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Charles Bronfman Pilots, Proves, and Partners for Philanthropic Success

Charles Bronfman, son of Seagram Company founder and philanthropist Samuel Bronfman, has followed in his father’s footsteps in many ways, while also forging his own paths. Like his father, he has held many leadership roles; he was Co-Chairman of Seagram prior to 2000 and was principal owner of Canada's first Major League Baseball team, the Montreal Expos, from 1968 to 1990, to name just a few.

Also like his father, Charles has taken an active role in philanthropy. Active for many years, in 1985, he and his wife founded The Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies to set aside money for the causes they really cared about: instilling Canadian national pride and fostering Jewish unity.

As Bronfman has worked towards those goals, he has applied a consistent approach: pilot an idea, prove that it works, and then partner with others to grow it. He did this first with the Canadian film series Heritage Minutes, starting it with thirteen films and growing it to over seventy-five today funded primarily by the Canadian government. Using this same approach, he has since placed an even bigger bet on Taglit-Birthright Israel, a joint project with Michael Steinhardt that sponsors Jewish young adults for 10-day visits to Israel. The initiative, which has been proven to strengthen attendees’ Jewish identity, has sent nearly 300,000 Jewish young adults to Israel since its inception in 1999 and has proudly established a successful funding partnership with the Israeli government.

With most of his major initiatives now growing with the funds of others, Bronfman is winding down his formal philanthropic efforts. He plans to close the doors on The Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies in 2016 with no regrets, believing that they’ve “accomplished everything that any reasonable foundation can ever hope to.”

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I’ve seen many people come into foundations, many business people and perhaps more entrepreneurial than I had been say, “Well, heck, I made a fortune. So if I can do that in business, giving money away, please, it’s easy.” Now, Warren Buffett didn’t think it was so easy. John MacArthur didn’t think it was so easy. And they were right. Because it takes a heck of a lot of work [and] the same passion as you have in your business.

You don’t get your kicks writing a check. You don’t get your kicks coming to an office to stare at the ceiling. The only reason you come to an office is to work with other people, to be effective, get something done and then bask in the glory of what you’ve done. And I bask in the glory of what my children do, I basked in the glory of what my late wife had done.

I always said, 'When I grow up, I’m going to have my own foundation.' The reason for it was that we all give to what we have to give to, and if you live in a community, you give to it, and if you’re Jewish, you give the bulk of your money to Jewish causes.  You take tables here and there for friends – you don’t give a damn about the cause, but it’s a friend, so you go and support them. And I said, 'There’s got to be something that I really give a damn about, and so I’ll separate out the pockets. One pocket will be for the giving I’ve always done, and then I’ll fund something and I’ll give to something that I really, really care about.'

We had two choices within the foundation. We could either spend what we had been spending and really shorten our life, or cut back drastically on what we were spending and carry on for a very long time. We decided that because it was going to be a certain birthday of mine in 2016, that’s when we should close. Now it’s very close, and I don’t regret it at all. We’ve accomplished everything that any reasonable foundation can ever hope to, given our size.

Used to be said in a foundation, you go in and you fund something and three years later, you’re out. That was the common wisdom of those days. But we found out that’s total nonsense, because if you’re in something you’re passionate about, why are you ever going to get out of it? Get other people to join you to make the darned thing bigger. Let it grow.