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Give while you live: Donald K. Johnson’s historic $1M gift to the GGPAA

Donald K. Johnson

Canadian philanthropist and businessman Donald K. Johnson was born and raised in Lundar, Manitoba and currently lives in Toronto, Ontario. Known for being one of the most successful investment bankers on Bay Street, Mr. Johnson is also recognized for advocating tax changes to encourage philanthropy and for his incredible generosity toward Canadian charities. 

On February 24, the National Arts Centre Foundation announced a historic $1 million donation from Mr. Johnson in support of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards. In celebration of his gift, we asked Mr. Johnson a few questions about his gift and the impact he’s made on the Canadian charitable sector.

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Q: What motivated you to give a leadership gift to the National Arts Centre to support the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards?

I have a deep belief that the arts are an integral part of our Canadian social fabric. For many years, I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Governor Generals Performing Arts Awards (GGPAA) to celebrate our great Canadian performing artists and see them rewarded for their excellence. I am saddened that the 2020 GGPAA was cancelled and that the 2021 Awards needed to be held online due to the pandemic. I am hoping that my gift will ensure that the GGPAA Gala will continue every year going forward; it is an honour to support the GGPAA, especially during these challenging times. 

Q: Do you have any memories of attending the GGs Galas over the years that stand out?

I have many fond memories of these Galas. However, celebrating Karen Kain as an award recipient was a real highlight, given her 50 years with the National Ballet of Canada, including many years as Artistic Director. I’ve known Karen for many years and seeing her being celebrated for her contribution to ballet was truly gratifying.

Q: You recently wrote your memoir Lessons Learned on Bay Street… what is the best piece of advice or lesson you can share from your extraordinary career?

I think the most impactful advice I can give is the importance of focusing on an issue that is dear to you with persistence and determination. Especially, one that benefits the lives of others in your local community, as well as Canada. I learned this lesson in business, but more so with our campaign to have the capital gains tax removed on gifts of listed securities in the federal budget. However, while we were happy with our success in 2006, we knew we had much more work to do. To this day, I continue to work on advocating the federal government to remove the capital gains tax on private company shares and real estate. I hope our tenacity will pay off in the 2022 budget! The sub-title of my book is “THE SALE BEGINS WHEN THE CUSTOMER SAYS NO”.

Q: You have long been an advocate for tax changes to encourage philanthropy. What would you tell policy makers today about why this is so important?

We need to support our charitable organizations now more than ever. The pandemic has left charities, who are facing a surge in demand for their services, with grave concerns about funding decreases. The removal of the capital gains tax on charitable donations of listed securities in 2006 resulted in charitable donations of stock of over $1 billion virtually every year. We strongly urge the policy makers to capitalize on this success by removing the capital gains tax on charitable donations of private company shares and real estate in the upcoming budget. This change is estimated to stimulate an additional $200 million per year every year going forward, which will help fund the critical work that our charities, serving millions of Canadians, do.

Q: Why do you believe people should “give while they live”?

Giving while you live results in the beneficiaries of your donation experiencing the benefits much earlier. Also, the giver has the satisfaction of seeing that their donation is making a real difference in the lives of many. My gift to the GGPAA gives me satisfaction in knowing that the performing arts have more funding so that they can continue to flourish. Philanthropy is a true passion for me. Two of my favourite expressions are: “It’s better to give it away with a warm hand than a cold hand”, and “He who gives while he lives also knows where it goes.”

Join more than 6,500 champions of performance, creation and learning by supporting Canadian artists, educators and students through the NAC Foundation.


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