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Why They Give The Power Givers

B.C. has many pressing philanthropic needs, including underfunded schools, overstuffed hospitals and myriad social problems. Meet eight prominent couples who are stepping up and giving back to the province that’s made them the successes they are

by Lucy Hyslop

Take some 12,000 registered

charities in B.C., add in a dearth of company headquarters and their accompanying larger share of charitable dollars, and it’s easy to see why there are high demands on the province’s individuals and smaller businesses to give. And give they do: from health care to arts, British Columbians each donated, on average, $390 in 2012—some 44 per cent more a year than the national figure of $270, according to Statistics Canada.

When you look at B.C. in a continental context, however, it’s a different picture. The Fraser Institute’s Generosity Index—measuring the percentage of tax filers contributing to charity and the amount they contributed—revealed in 2013 that B.C. ranked 51st (with New Mexico) out of 64 provinces and states, behind Vermont and just ahead of Louisiana. Some local philanthropists point to the U.S. estate tax, where a deceased person’s estate is taxed on any value above US$5.34 million, as one reason why America’s wealthy give more (Canada doesn’t have an estate tax).

“I believe that if government wanted to encourage more philanthropy, a carrot-and-stick approach might work,” says Michael Audain, chair of Vancouver-based developer Polygon Homes Ltd. and one of B.C.’s most significant philanthropists. “Levy a punitive death tax on, say, 75 per cent of assets but give a credit for charitable donations over the 10 preceding years.”

For now, however, there are notable philanthropic powerhouses leading the way in donations and volunteering in the province. And while “The Power Givers” is not designed as an all-encompassing who’s who of B.C. philanthropy, Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa—plus seven other charitable couples—show how they are cultivating a culture of giving back in the province.

Chip + Shannon Wilson

Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon Athletica Inc., and Shannon Wilson, one of Lululemon’s original designers and co-founder of Kit and Ace

“As Lululemon gained more momentum and became more successful, Chip and I realized we had the opportunity to give,” Shannon explains, adding that the couple now focuses on technical design and children’s education as “the areas we love and are committed to in our life.” Through imagine1day, she says, “It’s been amazing over the years to see how education in the communities is elevating families. I think in general giving is about people wanting to make a difference in the world.”

Describing their overarching drive to give back, Chip explains that donating takes away the frustration of “wanting to see things happen but not being able to do anything about it,” which they experienced before they had funds. “You’d look at things and not know what to do,” he says. “Now we have an ability to make that frustration come to fruition in a way that is very rewarding. By giving, we can be the catalyst to make something happen.”

Their love of technical design was an obvious draw, too. They saw an opportunity for the school, which is due to open this year, to close the gap between what the industry needs and the qualifications of the students.

“We see possibility, and the world hasn’t caught up to it yet,” Chip says. “We have the ability to move the world to that place quicker.”

Their Claim to Fame

Two years ago, gave $8 million to the Chip and Shannon Wilson School of Design at Kwantlen Polytechnic University; established imagine1day, a children’s educational charity focused on Ethiopia, in 2007.

Robert + Greta Ho

Founders of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation

Raised by his grandparents in Hong Kong, Robert explains that his grandfather came from poverty to become a self-made businessman. “My grandfather never let me forget that he came from nothing, and he never forgot to give back money to the people and the place where he grew up—and that we should all do the same thing. That’s why our family motto is ‘Before you can receive, you must learn how to give.’”

“I was born into a silver-spoon family,” he continues, “but I wasn’t driving around in a Ferrari. All of us in the family have a duty to give back what we have taken. The joke in the family is that you can’t take it with you once you lie down, so why just keep it all to yourself?”

As a “proactive” organization—“it’s not like the old days when you just wrote a cheque,” says Robert—the Ho Family Foundation does much research into the charities and institutions to which it is considering donating. Referring to his wife, two sons and daughters-in-law, Robert says it was difficult at first to agree on the areas for donations. For one focus, however, since they all like arts and culture, and China has more than 5,000 years of it, “we thought, ‘Why don’t we tell the world about us?’” The result was the VAG’s recent exhibit The Forbidden City.

When it comes to hospital donations, helping locally was an obvious choice for the couple, which has lived in Vancouver for 25 years. “As we progress in years, our health is something we pay increasing attention to,” Greta says. “We believe access to outstanding health care is something we should aspire to—not just for ourselves, but for our fellow British Columbians as well.”

As Buddhists, the pair also wanted to ensure the religion’s meaning was conveyed. “Even when I was working,” says Robert, “people thought of Buddhism as some sort of a cult, so we thought about telling people about the philosophy of Buddhism as something wonderful… while being mindful that we don’t want to be missionaries—we’re not preaching religion.”

Their Claim to Fame

In 2013, gave $1 million to fund The Forbidden City at the Vancouver Art Gallery; in 2011, $10 million to Lions Gate Hospital Foundation; in 2009, $15 million to Vancouver General Hospital; and in 2005, $4-million donation to set up North America’s first centre of Buddhist studies at UBC.

