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This year, Donald K. Johnson celebrated his 80th birthday as many do: There was a party with friends and family. There were toasts honouring the man. There was a cake. But the biggest gift wasn't wrapped, and it wasn't even for the birthday boy; but rather from the birthday boy.
Giving thanks and paying it forward
Don, together with his wife, Anna McCowan-Johnson, announced to those gathered that they were donating $10 million to the Donald K. Johnson Eye Centre to support leading-edge vision science research and advanced clinical treatments. This gift is in addition to their original contribution of $5 million made in 2007.
"Anna and I have been fortunate and are thankful for having enjoyed a happy and successful life," says Don.
"We believe that we all have a responsibility to give back to the communities that have enhanced our lives. We want to do whatever we can to help make Toronto and Canada be an even better place in which to live."
A new career path
Don was born and raised in Lundar, Manitoba. After graduating from high school and earning his BSEE from the University of Manitoba, it looked as though he was set for a career as an electrical engineer.
But Don soon determined it was the marketing and finance side of the business that appealed to him. A fortuitous meeting while working on the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line in the Canadian Arctic, with a person who had an MBA degree from the University of Western Ontario Graduate Business School, gave Don the impetus to follow a new path.
After graduating as the gold medallist in his class at Western in 1963, Don began his career in the investment industry and quickly made his way up the ranks into management positions. Throughout his career, he has been known for his tenacious work ethic – he just recently cut back to working only five days a week – and has a reputation on Bay Street for being a rainmaker. In 2013, he was one of the four inaugural inductees into the Investment Industry Association of Canada's Hall of Fame.
Needless to say, Don is very selective when investing his and Anna's money.
'The best in Canada'
"We like to give to not-for-profit organizations that are the best at what they do. The Eye Centre is recognized as the best in Canada and as one of the top five in North America. Over time, with help from donors, we know it will be recognized as one of the leading centres globally."
Two-thirds of the funding from their most recent gift will be directed toward basic research and one-third to clinical research. Basic research will enhance the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of eye disease over the long term, while clinical research will have a more immediate impact on patient care.
"We hope that this gift will help the Eye Centre to attract and retain the best and the brightest ophthalmological researchers and clinicians. We also hope it will inspire the Centre's grateful patients and their families and friends to give."
'A 20-year advocacy campaign '
Although Don and Anna's impact at UHN has been significant, Don is most proud of the success of his efforts to lobby the federal government to remove the capital gains tax on charitable donations of listed securities he started two decades ago. At the time, very few understood the positive impact the change would have on Canada's not-for-profit sector.
"Prior to 1997, virtually no one donated listed securities to charities because they had to pay a capital gains tax when the shares were transferred to a charity. Virtually every year since 2006, Canadian charities have received over $1 billion in donations of stock."
Former Finance Ministers Paul Martin and Jim Flaherty and current Finance Minister Joe Oliver knew that it was the right move to make, and Don's tenacity played a significant part in the change happening.
During the past five years, he has been successfully advocating that the government remove the capital gains tax on gifts or private company shares and real estate. This significant change will go into effect after 2016 and will likely result in an additional $200 million per annum of charitable donations.
"I want to extend a special 'thank you' to my darling wife Anna for her inspiration and support during that 20-year advocacy campaign."
Forever an optimist, Don is hopeful about the future of giving in the country.
"I'm excited about the future of philanthropy in Canada," says Don.
"Charities have an enormous opportunity to cultivate relationships with prospective donors who have an interest in giving back to their community and who want to make a real difference."