All About Estates

Nuns and Money with Purpose

Cornerstone Housing for Women
Booth Residence, Cornerstone Housing for Women, Ottawa

It’s the holidays.  A time for giving, family, and tradition.  The holiday mood inspired me to think about “money with purpose” that passes from one generation to the next – a bit like holiday traditions. Seeing my mother last weekend triggered these thoughts.  She reminded me of a story of how she led a campaign in Ottawa over a decade ago to build housing for vulnerable women.

A Campaign

First, I have to be clear my mother isn’t a “money” person.  She is community person who worked in social planning and services.  Asked to chair a campaign for the Cornerstone’s Booth Centre, her first reaction was to say, “why me?”  She didn’t feel like she had influence or access to wealth needed to lead a capital campaign.  I believe she had an image of charity fundraising leaders as men, businessmen. She hadn’t factored in her knowledge and community credibility.


The campaign’s biggest prospective donor also defied stereotypes. It was a Catholic order of nuns, the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception headquartered in the small Ottawa Valley town of Pembroke.  Cornerstone, by contrast, had its roots in the Anglican Church.

On the drive to Pembroke the CEO of Cornerstone told my mother that it was her job to make the ask.  A deliberate strategy to prevent debate.  They arrived at the mother house and were greeted by three elderly nuns, including the mother superior. As my mother explained the need and the project, the mother superior sat placidly with her head down and her eyes closed. Ottawa had housing for vulnerable men but not for women. The Booth Centre would have 42 rooms. The ask was for $1 million.

Throughout the meeting the mother superior was unresponsive.  Perhaps even asleep. My mother and her colleague were quietly starting to panic. And then the mother superior stirred.  Oracle like she said she had been praying. She knew Cornerstone does the work of God.  The Sisters would support the project. The connection and purpose were clear: an order of women would help the next generation of women experiencing poverty and need.  Religious differences didn’t matter.

Funds with Purpose

Where does a small town religious order of elderly nuns get a spare $1 million?  In the 20th century, religious orders held significant wealth, mostly funded by donations.  Like many orders, the Grey Sisters owned real estate, including hospitals, schools and other social service buildings.  Some was surplus to need as the order shrank in size and reduced its activities.  A property was sold and the proceeds paid forward to help a new charity to serve future generations of women. This was money with purpose in the charitable sector getting a new lease on life.

This story has both estate planning and public policy implications.

Estate Planning

The estate planning lesson arises from the basic question “what if?”  What if the project or program no longer exists?  What if the charity closes?  How do we ensure money isn’t wasted?  The Sisters had money defined by charitable purpose, but they also had long-term flexibility.  They could address new community needs decades after the funds were donated.  If this was a modern endowment fund it would have a “right to vary purpose” clause.

Public Policy

The public policy implications relate to the accumulation of financial and real estate wealth by charities.  As I’ve previously written, charities with wealth have been criticized since medieval times.  Money must be languishing and therefore wasted.  There is no shortage of critics today, especially when the focus is on endowments and foundations.  The story of the Grey Sisters repurposing their money reminds us that wealth in the charitable sector is not lost or stagnant – or at least it should not be.  It stays in the charitable sector.  It can have new uses and address fresh needs.

About Malcolm Burrows
Malcolm is a philanthropic advisor with over 30 years of experience. He is head, philanthropic advisory services at Scotia Wealth Management and founder of Aqueduct Foundation. Views are his own.


  1. Holly Ann Knott

    December 28, 2023 - 6:05 pm

    Thanks, Malcolm. A lovely story for Christmas time, too.
    Holly Ann Knott, KC

    • Malcolm Burrows

      December 29, 2023 - 2:47 pm

      Holly Ann – Thanks for the feedback. Best wishes, Malcolm

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