Amar + Natalie Doman

Amar Doman, president and CEO of Futura Corp. and CEO of CanWel Building Materials Group Ltd., and Natalie Doman, past honorary co-chair of the Heart & Stroke Foundation gala fundraiser

Amar explains that his father, Ted, had a serious heart attack at the age of 40 and believes that open-heart surgery in the 1970s saved his life.

“He again had several attacks and since then has also had a stroke, each time recovering fully thanks to the science and research done by the fine doctors and, of course, the Heart & Stroke Foundation,” says Amar, who was a director on the charity’s national board from 2011 to 2013.

Adding that his father is his role model, Amar offers another reason why the couple donates, beyond the obvious: “Without him being around, I could not have built the businesses I am now involved in. 

“I believe the foundation’s work is very critical, not only for fundraising that directly assists science and research but for awareness and healthy-living promotion,” he continues. “Through a healthy and active lifestyle, heart disease and stroke can be prevented. They are always trying to get the message out; the Make Death Wait campaign was very successful.”

As parents, the Domans are keen to now pass on the spirit of giving to the next generation. “Having three very young children reinforces our belief in giving back in many ways, including to the Heart & Stroke Foundation,” says Natalie. “Being able to help others is a goal that we both believe in, and we feel blessed that we have the ability to do so.”

“I am always amazed and proud to see how many people are selfless in Canada,” says Amar. “It is inspirational and something we will teach our children. Everyone should get involved with some sort of charity that touches them. Being selfless is rewarding, and giving back to those who need help is quite simply the right thing to do—no matter how big or how small.”

Their Claim to Fame

Heart & Stroke Foundation supporters for 10 years, they donated $250,000 in 2012.

Bob + Lily Lee

Robert (Bob) Lee, chairman of Prospero International Realty Inc., and Lily Lee, retired community health nurse

The Lee family tradition of philanthropy began more than six decades ago with Bob’s father, who gave to causes in Vancouver’s Chinatown and sent money back to his ancestral village in China. Bob says that these efforts helped inform the couple’s own philanthropy.

“I was never close to my dad until I was in my teens, and then I found out what he did and I was really happy because he was helping the community and future generations,” says Bob, who graduated from UBC in 1956 and founded the real estate development company UBC Properties Trust in 1988 (which has raised $850 million to date for the UBC Endowment). “When I had the opportunity to go to university myself and make money in the business world, that was a great privilege. This is just a way of saying thank you.”

Besides, UBC’s chancellor emeritus adds, donating makes the Lees feel better. Allowing for the fact that his family is financially well off, Bob suggests, “We get more pleasure giving than accepting because people are really appreciative and you can’t do that when you’re gone.”

The Lees’ philanthropy has focused on their shared passions: education and health. “I feel that I have been very fortunate in my life,” says Lily, an Alert Bay, B.C., native who graduated with a nursing degree from UBC. “I worked as a public health nurse in the Downtown Eastside and have always been interested in public health. I am excited that Bob and I can contribute in a small way to improve the health of the community.”

“It’s really important for our generation and future generations, so we need the best health system in the world,” adds Bob. “We come into this world with nothing and then you make a lot of money; why not improve life for the future generation? Wealthy people don’t need all the money, so give it while you’re alive and people appreciate it more. When you’re gone, nobody knows you.”

Their Claim to Fame

Gave $2 million to the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation in 2011 (led to the Robert and Lily Lee Family Community Health Centre); $5 million to UBC in 2005 (Robert H. Lee Graduate School at Sauder School of Business and The Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre).

Michael Audain + Yoshiko Karasawa

Michael Audain, chairman of Polygon Homes Ltd., and Yoshiko Karasawa, board director for the Audain Art Museum and the Vancouver Opera Association

“I’m afraid that we don’t have any grand notions about philanthropy,” says Michael. “We are just very keen about certain causes and try to support them with dollars and volunteer time.”

That lifelong—and exhaustive—interest in the visual arts is what led to their show Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art from the Audain Collection at the VAG in 2011-12, and what has helped create a new art museum in Whistler, due to open this year. Giving is part of Audain railing against inheritance: “I’m not for endowing one’s offspring with too much money, other than what’s needed for their education.”

Yoshiko, whose main interests are animal welfare and opera (she is on the board of Vancouver Opera), says that when she was young in Japan most charity was linked to the temples. “It was a revelation to me to find how widespread the interest in charity is in my adopted country,” she says. “I believe that charitable giving has certainly become more popular in recent years as people realize that government cannot address all the good things that need to be done in health and education.”

Yoshiko strongly believes the onus for giving is on those with resources. “Those of us who can afford it have a duty to help the less fortunate,” she says. “But one thing I cannot understand is why people would wait until their death to support causes that interest them. Why not have the satisfaction of seeing that done while you are still alive and kicking?”

