Why a group of rich millennials are giving their money away - Macleans.ca

Why a group of rich millennials are giving their money away

Resource Movement is helping Canada’s wealthy millennials learn how to redistribute their wealth. Could this be the next great trend in philanthropy?

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The Toronto chapter of Resource Movement meets in an Annex coffee shop. (Photograph by Cole Burston)

Meetings usually begin with a “money story.” Tonight, it’s Ben Waitzer’s turn. “I was always told we were comfortable,” Waitzer tells the other millennials resting their elbows on the picnic table outside a café in Toronto, as he brushes away stray grains of rice from the takeout containers of chana masala and palak paneer. “Not crazy rich like other people.”

The “aha” moment happened when Waitzer was 14, and his family bought a luxurious new five-bedroom home. He asked about the mortgage. “I was told we didn’t have one and that I shouldn’t tell my friends,” he says. Then Waitzer, now a 24-year-old engineer, takes a quick breath and tells the group his net worth.

Waitzer told his money story at a Toronto chapter meeting of Resource Movement, a support group where rich millennials encourage each other to give away portions of their inherited wealth. The group was founded in 2015 as an offshoot of an older U.S. body called Resource Generation whose mandate is to fund grassroots social justice movements. Resource Movement has about 125 members spread across chapters in Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa. They are the children of bankers, tech moguls and mining company executives. Collectively, the group is made up of Canada’s richest—among the top 20 per cent. Most new members hear about the group through word of mouth.

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It’s only after joining and learning about median household income and inheritance—the most recent numbers are $59,800 (after tax) in 2017 and $32,200 in 2012, respectively—that members realize how high up the ladder they really are. Resource Movement recently conducted its first survey asking exactly how much money its members have access to. Of the 39 members who responded, the top income was $238,000 per year and the top inheritance was $10 million.

For some people, Resource Movement is the first place they’ve openly talked about class privilege. In the first six sessions, Resource Movement’s facilitators help members identify the ways in which money has shaped their lives. Program materials are derived from its U.S. counterpart, which is secretive about its content. But its website offers a quiz with questions like: Did you have a credit card from a young age paid for by your parents? Did you grow up with domestic help? Does your family use “summer” and “winter” as verbs?

Some new members come in recounting how their families succeeded through hard work and wise investments, or how their ancestors came to this country with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Through monthly meetings and workshops, members learn to retell their money stories: by identifying who was hurt by their families’ accumulation of wealth. They also emerge with an education in social justice philanthropy—how to return wealth to under-privileged communities through what they call a “giving plan.”

Members of Resource Movement are cagey with outsiders. It’s easy to see why—no one wants to hear how bad it feels to be rich. David Gray-Donald, 31, is one of the co-founders of Resource Movement. He helped bring the model to Canada after attending a conference held by Resource Generation in California. Back in 2014, Gray-Donald blogged anonymously about his feelings: “Being in that demographic of wealth, I can see that young people with/from wealth are suffering in various non-obvious ways in their relationships with money,” he wrote. Today, he squirms at this framing—“suffering” is too strong a word. “People who inherit money, there are some times when that can bring feelings of not having contributed, not having earned it, and they can spiral into all kinds of bad behaviour—addiction, mental health stuff,” he says. Gray-Donald will inherit $1.5 million.

(Photograph by Carey Shaw)

David Gray-Donald, 31

Family’s net worth: $5 million | Yearly income: $41,000 | Co-founded Resource Movement in January 2015 | Reason: “Money was present but taboo growing up. I wanted to investigate and think strategically about my relationship to it.” | Giving plan for 2020: $4,500 | Previous philanthropy: RAVEN Trust, Black Lives Matter Toronto, Indigenous Climate Action, Briarpatch magazine

Income inequality, while not as severe as in the United States, is a growing problem in Canada. The accelerating rise of the income share of the one per cent means the country is approaching levels of inequality not seen since the 1920s.

In 2016, CIBC projected that the next decade will see $750 billion in intergenerational transfers. And inheritances at the top are growing more rapidly than those at the bottom. Wealthy people are more likely to earn money from capital gains, which are taxed at only half the rate of employment income. “If the interest rate is greater than the growth rate, then the capital stock is growing faster than the economy all the time. And it’s growing particularly rapidly for people at the top,” explains Lars Osberg, a professor of economics at Dalhousie University and author of The Age of Increasing Inequality: The Astonishing Rise of Canada’s 1%.

