Stuart and Claire Webster are a successful couple with two young children at home and a son attending university. They own and manage a successful business, have a full social calendar, and yet they dedicate a significant amount of time and financial resources to philanthropy. They come from different backgrounds – but share a passion for giving that has enriched their lives as individuals and as a couple. Stuart is from a well-established Montreal family tracing its Montreal origins back to the late 19th century. Claire describes her family background as ‘working-class’. Their families may have been at different ends of the economic spectrum, they shared the benefit of having loving families. While their journeys to philanthropy originated from different backgrounds; the road Stuart and Claire now travel as a couple brings tremendous contributions to the organizations they assist. Along the way, they faced and overcame a deep personal challenge.

Stuart and Claire met on a blind date fifteen years ago.  Six months later (to the day), Stuart proposed and they have been a team ever since. Claire’s spontaneous exuberant nature is balanced by Stuart’s calming influence. “Claire’s the rapids and I’m the calm waters in our family;” Stuart says with a wry smile.

Stuart and Claire Webster

Stuart and Claire enjoy getting
out of the city to decompress

“Philanthropy was an important part of my upbringing – it was ingrained in me from a young age as being necessary. I learned that it brings me great joy and happiness.” With this statement, Stuart opens our conversation about the importance of philanthropy and his commitment to the organizations he supports. “I don’t have any expectation for a return – other than the satisfaction I feel from making a contribution. It’s important for me to feel connected to the organization – and to do that I have to learn and visit with them.”

Claire adds; “My Mom was a role model to the importance of giving time. We didn’t have much money and my Dad had poor health – so it was Mom who was always volunteering in the community and for my school. I learned at a young age that you can’t take anything for granted – and that giving your time and effort can be an important contribution.”

Claire’s family situation meant that she started working early. “I started working at a packaged goods company when I was 16. I was good at what I did, but I felt that I could help others; and I went to see about volunteering at a local Y. To my surprise; I learned that just 25% of the Y’s activities were related to sport – and that the larger 75% was dedicated to community outreach. The more I learned about the Y’s activities and service to the public – I realized that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to work in philanthropy. It was an exciting time for me; realizing that I had an opportunity to work at something that I was passionate about.”

“The local Y asked me to visit the people at the downtown main office. This was around the time when the Downtown Y was into a major renovation and fundraising campaign. They were impressed with my marketing and public relations background from the packaged goods industry. They asked me to be a spokesperson for the YMCA and helped them in their fundraising.” Claire worked with the Quebec YMCAs from 1996 to 2003 as the Director of Fundraising, Communications and Membership Services.

Claire transformed her sales and marketing expertise from the packaged goods industry to fundraising for the Y and other foundations. Stuart was also in demand on the fundraising circuit, receiving many requests – each one worthy; for a financial donation and time commitment. “We were attending five to eight galas a year; and we started to wonder if this was the best way to make a contribution.” Claire noted.

Claire’s father passed away in 2005, and the following year her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Claire absorbed more and more responsibility, looking after her mother, the children, her job and her multiple foundation commitments. “In a way – I was driven to be supermom, super daughter, super wife. One day I called Stuart and said: ‘I’m done – I can’t do this anymore’. I was broken.”

After years of constant stress trying to fulfil her different roles, without maintaining a balance; Claire was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She sought treatment and gradually got better. “I was angry about what was happening to my Mom, this woman who for so many years had given so much of herself. I learned how to convert that anger to helping other caregivers. Sometimes even a few hours of respite can make a big difference.”

Stuart and Claire WebsterStuart adds. “I used to say ‘Yes’ to everyone, but realized that I was doing myself a disservice. You can only divide yourself up in so many ways. It’s important for me to have a conversation with myself to make sure that I’m going to have a focus with any organization that I support.”

“Our approach is not the traditional one of writing a cheque – although we recognize that is an important part of philanthropy. Our engagement involves a commitment of time, energy, intellect and our connections; in addition to writing a cheque. We believe that we should really understand and ask questions so that we can align ourselves and really feel a part of any organization that we support. We believe that we need to roll up our sleeves and get involved in a positive way. We’re not there to run the place – but we can offer ideas, organizational suggestions and connections.”

Stuart adds; “We’re fascinated by the ripple effect of making a contribution. Each person’s contribution can encourage another to donate time or money, and then another and another. In turn, the organization helps more and more people, they purchase materials, and they buy services for the people being assisted. The money continues to ripple through the economy and the effort follows a similar pattern.”

Claire has recently accepted to Co-Chair the annual Museum Ball for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “Until I became involved with The Museum, I didn’t realize that the MMFA has outreach programs involving four hundred community organizations. That kind of community outreach is really important to me. A lot of our focus comes from personal experience – and it helps us to be more impactful.”

Claire believes that philanthropy should be taught in schools. “Ideally it would be a shared family experience – but unfortunately that doesn’t happen with enough regularity at home. In schools, fundraising and philanthropy can be a great activity. For example, St. Georges’ School supports twenty-five charities. The students are enthusiastic about helping others – and they’ve discovered that they feel good about themselves by being involved.”

Stuart adds; “Philanthropy is part of a healthy society, and should be part of a school curriculum.”

Stuart and Claire Webster represent a ‘next generation’ view of philanthropy that involves a deeper commitment and participation to the foundations and charities that they support. In doing so – they have discovered that it’s effective for the receiving organizations. The unintended consequence is that they have found a greater personal gratification. Hopefully it’s a model that will encourage others to look at philanthropy with a renewed interest.