Leading By Example

For Gary Nissen, helping people in need is a way of life

WHEN GARY NISSEN was 10 years old, he rushed home with a book from the school library — The Cookbook For Boys. “I’m going to make a western omelette,” he told his mom excitedly. “Where do I find the minced ham, chopped onions and beaten eggs?”

As he examined the pages, he realized he needed help. “With a smile and in her usual compassionate, respectful and patient way, she showed me how to do everything I needed to make it,” says Nissen, 54, president of Canadian Avatar Investments Ltd., as he sits in his office in southwest Calgary. “She treated everyone that same way — warm, kind, helpful and respectful. She taught me to be empathetic.”

That small moment in the kitchen with his mom stays close to his heart, as he dedicates much of his life to helping others in the same kind and caring way.

Nissen chairs the annual Claire’s Campaign supporting Inn from the Cold in honour of his mom. The Mother’s Day matching campaign raised $670,000 last year, including his own donation of $200,000. Hundreds of homeless mothers with their children come to Inn from the Cold each year, and the funds help them get back on their feet.

The campaign is one of many Nissen works on quietly behind the scenes, leading by example.

“My goal has been, and will be in the future, to donate more to charity in a year than I spend on my own personal needs,” he says. “Without genuine support from others, I would not have had the success in my life that I am privileged to have. I feel strongly that all of us are in this life together. We should do all we can to give that hand up to those who are struggling — whether it be financial assistance, emotional support, education or simply compassion and kindness.”

Nissen often supports charities directly, and also contributes to the growth of the Nissen Family Fund and the Gary Nissen Fund at the Calgary Foundation. “The Foundation is a high-integrity organization with great values that truly increases giving in this city.”

Last year, Nissen was recognized with the Founders’ Award from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Calgary. The Founders’ Award is presented to individuals who have made an extraordinary volunteer contribution to the mentoring movement through their knowledge and support. Nissen is proud of his three-year run as Chair of the Big Brothers Big Sisters All-Star Weekend, which raised a record-breaking $250,000 in 2015.

Nissen’s other accolades include the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ individual philanthropist award in 2007. Among the other causes he supports are the YWCA, Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter and Discovery House, along with the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre (AARC), Little Warriors, the Impact Society and Even Start — organizations dedicated to children and
youth in need.

As Alberta faces tough times, Nissen likes to remind people that there are opportunities to give and make a difference. “With taxes increasing in Alberta and the continuation
of very generous charitable tax credits, there is even more reason to donate now.”


Story by Mike Fisher

Dated Spring 2016