Why—and how—Frank Giustra spent the year helping Syrian refugees

2016 taught the billionaire the value of letting a philanthropic philosophy evolve

Frank Giustra has spent roughly two decades giving money away, but every year teaches him something fresh about philanthropy. This year was no different. Giustra took on a new cause starting in fall 2015: the Syrian refugee crisis, which has seen him travel to Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan since then. “It really has taken over my life in a way I would never have imagined,” he says.

Giustra, who made his fortune as a Vancouver-based mining financier and a founder of Lions Gate Entertainment, set up the Radcliffe Foundation in 1997 to enhance children’s welfare, health and education, among other causes. A decade later, he joined forces with former U.S. president Bill Clinton to create the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, which concentrates on poverty alleviation. Both are large, sophisticated organizations undertaking complex tasks. But what crystallized for Giustra in 2016 is that small, targeted and relatively low-cost projects can have an outsized impact.

Last year, Giustra’s friend and fellow philanthropist Amed Khan convinced him to visit Greece to see first-hand the plight of Syrians crossing the waters between Turkey and Greece to reach the island of Lesbos. “People would land in boatloads, with nothing on them,” Giustra says. From there, refugees would walk roughly 65 kilometres to the other end of the island to board a ferry to Athens. While there were volunteers on the shore to hand out basic provisions, in Giustra’s view, the effort wasn’t organized. So the Radcliffe Foundation donated $500,000 to the International Rescue Committee to help establish a reception centre on the island, providing those arriving with food, clothes and medical treatment. “It wasn’t even a lot of money to build it, but no one else was doing it,” Giustra says.

The reception centre marked the beginning of a number of other similar initiatives in the region this year, such as helping improve search-and-rescue efforts in the waters around the island. Giustra later visited a few informal settlements outside Izmir, Turkey, where thousands of refugees stayed before journeying to Greece. The conditions were dismal, Giustra recalls, and the Radcliffe Foundation worked with the rector of the University of Izmir and others to fund basic supplies and medical care.

Giustra’s current priority is to provide housing for displaced people who are essentially stuck in Greece. (In response to the influx of Syrians fleeing the civil war, some European countries have effectively shut down routes refugees commonly use to travel beyond Greece, leaving them in limbo.) “I’ve gone to visit a number of these refugee camps run by the government over the past few months, and the conditions are very bad,” Giustra says. The Radcliffe Foundation partnered with the Greek ministry of migration to renovate an abandoned clothing factory north of the port city of Thessaloniki to house refugees. Earlier this year, the facility accepted 160 people; the goal is accommodate up to 800. The model is scalable and relatively low-cost, all things considered. “There are a lot of abandoned apartment buildings in Greece since the 2008 financial crisis,” Giustra points out.

He is not boasting, but rather illustrating that simple philanthropic initiatives can have great influence, especially as the gap between the rich and the poor widens. Wealth inequality breeds unrest and can lead to a dangerous political climate—which, in his view, partly explains the rise of president-elect Donald Trump. “People are angry because they feel like they’ve been screwed over by the system,” he says. “But creating demagogues is not the answer. The answer is to be truthful about how these issues came about and to do something about it.”

That’s why, after such a tumultuous year, Giustra argues that, yes, it’s more important than ever for the wealthy to write cheques, but it’s also essential for them to refine their giving to reflect changing needs. “There’s no way to spend a billion dollars,” he says. “I’ve sat with a piece of paper and tried to make a list of all the things a billionaire could buy. There’s a lot left over.”