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In Conversation with Brett Wilson
by Elisa Birnbaum
on March 04, 2013

Brett Wilson

You probably know him best as the affable, lead deal-making Dragon on CBC’s hit Dragons’ Den (the Canadian version of Shark Tank). But Brett Wilson is a lot more than an aspiring entrepreneur’s best hope. A reputed entrepreneur in his own right, Wilson is also one of Canada’s biggest philanthropists. And a vocal one at that.

 

In 1993 Wilson co-founded FirstEnergy Capital Corp., a leading Canadian stock brokerage firm. He became chairman of Canoe Financial, a privately owned investment management firm in 2010. Today he makes most of his investments through his Prairie Merchant Corporation.

 

A no-holds-barred advocate for a more socially minded corporate sector, Wilson believes philanthropy should be viewed as an invaluable opportunity. And he walks the talk, with a list of philanthropic involvements that include Free the Children, Kids' Cancer Care, Right to Play and Outward Bound. He also funded the Wilson Centre for Domestic Abuse Studies at the Calgary Counselling Centre and established the Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence at his alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan.

 

In 2012 Wilson published Redefining Success: Still Making Mistakes, where he candidly explains how his life experiences, including a battle with cancer, inspired him to re-prioritize his life.

 

SEE Change spoke with Brett, who shared his views on the state of the nonprofit sector in Canada, his campaign to encourage greater corporate philanthropy, and his beef with the wealthy who choose to keep their money close to home. Here's an edited version of that interview.

 

You've dedicated a lot of your time and money to giving back. Who inspired your strong sense of philanthropy?

 

I would blame my parents for it. My parents were incredibly community-minded people. My mom did bake sales, taught parenting courses at night to foster parents because it was just the right thing to do. She took part in a swim-athon and didn’t know how to swim. She swam 40 lengths in a life jacket. My dad went door to door and coached every sports team I was involved with. They did things that were outside the norm. Only later in life did I realize, “Wow what incredible role models.” And that’s maybe, just maybe, what inspired me to play along the same way. Over time I started to appreciate that, I too, could do something. It began when my ex-wife and I sat down and said, “Let’s take 1% of our annual earnings, pretax, and give that away at end of year.” It was an incredible start to a process that took off into something bigger.

 

You argue that businesses should view CSR as "Corporate Social Opportunity" not  "Responsibility". Explain how that change in perception could alter corporate behaviour and outcomes.

 

Twenty years ago, we started First Energy with a plan to give away 2½% of our pretax profits every year. It was our charitable giving program. But it was also our marketing program. And that’s the part where some people first looked a little askance, saying, “Giving is supposed to be just from the heart; it’s purely altruistic and you get nothing in return.” I shook my head and said, “Well, why would you do that?”

 

We ran circles around our competition by using charity as our marketing budget. We built relationships, we built connections, we built profile, very quickly. We also built goodwill with our community – and with our staff.

 

I often play with words because they’re important relative to how you perceive an outcome. People talk about being cancer survivors and I have no disdain for that, but I prefer saying I’m a cancer graduate because I’m better for it. I have a more balanced perspective in my life, greater joy than some of my friends who weren’t stricken with that challenge. I often say philanthropy is an opportunity more than it is an obligation, which is where I start to challenge that concept of corporate social responsibility. Anything you do with a sense of opportunity you’re going to do with more enthusiasm than a sense of obligation. The real prize comes when you look at wealth as an opportunity.

 

Listen Up: Brett explains why philanthropy should be defined as “opportunity” and shares his frustration with Gates, Buffet et al. over the common practice of generational wealth transfer, arguing the affluent could be doing a lot more.

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Do you think enough corporations are doing enough of that?

 

No. Not even close. Do we have an amazing corporate culture in Canada that is very philanthropic and community and social-minded? Yes. But I believe they’re doing a fraction of what they could do. I don’t believe the true wealth of our nation is engaged yet in understanding how incredibly valuable corporate social opportunity investing really is for themselves.

 

Why not? What has to change? And how does the issue of generational wealth transfer play into it?

