Faye Wightman, CEO, Vancouver Foundation

Vancouver Foundation CEO Faye Wightman talks about Canada's philanthropic community, sending money overseas, and maintaining support from the private sector. (Return to B.C.'s Top 100 of 2011.)

Faye Wightman says she doesn’t back down easily in life, nor does she when approaching potential donors.

Vancouver Foundation CEO Faye Wightman talks about Canada’s philanthropic community, sending money overseas, and maintaining support from the private sector. (Return to B.C.’s Top 100 of 2011.)

In the corporate world, you don’t often see the eyes of chief executives moisten when they talk about their work. But Faye Wightman is no ordinary CEO. Her work is creative philanthropy, and the things that give her an emotional buzz have little to do with quarterly earnings or marketing strategies.

“It takes so little to make a difference in somebody’s life,” she says. Wightman heads the Vancouver Foundation, which manages $750 million, making it Canada’s largest community foundation. As an example, she’ll talk about funds that go to the family of a paraplegic child to create a more user-friendly home. Or a few hundred dollars to have a weekly beauty night for single homeless women in the Downtown Eastside. Or a $100,000 grant to help disadvantaged artists hone their skills

“Those are the high points for me,” Wightman says. “I don’t care if we are the biggest in Canada. But what difference are we making? That’s more important.”

Still, it is the foundation’s size and its strategic independence from government, that gives it such clout in the philanthropic community. It’s not really a charity, but rather a manager of individual private funds – 1,400 of them, contributing to everything from arts and culture, to education, to health care. Last year these funds distributed a total of $60 million to programs throughout the province, most of it from donors who are assisted and advised by a Vancouver Foundation staff of 45. The foundation also has discretionary spending of $8 million a year.


Wightman calls the foundation a “strong neutral convener” that brings together the private sector, the government and the non-profit agencies to set priorities determining where help is most needed. Meanwhile, as a fundraiser, she’s a natural, with a combination of charm and grit that disarms reluctant donors. “I don’t back down very easily in life,” she says with a smile. “What’s the most that can happen? They say no. Big deal!”

They don’t say no very often. In a previous position, as CEO of B.C. Children’s Hospital, Wightman was largely responsible for a 650 per cent increase in revenue over a 13-year period. Hers is an aptitude in increasing demand. The proliferation of needy causes around the world – for victims of earthquakes, floods and famines – along with government restraint on spending, is making it harder and harder for charitable organizations to raise money for causes here at home.

“Nowadays there are so many asks out there,” says Wightman, choosing her words carefully. “It’s become the vogue to send money internationally. There’s a part of me that believes strongly that you should do both – to look after your home community and to look beyond as well.”

One of her great challenges, she says, is to convince the private sector to maintain its level of support year after year. She explains that in a tight economy, there are ways of giving that don’t necessarily involve money. For example, corporations could donate their expertise to charities instead of cash. It’s all part of creative giving, says Wightman.

In the end, it’s more than charity, she insists. It’s elementary civics. “You’ve lived here, you’ve made your money here. You’ve had a good life. Now it’s time to give back.”