Women Who Give Away Millions

414 pages,
ISBN: 0888821875

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Munificient Women
by Belinda Beaton

A few months ago, students at the University of Toronto demanded to know the terms of a major benefactor's gift to the business school; they believed that he had been granted too much recognition along with unprecedented control over academic matters. Meanwhile, Queen's University has been trying to divest itself gracefully of a castle in England that has turned out to be a financial sinkhole rather than a renowned centre for the study of international affairs; it had been foisted on the university by a determined alumnus who withstood dissuasion from the chancellor, and was then rewarded with publication of his memoirs by the university's press. Similarly, the Ontario government is quietly trying to sell a building that has proved not to be a viable arts centre.
Mistakes in philanthropic planning can be costly for all concerned, which is why there is a need for books that acknowledge the generosity of large benefactors, while also providing case studies, not gushing celebrity tributes. Iris Nowell's Women Who Give Away Millions demonstrates the difficulties of researching and writing such a book.
There is nothing new about women's dedication to charitable activities or about the diverse motives that inspire it. Philanthropy has traditionally been built upon a sense of duty fostered by religion. Of course, the desire for recognition and the opportunity to make business and social contacts also come into play. Galas and special events are not only fundraising devices but also adjuncts to the marriage market. Bereaved persons sometimes become involved with an organization as a way of coming to terms with their grief. Anonymous gifts from wealthy donors can spring less from modesty than from an understandable desire to avoid publicity and maintain personal security. The creation of family foundations and trusts has, over the years, helped owners maintain control of family businesses-and there are tax implications.
Whatever the reasons people may have for donating their time and money to charitable work, the results help us to have a kinder and more civilized society.
Nowell selected fourteen Canadian women who have all given away at least a million dollars, and tried to explain their motives. They include Margaret McCain, Nancy Ruth (formerly Jackman), Phyllis Lambert, Alison Rice, and Kathleen Richardson. Some of the ladies discussed are dead. Only one, the miner Viola MacMillan, made her own fortune. Several were following or modifying philanthropic plans conceived by their late husbands. Some would not be interviewed, and those who spoke to Nowell gave varying degrees of information. The two who talked to her at length described the dysfunction in their families, explaining how this contributed to their desire to alleviate social problems; at times the extensive quotation of their personal comments seems inconsistent with the serious aims of this book. In the end, most of these women remain enigmas.
Nowell is most effective when she places the contributions of her subjects in the larger context of philanthropy as it is practised in Canada. Almost ten percent of total charitable revenues come from individual Canadians. Their grants are tremendously important to hospitals and universities, because the priorities of foundations and corporations are very different from those of individual donors. Dorothy Killam's 1965 bequest of $30 million for advanced research to Dalhousie University enabled it to become a reputable graduate institution. In 1995 the University of Toronto received $10 million from Anne Tannenbaum and $16 million from the Koffler family. In a year when the Ontario government cut its grants to the university by $56 million, these and other donations were crucial. Certain arts organizations owe their existence as much to emergency infusions of cash and management expertise as to creative talent.
The spotlight that Nowell shines on these women's generosity obscures the collective nature of philanthropic work. Most of the projects discussed here owed their success not just to major donors, but to many individuals, from those who did the initial field work, to the foundation executives who assessed the projects' viability, to lesser donors who gave generously in time or money. Some truly innovative projects such as the International Piano Competition in Calgary and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal get only cursory treatment.
Any study of philanthropy faces some obstacles. One is the discreet silence kept by charitable institutions when a project fails, or when disputes and controversies develop. People are not forgiven if they are heard disparaging a donor's generosity in any way; other benefactors might become uncomfortable. Another hurdle is the confidentiality of donation arrangements.
Nowell sometimes lapses into the kind of awed tone that has long been characteristic of Peter Newman in his writings about what he calls the Canadian Establishment. For example, in describing one Maritime family whose homes and operations have been in a very small town, she gushes that "they could have remained cloistered in their family compound with two private planes and a landing strip on their property for their quick getaways, and they might have built their own polo field and golf course, stocked their own trout stream, and erected huge fences to keep out the uninvited.." This gives an inaccurate picture. The family did not want or need private aircraft until their business expanded into Europe. Had they adopted an excessively exclusive lifestyle, they would have fostered employee resentments and inflamed periodic labour disturbances. No-one in the family had ever shown the slightest interest in polo. The author's projections of self-abnegation onto some of her subjects in the interest of heightening heroics are part of her unfortunate propensity to creating a mystique.
But she is not very fulsome about the women she has not met, and she recognizes that very wealthy philanthropists do on a large scale the same things that others do with smaller resources.
In spite of the book's shortcomings, it can serve as an introduction to the subject. Parts of it explain different types of philanthropic projects very well. Much will not be new to people with experience in this kind of work, but many volunteers will be interested.
More important, many of the projects described here are still in operation and would welcome the contributions and involvement of other Canadians. The work may inspire others to follow the example of those who give generously and graciously. In these times when the boomers' blighted social conscience and comparative indifference to volunteer work are bemoaned, we need all the reminders we can get. 

Belinda Beaton is a Toronto writer.


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