 

Sometimes it comes down to the awareness. Let’s start at the top. I think Buffet and Gates are nothing short of brilliant. But they made the stupidest move. Gates has $50 billion, starts a foundation and starts dealing with inequities in health and education on global basis. Then Buffet says he’ll give $50 billion and all of a sudden they have $100 billion and they’re starting to change the world. Then they decide to get the rest of the guys on board, asking people to give away half of [their] wealth. But, by definition, if you give away half, you keep half. And if you’re keeping it, you usually give it to family.

 

Let’s challenge the thinking. How incompetent are your kids that you need to endow them with half a billion? How big is your ego that your legacy requires that you leave your children with half a billion? How well do children of wealth perform when simply being handed wealth upon death? The ask should have been: why don’t you commit to giving away everything other than what you need to live an exorbitant, amazing lifestyle?

 

What about in Canada, do we deal with the same issue?

 

The amount of wealth that sits in this country, with families making more than 10 to 50 million dollars is extraordinary. And many are into permanent accumulation mode. It’s pathetic. They have no desire to ever let go of any of it. Why? Because they made it. Because they haven’t taken the opportunity to understand what a difference they can make in the world. I give away a lot of money and I encourage others to give away a lot too. I have a lot of money, I live a good lifestyle. But I’m not unique. A lot of people can do that too. I have the unusual benefit of having a profile thanks to a television show. But let’s be clear: What I’ve been doing when it comes to community pre-dates Dragons' Den by a decade. Nothing that I’m doing now is any different from what I’ve been doing for almost 20 years. The amount of money is a bit larger, impact a bit greater. But only as to degree not as to concept.

 

That’s the conversation I’m starting to challenge more and more people with. I don’t believe in endowment funds at all. I believe they should be outlawed, reversed out by tax or by law. I don’t believe naming rights should extend past 10 years past the day you die. Cause you’re dust. Leave it, let someone else have it. And if your children want your memory to survive, if they need a building, they’re not doing a very good job with their emotional connection to you. It all comes back to developing a more disciplined approach to generational wealth transfer; it’s one of the greatest issues people with wealth face. The bulk of our nation is focused on death transfer. And I happen to believe in the opposite.

 

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the social change sector in Canada?

 

It’s really hard to answer. The 20 or 25 years I’ve been socially aware I’ve never heard a time when someone says they’re in good shape. You always hear of challenges, organizations never have enough overhead, money. I’ve run across a few charities that are in good shape; it’s rare but they’re there. Let’s look at breast cancer. It was out-raising prostate cancer by a factor of 20 to one five years ago before Movember. And the incidents and mortality of both diseases are the same. So is breast cancer getting too much or is prostate cancer not getting enough? I bet people in the marketplace say a bit of both. It’s clearly inequitable. But is that breast cancer or prostate cancer’s fault? Clearly it was prostate cancer’s problem. But now they’re up and running. And if they raise $100 million, there are a dozen other causes who are saying, “Can’t we get an inequitable share of this?” Everyone’s competing and they always will be. That’s just a given. It doesn’t bother me. Competition is not a bad thing.

 

Talking about solving social challenges, what do you think of the government’s recent social bond proposal? Some are already saying government shouldn’t be pawning off their obligations.

 

I don’t think we have information yet to make those kinds of judgments. So anyone balking is doing so on the basis of imprecise information. I’m encouraged by having people look at other tools for social engagement. I’m aware of a situation in the UK where the government is saying, “It’s costing us 50k a year per inmate to rehabilitate. If we can reduce the recidivism rate, we would pay for that.” And this is, in effect, how these social bond experiences came to pass. The public sector said, “I think we could take this on, let’s take a crack at it.” And it turns out they were a far more efficient provider of that same service.

 

Photo credit: Heather Fritz

 


Elisa Birnbaum

Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.

 

Comments   

 
0 #1 sheila 2013-05-11 23:44
I have watched Brett on Dragon's Den and knew instinctively this was a man with character...
I would love the opportunity to speak with him...I am a Saskatewanian as well...
I get the feeling he is a person who values others...and having suffered physically is well aware of 'life'
I work with inner city children in Saskatoon and feel it could be of interested to Brett
Quote
 

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