Richest People

Canada’s Richest People 2015: How to give away $100 million

It’s what happens after the cheques have been cashed that matters, says Donna Slaight

UPDATED for 2018!: Canada’s Richest People — The Top 25
Donna Slaight of the Slaight Family Foundation

Donna Slaight at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: “We like to help people here and now.” (Portrait by Lisa Petrole)

Through the Slaight Family Foundation, you and your husband, Gary Slaight, and his father, Allan, gave $100 million to six Toronto hospitals last year, including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Do you have somebody who helps you decide where and how much to give?

We have a wonderful woman who coordinates our monetary philanthropy. We have parameters and objectives to what we’re doing. We like to fund programs rather than buildings. Capital campaigns are usually for buildings, so we don’t do that or endowments, where the money is invested. We like to help people here and now.

How do you choose which causes and issues fall within the scope of the foundation?

Our gifts to the hospital were all directed because there was a personal connection. We have actually developed a really nice relationship with the hospitals and the doctors because we have specific goals. We said that we would like to help them, and told them it would not be a capital campaign or endowment. So they presented us with a shopping list. We looked at programs at the hospitals, or machinery that was unavailable to help people. The hospitals are places where you can help the most amount of people in a very desperate time in their lives. Who hasn’t been to an emergency department? I’ve spent a lot of time at St. Michael’s Hospital emergency department with family members, so we really knew that there was a need to rejuvenate it because emergency departments take a heavy hit.

You’re also a director on the board at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Why did you choose to work with CAMH?

For a couple of reasons. In any given year, one in five Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction problem. The treatment of mental illness now—it’s a frontier and there was a lot to do here. Many other places, hospitals that you go to, you have the feeling that they’re working at capacity. But because of the stigma of mental health, CAMH didn’t have anything like an auxiliary or direct contact with the clients or the volunteers coming in. It’s a more complicated process. So there was a lot to do. And it gives me great pleasure. Every time I’ve come here, I’ve learned something.

You’ve taken the lead on the centre’s Gifts of Light program, which allows donors to buy specific items for patients, from a pair of new pyjamas to education scholarships. What led to this particular campaign?

Although I’m on the board, I wanted to do something grassroots. I wanted to do things that would help the clients and the patients of CAMH right now. I was humbled last year when I was helping at a Christmas luncheon. I was wondering why we weren’t doing it buffet style, because that would have been way more efficient. The staff told me, “Donna, they never get served, they always wait in line. It’s a really special thing that you can actually serve them.” What a lesson to learn.

How do you decide between donating money versus your time?

If you can donate money and that’s where you are right now, that’s terrific. That’s just not where I wanted to be. It’s all good. But if you don’t have money, and you have time—that’s wonderful. I value it just as highly as being able to be give monetarily.

Where else are you donating your time?

As far as my own, personal things that I do, I have two organizations that I dedicate time to: One is CAMH, and the other is Human Rights Watch, where I am the chairman of the Canada committee. My husband’s interest and background has always been in music and the entertainment industry, so we have programs to mentor musicians. We also have a mentorship program at Soulpepper Theatre. That’s his area. It’s his real love, and it kind of blossoms from there.

How do you think others can give back?

I think giving back means taking an interest in your community wherever it is, and doing something small. People think you have to do big things, but you don’t. A couple of hours a week makes a difference.