Guest Blog: From Otters to Others – Art Into Philanthropy

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of The Scrivener, the quarterly publication of the Society of Notaries Public of British Columbia.

Have you ever counted up the many different chapters you’ve achieved in your life – ever considered all the names or titles of who you’ve been to others and yourself?

Accepting such changes in your personal perspective can be quite positive, life-affirming even.

Recently I contacted an old friend from the 1990s and talked of family changes and high points of the past decade. He told me of life in Nova Scotia and his work involved with charities, co-operatives, and Indigenous law.

I told him about going back to college, my joinery and other recently acquired trade certificates from North Island College, the wood sculptures, and recent exhibits and sales of my abstract river otters.

“You’ve always been an artist,” he said looking at images I sent from the OneTree Exhibit at the Robert Bateman Gallery in Victoria earlier this year.

I told him about getting a congratulatory letter from the Victoria Foundation regarding the 10-year milestone of creating and providing grants through The Elders and Youth Tribal Governance Fund that they administer for me.

“It’s nice to see you’ve institutionalized your generosity as a philanthropist,” my friend said.  I had never really thought of myself as an artist or as a philanthropist until my respected friend pointed to those designations. Both these functions seem to have recently materialized in my life and I like them.

Effecting change

We talked about small steps individuals can take to improve the world, in Canada’s case individual action towards reconciliation with its Indigenous people… how we can wish for greater change but we can only do what we can within existing systems.  That takes time and political and personal will.

My own story is pretty simple.  A decade ago, in 2007 to 2011, I was working in international development in post conflict environments. The danger pay was good and I had money to invest in developing a small fund to help Indigenous people back home in BC and assist in humanitarian efforts here.

Victoria Foundation CEO Sandra Richardson explained how to easily create a fund and how donor advised grants were an option for me to consider.  With that community foundation, I discussed the positive tax benefits, the way the fund grew in its established structure, the ongoing management of the fund, and specific rules and regulations of grant disbursement.

Most community foundations can help set up funds that are donor advised or that provide many other options that connect the generosity of donors to positively impact people, neighbourhoods, and communities.

The Vancouver Foundation, established in 1943, and the Victoria Foundation, established in 1936, have been working for decades with individuals, corporations, and charitable agencies to create endowment funds whereby the original capital is endowed so it generates income in perpetuity.  In that way the annual income generated by investment can and does support thousands of charities over time.

Shortly after that conversation, I founded the Elders and Youth Tribal Governance Fund with an initial contribution of only $5000 to provide small community grants to promote and preserve Indigenous cultural practices generally in four areas:

  • Services for the Elderly
  • Traditional Sports
  • Arts and Crafts
  • Teaching of First Nations Governance

In the past decade, from donations and good investment management, the fund is valued at $30,000 and can sustain a few grants a year. Small steps, perhaps, but very helpful to most recipients –Elders, students and artists – who don’t have mainstream paychecks.

For instance, in the past three years a $600 student bursary to support Indigenous women graduating from the joinery/cabinetmaking program at North Island College has been initiated and appreciated.

As well, through an ongoing grant to the Victoria Disabilities Network, Elders from a Saanich Peninsula First Nation have had financial travel and accommodation support to attend the annual Elders Gathering.  In some cases, those grants have made a material, even spiritual difference for individuals in being able to see distant family and friends.

In the past 2 years, small grants helped sponsor the 2017 and 2018 Carving on the Edge Festivals in Tofino where many First Nations artists and Indigenous carvers offer workshop demonstrations to all who attend.

Sharing with others

As we move towards retirement, there are many options to staying gainfully active and generous in giving. Some of my friends reflect on a lifetime of service as opposed to chasing entrepreneurial success. There is merit in all approaches.

Wealthy capitalists have pointed out to me that it is their financial success that allows them to “give more” in later life and there is truth in that.  Friends engaged in cooperative, sharing, community, and volunteer activities see a consistent life of nonmonetary giving that also benefits “others”.

Today, as an “artist” I’m moderately successful selling carved abstract river otters in the Robert Bateman Gallery Gift Shop in Victoria, the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea in Sidney, and some community markets during the year – most recently in Tofino and Saanich.

With those sales I am able to donate to the fund, furthering my philanthropy to directly support causes that matter to me.

As our life chapters evolve, we face many options.  Art as an expression… the application of human creativity in itself presents its own rewards as it heals and inspires.  Art can also often generate revenue, multiplying its positive effect through other good work in grants.

Philanthropy is always a great choice to support worthy causes in ways that help, to do good and further the general welfare of others.

As your life chapters change, seek counsel for the best advice. If you need good advice for helping others, contact an organization in your community.

Nigel Atkin teaches the Evolution of Public Relations course online at the University of Victoria.