Oysters, Pilots Get Hunk of $50 Million Royal Bank of Canada Aid

John Taft
John Taft, chief executive officer of RBC Wealth Management. Taft oversees Royal Bank of Canada's Blue Water Project that will award grants totalling $50 million to fresh water projects through the year 2017. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Chesapeake Bay oysters are in terrible trouble. Blame pollution, disease and overharvesting -- current numbers may be less than one percent of historical levels.

Oysters are not simply gourmet delights. Their filtering system helps keep water clean and clear, and many fish species thrive in oyster reefs.

When the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was looking for funding to help the oysters, aid came from a surprising source: a Canadian financial institution.

The U.S. unit of the Royal Bank of Canada gave Chesapeake Bay $110,000 for the project.

“Water is an iconic central resource,” said John Taft, 58, chief executive officer of RBC Wealth Management USA, by phone from his office in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“We cannot survive without clean water, and water resources around the world are depleting,” he added. “The Chesapeake Bay’s watershed touches more than 15 million people, so it has an impact.”

Through its Blue Water Project, the 10-year, $50 million program the bank launched in 2007, Canada’s biggest lender by assets seeks to become a leader in boosting water programs globally.

“The RBC program is very significant to the conservation community,” Pam Wilson, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s director of corporate and foundation development, said by phone. “RBC has significant reach and depth and can bring forward issues of environmental concerns.”

Blue Water

In the past five years, the bank has awarded $32 million in aid to more than 450 water-related projects and organizations mainly in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and the Caribbean.

The Blue Water project is also a way for the bank to build its philanthropic profile outside its Canadian base, Taft said.

“As a financial institution, we’re in the stewardship business,” Taft said. “You just can’t be in it; you have to live it and breathe it.”

The bank’s philanthropic largesse also came to the aid of Wyoming-based nonprofit LightHawk, which enlists 200 volunteer pilots to assist educational tours and help sustainability projects, including water conservation.

The first $80,000 installment of RBC’s 3-year $240,000 grant to LightHawk helped the organization cover about 20 percent of its $1 million annual budget.

More Flights

“This has increased our capacity to provide flights,” Laura Stone, LightHawk’s director of annual giving and foundations, said by phone.

RBC’s past grant recipients include the New York Harbor Foundation, National Geographic Society, the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Friends of the Mississippi River, the James River Association in Richmond, Virginia and the Woodland Trust in the U.K. to support the growth of trees for cleaner water and flood management.

“The quality of the organization asking for money is critical,” Taft said. “The question is: Do they have a track record to deal with water issues?”

RBC doesn’t have the ecological field all to itself: J.P. Morgan, the investment banking unit of JPMorgan Chase & Co., gave $1 million last year to Planet Water’s AquaTower projects to help provide drinking water for 100,000 people in six Asian countries.

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