kids because they are not doing them a favour by leaving them so much money," Ms. Ricker said. This kind of thinking is best captured by Mr. Buffett, who has said he would give his children enough that they would feel like they could do anything, but not so much that they would feel like doing nothing.
Mr. Koonar emphasized that foundations are also a mechanism for adult children to play a continuing role in managing the family legacy.
Brett Wilson, a prominent Calgary investor who is very public about his plans to give away most of his wealth, said he admires Mr. Buffett for rallying interest in charitable giving. But he also warned that Mr. Buffett has only written the first in a 10-chapter book. "Chapter 1 is thinking about releasing your assets. Now let's talk about Chapter 2, which is: How much do your kids really need?"
He points out that while the Buffett pledge focuses attention on the ultrarich, the collective net worth of people with more than $10-million and less than $1-billion is "probably in multiples of the billionaires' wealth" and therefore an excellent potential source of donations.
Any Buffett-inspired jolt to giving would be welcome in the charitable industry, said Ian Bird, president of Community Foundations of Canada, which speaks for 200 local foundations with $3-billion in assets and that dispense annual grants of $200-million. He added that charitable giving to member foundations soared in the good times, around the turn of the millennium, but with the current economic conditions, the annual pledges have flat-lined at about about $200-million a year.
His organization is lobbying for tax benefits to broaden the base of giving, including a "stretch tax credit" to provide an additional incentive for people who are donating money for the first time. For family businesses, there would also be a substantial advantage if Ottawa were to extend tax incentives to people who transfer private company shares and real estate to charities.
That is the goal of Toronto investment banker Donald Johnson, who said he is hopeful the proposal will be considered for next year's federal budget. Mr. Johnson scored a coup in the late 1990s by convincing the government to provide benefits, including capital gains tax breaks, to transfers of publicly listed shares.
Another spur to giving would be if Canada's very rich stepped forward with their own version of the Buffett pledge.
Seymour Schulich, the Toronto-based financier, is a very forthright donor to Canadian educational institutions, and he estimates he will likely donate half his fortune by the end of his life – if he finds the right causes. But he doesn't see a lot of Canada's wealthy people becoming public examples.
"I don't think this is a Canadian thing to do," he explained by e-mail. In Canada, "self-praise is no honour."