Their Claim to Fame

Have donated more than $12 million to the Vancouver Art Gallery, including art; currently building the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, projected to cost around $35 million and due to open in late 2015; have also given to Presentation House Gallery ($4 million), Emily Carr University of Art + Design ($5 million) and UBC ($5 million) for various art facilities in the past two years.

Ian Telfer + Nancy Burke

Ian Telfer, chair of Goldcorp INC., and Nancy Burke, honorary director of Lions Gate Hospital Foundation Board

Just as Ian believes in “returning the favour” to his alma mater in Ottawa, his and Nancy’s motives for giving in general through their Fernwood Foundation follow a similar philosophy.

“One of the reasons we donate is that we’ve been very fortunate to be in a position that we are able to donate and help out a little bit,” he says. “The country, the province, the community have been very good to us, so we feel it’s all part of the process to give something back. We believe in being visible in the community because I think it does encourage other people to be philanthropic, and that’s very important.”

Nancy agrees, while also saluting the many volunteers they’ve been involved with at the hospital, school and theatre. “They really put in the hours,” she says. “It’s important to point out that it’s not all about just giving a donation; many people are heavily involved in the volunteering aspect in B.C.”

Their Claim to Fame

In 2007, donated $25 million to University of Ottawa’s business school, where Ian studied for his MBA; Nancy chaired the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival Bacchanalia Gala 2007-08; in 2007, also established Fernwood Foundation, which gives to various causes including the Adoptive Families Association of B.C., the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, and West Vancouver’s Collingwood School, to which they gave $1 million (split between 2009 and 2013).

Ryan + Cindy Beedie

Ryan Beedie, president of The Beedie Development Group, and Cindy Beedie, chair of Powell Place’s private capital campaign

“I just think it’s the right thing to do,” Cindy says. “I feel compelled to give back to a community that has given us so much. It’s a privilege to give, but it’s also about walking the talk.”

Part of walking the talk has been donating to the institution where the couple first met in 1986 (“our business success would not be possible without the education I received at SFU,” says Ryan, who took philanthropy advice from Vancouver’s feted benefactor Joe Segal) and connecting people with resources to those who need them at the Powell Place shelter.

Noting that the shelter for women at risk is a “little edgy,” Ryan adds: “Whereas some people might shy away from that and be uncomfortable, we are actually more attracted to it because it’s an area where there is tremendous need and is off the radar. It’s an eye-opening experience to see the lives some people actually experience.”

Just as Cindy suggests how many women at Powell Place arrive there as the result of bad luck, Ryan points to the couple’s own good fortune as a driving force in their philanthropy. “In any business that’s been successful, there are so many factors beyond one’s control,” he says. “We have done well as a company because the market’s been there for us, and we’d be nowhere if it hadn’t been. So if you’ve been so lucky to have had success, should you not reciprocate?”

Both express a desire for their children to know the importance of giving, and Ryan adds a further personal rationale for the donations. “Selfishly,” he says, with a laugh, “another thing that motivates me is that I love it. It feels so good to know that you’re having an impact. The personal, human impact on someone else is so powerful, and it makes me want to work harder and continue to grow the business so we can do more things like that.”

Their Claim to Fame

In 2012, matched donations of $375,000 to expand the Downtown Eastside’s Powell Place women’s shelter; donated $22 million to Simon Fraser University in 2011.

Brian Hill + Andrea Thomas Hill

Brian hill, CEO of Aritzia LP, and andrea Thomas Hill, founder and chair of Cause We Care Foundation

“We both believe strongly in helping others,” Brian stresses. “We believe it’s an obligation, given how fortunately we ourselves are able to live.” Whether that help is advice, money or resources, such as Aritzia’s recent Full of Heart initiative to raise money for Cause We Care, the couple follows the approach of first helping family and those closest to them then working outwards.

Brian says his wife is “a big believer in giving back.” Andrea founded the first Run for the Cure, which raises money for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, in Toronto in 1992; as chair, she was instrumental in taking it across the country in 1994 and sat on the CBCF B.C. chapter for five years after moving to Vancouver in 1999. Her husband explains Cause We Care emerged after observing the grim daily reality of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (Aritzia’s office is in Gastown). “The plight of single mothers living below the poverty line was a cause that really resonated with her.”

Andrea emphasizes the “staggering” statistics around child poverty—that with eight out of 10 lone-parent families in Vancouver being headed by females, 25 per cent of those are living below the poverty line. “If there is something we can do to create a brighter outcome for these families, then we want to try to do it,” she says. “For many, like us, we give for our own personal reasons. We don’t look for loud ways to publicize what we do on a personal level, and many others feel the same way. Everyone knows why it’s important to give back—if you can, you should. It’s pretty simple.” n

Their Claim to Fame

In 2007, set up the Vancouver-based foundation to help local single mothers and their children in need; gave $100,000 plus to the charity’s capital campaign for YWCA Cause We Care House.