Why Frank McKenna prefers philanthropy to politics

publication date: Apr 28, 2011
author/source: Janet Gadeski

Why don't you give him a goat for his birthday and give me a present for mine? That logical response came from Frank McKenna's grandson when McKenna suggested that he might celebrate the child's eighth birthday by "buying" a goat in his name for a child and family far away.

McKenna persisted in his efforts to introduce his grandchildren to the notion of giving. "The best example a child can have," he told the opening luncheon of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners conference in Toronto, "is the generosity of his parents or peers."

If that's true, McKenna himself must have been surrounded by good examples as a child. His public service record (premier of New Brunswick 1987-1997, ambassador to the US, Order of Canada, eight honorary doctorates) is well known. His work in the nonprofit realm is equally important to him.

Political experience shaped philanthropic views

McKenna's time in politics strengthened his support for the philanthropic sector. "You charities often move in and pick up where political solutions leave off," he notes. And he predicts that legislators will make tough cuts to decrease deficits, adding to the demands on the nonprofit sector.

Since governments need charities so much to do the work they fail to do themselves, he wonders why they're so reluctant to create tools that would help them get their jobs done. Though delighted and relieved by the capital gains tax break for gifts of publicly traded securities, he's frustrated that it took so long. He's critical as well of the continued denial of the same tax exemption for gifts of private securities.

In his view, the real opposition comes from civil servants, not politicians. "They [civil servants] had their minds made up," he charges. "They had no idea of how beneficial such measures would be to the charitable sector." Now, he urges, we need a new rearguard action to resurrect favorable tax treatment for gifts of flow-through shares. That measure vanished with the March 2011 budget. "It's not so much the tax break," he notes, "as it is the greater opportunity for giving."

We're generous; our government, not so much

Almost 84% of Canadians over the age of 15 have made a charitable donation in the past year, he told his audience. Canada ranks third in the entire world for the proportion of its adult population giving to charities. But the Canadian government is not nearly as generous as its citizens. It allocates a measly 0.27% of our GDP given as aid around the world - half of what it gave in the 1990s. Many countries less affluent than Canada nevertheless give a greater percentage of their GDP in foreign aid.

Addressing that gap has become McKenna's philanthropic passion. Though he admits that the scope of the problems seems overwhelming, he believes in doing what one (admittedly well-placed) person can. He's a gala chair with ONExONE, a Canadian development charity active in Haiti. And he's served on the ground delivering supplies, helping with its programs and using his own media appeal to call attention to the country's continuing misery.

Is he making progress with his own grandchildren? The birthday sacrifice idea has been modified - the grandchildren now receive two equal cheques for their birthdays, one for a personal gift and one to give to a charity after careful research and consideration. Family vacations to the Caribbean include delivering a trunk of school supplies to a needy area. He's sure that the most vivid education for his grandchildren comes from that personal contact and hands-on work.

Send Letters to the Editor to janet@hilborn.com; follow Janet at http://twitter.com/CFPed

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