Gray-Donald grew up in Toronto’s wealthy Rosedale neighbourhood with a portrait of his great-great-grandfather hanging above the dining room table—an engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railway. “He was the engineer-in-chief of the CP system starting in 1890, five years after the transcontinental line was finished, which had been made in part through the genocidal actions of the government led by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald starving First Nations on the Prairies,” Gray-Donald writes over email.

In 2012, two years after graduating from McGill, he was working on campus when thousands of angry students began protesting by McGill’s stone front gates. The Quebec government had proposed a tuition hike of 75 per cent. While friends and roommates had taken on significant debt, Gray-Donald’s parents had paid his tuition and living costs.

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As the protests escalated, a top administrative figure at McGill, whom Gray-Donald met at society events, asked him if he could talk to the student government in order to calm the protests. Gray-Donald tried his best to push back, but it was difficult. Through that meeting, he realized that most people didn’t have the same access to authority figures and that he wasn’t making use of the network he had.

Claire Trottier is an assistant professor in the department of microbiology and immunology, also at McGill. Her office is just a few minutes’ walk from the modernist glass-and-white-stone facade of the Lorne M. Trottier Building, which houses the electrical and computer engineering departments and the school of computer science. The building was financed by Trottier’s father. The Trottiers, unlike the Gray-Donalds, are new money. Trottier’s grandfather drove a delivery truck and her grandmother was a secretary at Zellers. In 1976, Trottier’s father co-founded the technology company Matrox. “If you’ve ever watched sports and you see overlays—like you’re watching football and they draw on the screen—the tech that underpins that is Matrox tech,” Trottier explains.

Though some members of Resource Movement recall being in denial growing up—thinking of themselves as “not that rich”—Trottier accepted that she came from money. During high school, her father was the 38th richest person in the country. “What I say is I won the lottery of life,” Trottier says. “I did nothing; I was born into it.”

(Photograph by Will Lew)

Claire Trottier, 39

Family foundation assets: $164 million (as of 2017) | Yearly income: $93,000 | Joined Resource Movement in May 2019 | Reason: “I’d been reflecting on the systems of power and privilege I benefit from and struggling to figure out how to bring about change.” | Giving plan for 2020: in the works | Previous philanthropy: Welcome Collective, MUHC Foundation, David Suzuki Foundation

The Trottier Family Foundation has an endowment of $164 million, and Claire, now 39, is an active board member. Her father has already pledged to donate over half his wealth, but the foundation historically supported the big institutions—universities and hospitals. In the past decade, Trottier and her sister Sylvie nudged the family toward combatting the climate crisis. Initially, Lorne was not convinced. But dinner table conversations ended up in multi-milliondollar donations; climate change is now one of the family’s top priorities. The foundation has partnered with the David Suzuki Foundation and the Ecofiscal Commission to produce reports on how to transition to a low-carbon economy.

Resource Movement’s member survey suggests that its members will control upwards of $41 million in inheritances. In 2018, it donated $136,500 to social justice groups. That’s small change compared to the U.S. group, which pledged to donate $20 million in 2019 alone. But Canada’s group is in its infancy. A months-long fundraising circle last year resulted in $65,000 for frontline activism—organizations like the Caribbean Solidarity Network, the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network and the Migrant Detainee Support Coalition. (Resource Movement members didn’t select the groups themselves, but raised money for Groundswell, a grant-making body. This $65,000* allowed Groundswell to fund five more groups in 2019.)

The group also maintains a “rapid response” support list, a network of about 90 people made up of members’ family and friends. People on the list receive one to two emails a week with a request for help from individuals or organizations devoted to social justice causes. As of October 2019, the rapid response list resulted in a donation pool of $85,000—an answer to 53 requests.

A key initiative in 2018 was contributing to the legal fund of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. For the past 10 years, the First Nation has been suing the Alberta and federal governments over the oil sands projects on its territory. Resource Movement’s donation of $28,000 helped secure a recent victory: in September 2019, a judge awarded Beaver Lake Cree Nation advanced costs, which meant the defendants (in this case the provincial and federal governments) would pay half the plaintiff’s annual legal fees.

READ: Canada’s richest communities 2019

Of the $300,000 a year the Beaver Lake Cree will still have to pay, Resource Movement’s contribution is a small fraction. Though their families are wealthy, many members don’t control the purse strings yet, and it could take a long time before they do. The wave of inheritances expected in the next decade isn’t going to millennials, but to young baby boomers. Some members receive “living inheritances,” sizable gifts passed on by parents, which are becoming more common in wealthy families. But most won’t inherit during their parents’ lifetimes.

