The gift that keeps on giving

Hurrah for Frank Giustra! Not only has the Vancouver merchant banker set a new standard for corporate giving – US$100 million plus half what he earns from resources for the rest of his life – he has twisted a lot of competitors’ arms to join him in fighting poverty in the developing world.

Philanthropy used to be more commonplace at the end of a corporate career. Geezers would see the face of death and then try to redeem a lifetime of greed by lavishing money on something, anything, at the last minute. Like a lot of young people in North America, I grew up devouring the contents of the local Carnegie Library long before I knew who Andrew Carnegie was.

The unusual mid-career generosity demonstrated yesterday by Giustra was what first drew me to do a book about BlackBerry and Research in Motion. In 2000 RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis announced he was donating $100 million to create the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and in 2004 gave $50 million to the University of Waterloo for the Institute of Quantum Computing.

In 2001 RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie donated $25 million to create the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He’s also given at least another $10 million to local causes in the Waterloo Region. If news reports are accurate, on Monday he will be adding more than $10 million to his previous endowment for academic chairs and scholarships. Both Lazaridis and Balsillie were forty when their gifting began. And, equally interesting, this was not about ego: their names are not featured.

Money from the likes of Giustra, Lazaridis and Balsillie send a message to institutions that raise funds: You need to be imaginative, not just have an atrium or a business school for sale. Anyway, it’s so much better to do good works and let the good name speak for itself.

UPDATE: On June 25th, Balsillie donated $50 million with $17 million going to the Centre for International Governance Innovation and $33 million to the newly created Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo. The good name still speaks, as does a new name. The University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University will each contribute $25 million to the Balsillie School while the Government of Ontario will add $17 million to CIGI.

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