Alison Lawton, Canada
In 2009 a shocking announcement landed in the in-boxes of editors and media professionals across Canada: The University of British Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism would receive $1 million to start an international reporting program that would send grad students and faculty "into the field" to cover stories that weren't getting told elsewhere.
It was the first, and, to date, only gift on this scale received by a media project in Canada – and perhaps one of the few of its size in the world. The benefactor was successful Vancouver-based investor and businesswoman Alison Lawton through her charity, the Mindset Social Innovation Foundation, which tries to highlight and solve overlooked problems.
Ms. Lawton made her money through shrewd investments in Vancouver's coveted real estate market and in various high tech start-ups. She now runs Winfield Venture Group, a boutique investment and private equity firm. Even though Lawton is not a household name to many Canadians, the company she keeps certainly is: Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson, Bill Clinton (her ex-husband, Frank Guistra, a billionaire mining executive and onetime movie studio founder gave $100 million to Clinton Global Initiative). She's had personal audiences with Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.
The recipient, at least in terms of administering the unprecedented donation, was Peter Klein, an award-winning American "60 Minutes" producer who was teaching investigative journalism at the university. Lawton met Mr. Klein through a mutual friend.
In 2009, Lawton had recently finished work on a documentary that took three years and $1 million of her own money. "Uganda Rising" tells the story of the Southern African country's child soldiers. Afterward, Klein asked her what she would have done differently if she could do it again.
"I told him that I was emotionally exhausted because I had traveled there and witnessed firsthand some things that were difficult and challenging to witness...," says Lawton. "And I said, 'well, if I were to do it again, I would really like to find a partner and I'd really like to invest, you know, a million dollars in continuing to uncover those stories that are underrepresented in mainstream media.' "
Klein, for his part, didn't want to teach international reporting "in a void," having his students call experts and refer to other people's stories. "If I was going to teach it, I wanted to teach it in the field, so I proposed that to her and she seemed to really like the idea," says Klein.
Mindset now provides $100,000 a year to send 10 students and two faculty abroad. "You know, one thing about Alison that I've discovered is she approaches her philanthropy the way a lot of businesspeople approach their business, which is not uncommon I think with philanthropists," says Klein. "They got to where they are by making really prudent decisions, making sure what they invest in has yield and pays off well."
Pay off it has. The first major story produced through the program, a coproduction with PBS's "Frontline," tracked global electronic waste as it made its way to the developing world for disposal. "Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground" won the 2010 Emmy for Best Investigative Magazine. More recently, students produced "The Pain Project," a multimedia series that looks at the lack of pain medications available to citizens of poor countries. The program partnered with Al Jazeera and CBS, among others.
"People say I'm a social venture philanthropist," says Lawton. "But I'm really into the start-up phase – you know, seed funding, taking an idea that isn't proven and try to find a way to prove it out ... really putting a significant amount of money behind an idea that I think matters."