At the chapter meeting where Ben Waitzer told his money story, he reminded everyone to sign up for a slot in the upcoming video shoot for the group’s inheritance tax campaign. The idea is to record as many members as possible asking for a tax that flies in the face of their self-interest (although the plan for how to distribute the video is still vague). Both the U.S. and the U.K. impose tax on inheritances over $15.5 million per spouse and $584,000 total (respectively). But in 1971, Canada abolished its inheritance tax at the federal level, and the provinces followed. Jody Chan is a 26-year-old East Asian person who recently started a Black, Indigenous and people-of-colour caucus for the 30 per cent of Resource Movement members who are not white. Chan identifies as genderqueer and goes by the pronouns they/their. “Throughout the history of so-called ‘Canada,’ economic policies have worked to systematically advantage white families and harm or exploit others,” Chan wrote in an email. “From colonization and the parcelling out of land to settlers, to slavery in Canada and the United States, to the Chinese head tax.”

(Photograph by May Truong)

Jody Chan, 26

Family’s net worth: $3 million (approx.) | Yearly income: $50,000 | Joined Resource Movement in September 2018 | Reason: “To unlearn and unpack class privilege.” | Giving plan for 2020: $8,800 | Previous philanthropy: Butterfly—Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, Workers’ Action Centre, No One Is Illegal

Chan estimates that their parents, who are originally from Hong Kong, are in the top five to 10 per cent of earners in Canada. Currently, their father works in finance, but he wasn’t raised wealthy. Chan recalls the stories of their parents’ childhoods—siblings who died of starvation, their father looking forward to receiving a single egg on his birthday. Through Resource Movement, Chan has been learning to steer the conversation to the family’s current finances, but attempts to interest their parents in social justice philanthropy have not been warmly received. Chan says it hurts to be seen as unappreciative, which is what happened when they suggested their father give away five per cent of his income. “I get a lot of, ‘It’s ungrateful of you to ask or to want this because it’s all for you and your brother—your future and your safety.’ ” (Other Resource Movement members have also gingerly referred to conflict with their families over their participation in the group.)

Pascale Diverlus, 25, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter Toronto, first met Gray-Donald in 2016, while protesting outside of police headquarters for two weeks, demanding the name of the officer who had shot and killed Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old South Sudanese man. “David was part of the support network that we relied on to do real allyship,” Diverlus says. That’s why she agreed to take a paid contract with Resource Movement in 2017 to develop curriculum materials and connect the group of mostly white people to movement leaders in the city. Diverlus now sits on an advisory committee to which the Toronto chapter of Resource Movement periodically reports, along with other paid representatives from the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, Justicia for Migrant Workers, Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines, and Defenders of the Land.

A group for rich people who focus on their own personal journeys with money can raise some skepticism, says Brendan Campbell, a 27-year-old Cree and Métis activist. Campbell was paid to help Resource Movement learn about Treaty 6 obligations to Beaver Lake Cree Nation. “But they’re really self-reflective,” he says, “which was very relieving, because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

The advisory committees provide an accountability check. “A small group of wealthy and class-privileged young people aren’t going to dream up a new version of the economy,” Gray-Donald explains. “We’re going to take leadership from other people.”

Gray-Donald has been living in Regina for the past few years, but he’ll be moving back to Toronto in December. It feels uncomfortable, he says, but it’s what he needs to do to take his message back to the circles where he grew up. He’s staying with his mother in Rosedale where “the wealth stuff is more in my face,” he says. BMWs and Teslas line the streets, teams of gardeners do the yardwork and houses have more than six bedrooms.

Gray-Donald has been working on formalizing his giving plan for 2020. He hopes to give away about $4,500, about 10 per cent of his pre-tax income. He also plans to advocate for inheritance and wealth taxes, but he doesn’t have much faith in the Liberal government to implement them. “They’re a party that has always looked out for the rich in their policies,” he says. (Resource Movement is officially non-partisan, but in the recent federal and provincial elections, a few members campaigned in support of the New Democrats.)

When Gray-Donald runs into former classmates from Upper Canada College, the all-boys private high school he attended, they’ve often moved from being sheltered by their parents’ wealth to earning high incomes of their own as bankers, corporate lawyers or entrepreneurs. So far, he hasn’t tried to recruit any wealthy millennials who are hardline conservatives. “People with [more conservative] politics or that mentality can really take over a conversation if they want to,” he says. The group is for people who want to re-educate themselves about the root causes of inequality. “But I’m happy to talk to that person somewhere else.”


This article appears in print in the January 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Young, rich and contrite.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

*CORRECTION: The print version of this story incorrectly stated Groundswell’s fundraising total.