Editor’s note: In celebration of National Philanthropy Day 2013, Friday, Nov. 15, Western News reprints an edited version of a speech delivered by Western Chancellor Joseph Rotman on ‘venture philanthropy’ to the Canadian Club of London on Oct. 31.
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When I turned 60, I faced a decision on how to use my resources. I decided to step aside from business and commit to public service. I started with health research, which led to the public policy of health research which, eventually, led to the innovation agenda for both the province and the country.
To each, I have dedicated my resources – just as every one of us must address how to prioritize our resources.
Today, I ask you to reflect on this aspect of your life.
Each person must think about legacy. Deciding what to do with your resources is never settled in a single moment, but rather in a continuing – occasionally messy – process. Even if you focus on what is important to you, it is difficult to know whether your choices are right. There will always be people pushing to have you with them rather than somewhere of your own choosing. These concerns often lead to feeling not in charge of your own destiny.
Therefore, your legacy should be top of mind at every stage of your life.
There is no doubt one must direct their precious energy into building a career or a business; however, you are also citizens of a community with responsibilities, values and beliefs. Therefore, reflect upon how you allocate your time, your ability and your money.
Every decision is a statement about what matters to you; invest in a way consistent with these.
You are going to have a legacy whether you like it or not. Therefore, it would be helpful to shape and articulate it.
What became important for me at 60, when I retired from business, was I wanted to have a positive and enduring impact on society as a citizen. Fortunately, I had the freedom to make that choice. My only regret, which happens to many, is I did not start thinking about my legacy earlier. I wish I had turned from business to public service when I was 50 instead of 60.
My advice is to consider what I call ‘venture philanthropy’ as a vehicle, or as a means, and as a path. Venture philanthropy is a way to think about how your desired legacy can become a catalyst for action, not later, but now.
My father taught me the most powerful way to inspire others to participate in philanthropy is for them to see individuals giving. I think many of us have heard similar words. You don’t become leaders in your community without understanding that reality at some point.
But as I prepared these remarks, I heard echoes of another more important piece of fatherly advice: Don’t just write a cheque and walk away. My father taught his children, and lived his life, on the belief that writing the cheque was the easy part.
It is giving of one’s time and ability that is more difficult.
He believed if you contribute time, ability and money, anything is possible.
Reflecting back, it is amazing how those words have come to define, specifically, my views on philanthropy over the past 40-plus years. It’s not a matter of me asking a single question like, ‘How much can I give?’ Instead, it is asking a series of questions that probe my willingness dedication: ‘How can I use my business and entrepreneurial skills to improve society?’ ‘How can I build something necessary that does not exist today?’ ‘How can I address positive transformation of an existing organization through my entrepreneurial ability?’
When you consider the answers to these questions, and see the opportunities, you start to see the difference.
‘How much can I give?’ requires only a dollar figure as an answer. Many philanthropists see a need and fill it withcash donations – an MRI machine, a building or a scholarship. That is a wonderful outlet for your philanthropy and will lead to continued progress in specific organizations. These gifts are needed and allow our institutions to move forward. And I have been a part of that effort in many cases.
But there is this other way, one I find far more rewarding, which is venture philanthropy.
I have enjoyed creating solutions in areas where work is either in its infancy or, in a few cases, didn’t exist at all. That’s why I and others refer to it as venture philanthropy; like venture capital, it is high risk with high rewards.
To get an idea of what venture philanthropy clearly means, consider that this type of giving requires much more than deciding where to put your money, it is a decision of where you wish to invest your time and ability while at the same time providing only the early or seed capital funding for the venture.
Venture philanthropy has a way of focusing you on what is meaningful to you and to which you will be associated by your prioritization, dedication and determination. It is similar to starting up a news business.
All this is not a matter of social do-goodedness on my part. It’s not that I am altruistic or I’m ‘giving back.’ I am simply playing my part in creating a greater society by doing what I love to do and finding meaningful and rewarding involvements for myself.
This type of philanthropy has allowed me to live a life of experiences beyond my wildest expectations as a young man.
Recently, as I sat as chancellor overseeing Western’s convocation, I saw the faces of hundreds of our country’s best young minds heading into the world for the first time.
I hope they understand a meaningful life is not limited to those who can afford to pursue it, but should be seen as an opportunity available to every person. The lucky ones are those who can find and pursue their passion, who do not fear obstacles or failures, who accept doubt and skepticism from others but follow their hearts and minds. The pursuit of dreams leads to the courage to pursue it.