Lunch with Faye Wightman, executive director of the Canadian Cancer Society

Faye Wightman, executive director of the Canadian Cancer Society

Non-profit veteran Faye Wightman wants companies to play a bigger philanthropic role

At the end of our lunch, Faye Wightman opens up—for the first  time in public—about the painful past at the heart of her 35-year career in philanthropy.

Earlier the executive director of the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) in Vancouver and former CEO of BC Children’s Hospital had mentioned that she joined the not-for-profit world as a 32-year-old, following the suicide of her first husband, Dr. Dominic Donald.

Now, knowing at 68 that the revelation won’t define her career or detract from the organizations she’s worked for, she reveals that Donald was abusive and tried to murder her. The anaesthetist—they met while she worked as a nurse in the open-heart unit at Vancouver General Hospital—injected her with bacteria.

“Only by the grace of God, and that a neighbour happened to come by when I was near death and get me into hospital, did I survive,” Wightman recalls, adding that when he was found out, Donald overdosed on Pentothal and curare. Stressing in correspondence afterward that she doesn’t want it to be the main focus, she describes the event as a “tremendous turning point” in her life. “If somebody who I believed in and thought was worthy of marrying could do that, then evil can be anywhere,” the Kitsilano resident observes. Wightman refused to play the victim. “I was going to be a survivor and not going to be afraid of anything,” she says. “Courage with compassion has been my mantra all these years.”

That kind of boldness quickly sealed her reputation as a tenacious change agent, with few refusing her appeal for donations. At the helm of BC Children’s for 13 years starting in 1985, she saw a 650 per cent increase in revenue. As CEO of the Vancouver Foundation from 2005 to 2013, Wightman was instrumental in shifting its focus to social issues such as loneliness. The foundation’s seminal Connections and Engagement survey in 2012 led to the establishment of the City of Vancouver’s Engaged City Task Force.

Looking at Vancouver today, Wightman doesn’t hold back. Although the provincial numbers from the overdose crisis (a record 914 illicit-drug deaths last year) and the city’s annual homeless count (a 10-year high of 1,847 as of last May) are “scary,” neither is “so overwhelming that we shouldn’t be able to deal with this,” she argues.

The difficult part is getting to the root of why people take drugs, may be reluctant to be housed or lack affordable housing, she says between bites of teriyaki chicken at the Cactus Club near her Cambie Street office. “But we have to stop pointing fingers at each other—we didn’t create this problem, but we all collectively own it.”

Noting that the majority of philanthropic gifts come from individuals, Wightman thinks businesses can do more. For example, she suggests, printers and accountants could offer free services to the not-for-profit sector. Another way to get involved is through impact investing, which can benefit non-profits and deliver financial returns. The province lags in that department, according to Wightman, who calls for more banks to offer impact investments alongside institutions such as Vancouver City Savings Credit Union. “There need to be systems in place to make it easy because it makes a lot of sense,” says the mother of a son in Toronto and a daughter, plus two young grandchildren, in Australia.

Besides, Wightman, whose current role is ensuring the smooth merger of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation with the CSS (April is its well-known Daffodil Month campaign), believes helping others brings satisfaction. “I want to feel when I’m about to go into the grave that I’ve had a successful life because I made a difference.”


1. Last year Wightman scaled more than 4,000 metres of a mountain in Bhutan while trekking with five female friends–although she had to be rescued by the Indian Air Force after developing altitude sickness. “Luckily my insurance company paid the $20,000 for me to be airlifted off,” she says. “I was embarrassed, but I recovered.”

2. She grew up on a farm in Creston, East Kootenay, and learned to drive on a tractor. “Many people would say it accounts for my driving habits now.”

3. Wightman rattles off a slew of “incredible experiences” she’s enjoyed through her work, such as meeting the Queen and Prince Philip, the Dalai Lama, the Clintons, and Bill and Melinda Gates. Equally important to her: “The parents of children with cancer show such incredible courage and compassion–I’ve been so blessed.”