Distilled: An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy by Charles Bronfman with Howard Green, published in the U.S. by HarperCollins May 2017.


When one is born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth, the incentive to make more money is often simply not there. Instead, I’ve always measured success by achievement, not dollars. My professional and business success with the Expos notwithstanding, my greatest success in life has been in philanthropy – and not just willy-nilly, but strategically, with a sense of purpose, always measuring the results as though the mission were for private enterprise. In all, through my foundation and private giving, we have disbursed approximately $325 million. I wish it could have been more. I often think of how much more I could have done philanthropically with the money lost in the sale of Seagram, because I intensely believe in the causes to which the foundation and I have given. By the time I die, though, in the spirit of Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, and the so-called Giving Pledge, I’ll have given the majority of my wealth to philanthropic causes.

As Jeff Solomon – the president of Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies – and I wrote in our book The Art of Doing Good, when you give, you get. And what you get is immense satisfaction. Jeff and I also shake up the commonly held negative perception of so-called do-gooders. To us, “there are few greater callings.” We make it clear that “a do-gooder is as selfish as the next guy,” because gratification and satisfaction come from what you do for others. As we say, “Philanthropy is not altruism; it is much closer to narcissism.” While my giving has unquestionably done something for others, it has also performed miracles for me. It has nourished my soul.

Just about everything I have done philanthropically relates to who I am, at my core – and my core can be visualized by two halves of an apple. One part is Canadian, proudly Canadian. The other is Jewish, proudly Jewish. In fact, in 1948, when the State of Israel was founded, I had to do some intense soul searching. All of a sudden, at the age of seventeen, I was saying to myself, “Who am I?” Thinking hypothetically, I asked myself, “What if there were a war between Canada and Israel? On whose side would I be?” Clearly, it was ridiculous to think the two countries would go to war, so I tossed that question aside. But I came to a conclusion about what I am: I’m both a proud Canadian and a member of the Jewish people, and those two chunks of my soul have defined my charitable endeavours.

My history with philanthropy goes back to my teens in Montreal, collecting fifty-cent pieces for Jewish charities in a not-so-well-to-do part of the city. That canvassing proved to me, early in life, that you do not need to be rich to be a giver. While half a dollar was not to be sneezed at by middle-class or lower-middle-class people in the late 1940s, it was also not the kind of charitable donation that would get your name on a building. But if there’s a worthy cause, people from all layers of the socioeconomic strata will contribute, make a difference, and feel good about doing so. In fact, as Jeff and I have discovered, while large, marquee donors get a lot of ink, the bulk of giving, at least in the United States, emanates from households with incomes below $100,000. It all adds up.

The charitable thinking of my parents influenced me, of course. During his era, my father was the biggest donor in Canada’s Jewish community, while also being a substantial contributor to broader Canadian causes such as the Red Cross, hospitals, and universities. His operating philosophy was that if the donation was for the Jewish community, eighty per cent of what we gave would come from the family, while twenty per cent would come from Seagram through our corporate giving program. If the donation was for non-Jewish causes, eighty per cent would come from Seagram, while twenty per cent would come from the family.

As for his prominent role in the community, Dad was co-chair of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, president of the Jewish Philanthropies of Montreal, and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. From a more patriotic point of view, he commissioned Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock to write Canada: The Foundations of Its Future, printing 165,000 copies in 1941 – an enormous print run for the country, then or now. Trying to show that Canada wasn’t just a nation of Mounties and igloos, he also sponsored a travelling exhibition of paintings of Canadian cities, and he led the Canadian Jewish fundraising campaigns during the 1956 Suez Crisis and the 1967 Six-Day War. In addition, he famously escorted a future president and prime minister of Israel, Shimon Peres, to Ottawa in 1951 to meet high-profile cabinet minister C.D. Howe in order to secure an order of weapons for the fledgling state. In a humorous episode as they headed back to Montreal for a fundraising dinner, Dad stopped to buy Peres a pair of dark-coloured socks, wisely deciding Peres’s white pair didn’t go with his dark suit. It’s a story Shimon – a friend of some sixty years – never forgot and recounted often.