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BMO boss launches charity blitz Add to ...

It's early afternoon in a working-class Toronto neighbourhood and a community centre called St. Christopher House is packed to the rafters.

There's a room full of Alzheimer patients being cared for while their spouses take an hour to shop. Down the hall, several tattoo-covered dudes are being taught basic computer skills.

And in a classroom, a crowd of recent immigrants are learning the mysteries of filling out Canadian government form. At the back of this room, Bank of Montreal chief executive officer Bill Downe is sitting quietly, taking in the finer points of applying for a social insurance card.

Mr. Downe is about to take on the high-profile challenge of leading the United Way's annual fund raising drive. He's rolled up his sleeves, taken off his tie and sat in on this session to learn just where the city's biggest charity spends its money.

As the lesson ends, a United Way official introduces the CEO to the crowd. A middle-aged fellow promptly stands up, whips out his wallet, and says: "Hey, you're at Bank of Montreal, I'm at Bank of Montreal too." And he shows Mr. Downe his debit card.

The banker is chuffed. The rest of the group is in awe. In a community where SIN numbers are novel, owning a bank card is an enormous achievement.

These, clearly, are not Mr. Downe's usual stomping grounds. BMO's boss already faces a host of business challenges this year, as he pilots a major bank through economic storms. To that load, he's gladly shouldered the additional burden of helping Toronto's least fortunate with a fund-raising drive that formally kicks off today.

United Way officials doesn't want this story told, but last year's Toronto campaign featured a desperate last-minute blitz, as the agency strove to hit its $110-million target. Against a backdrop of ever-worsening economic news - Lehman Brothers collapsed just as the agency began pitching financial types - donations dried up. Arm-twisting played out on an city-wide scale. But even a flood of last-minute donations only translated into a $107-million outing. In a Bay Street community that views even charity events as competitions, last year's drive fell short.

Now Mr. Downe picks up the torch. As one would expect, the bank CEO is nothing if not methodical.

First, there's the tone of the pitch. On this front, a bank CEO who's faced his share of bad luck at BMO in recent years has caught a major break. The business world is feeling a whole lot better about itself right now than it did 12 months ago. That should translate into a more giving attitude, at a time when generosity is very much in demand.

"Even though it feels like the economy is on the way back, these people are still feeling the brunt of the downturn," says Mr. Downe. "They are still facing layoffs, still facing hardship, so the need for the United Way has never been more acute."

Mr. Downe wants to shift the emphasis from a big target number. Instead, he's telling absolutely everyone he meets that the United Way should garner every charity single dollar that's available. He wants the campaign to tap the full potential of the community.

Then there's the groundwork. Mr. Downe began rallying fellow executives to the cause last January, nine months before the formal kick off. He was relentless, and opportunitistic. John Tory, the former provincial Conservative leader and best-connected guy in town, found himself with more free time than anticipated. Mr. Downe promptly called the United Way veteran up for breakfast, and lured him back into the fold.

In the months prior to today's public launch, Mr. Downe has already been pitching wealthy individuals, the lawyers, the accountants, and corporate leaders. He's been telling the story of the Alzheimer families who get help, the computer-trained toughs and the immigrants who are learning the ropes in a new land, all courtesy of the United Way.

These are all good stories, and Mr. Downe will be telling them over and over again in coming weeks.

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