A lifetime of service: UBC Sauder alumnus Ron Cliff’s 60 years of philanthropy and community impact

Ron and Ardelle Cliff celebrating his lasting impact and enduring connection to UBC Sauder at a lunch in September 2019.

Posted 2020-02-27

Throughout decades of volunteering and philanthropy, Vancouver business leader Ronald L. Cliff (BCom '49) has offered time, money and expertise to a diverse set of organizations, including the UBC Sauder School of Business. His contributions to the school have directly benefited hundreds of students through award funding. Cliff has also focused his efforts on community improvement by providing resources and support to organizations like the Vancouver Symphony Society and the Vancouver Police Foundation.

Building sustainable impact, one figure at a time

Very few people can boast to have a resume as long and as storied as Ron Cliff’s, including serving on the boards of companies such as BC Gas, Canfor, the Royal Bank of Canada and Southam, among others.

His list of contributions to not-for-profit and charitable organizations is just as long, having made a significant impact on the Vancouver Symphony Society, the Vancouver Police Foundation, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the University of British Columbia, to name a few.

Cliff says that, for him, looking after other people is just part of being a businessman. “It should come naturally,” he says. “If you’re successful in business—which is why you went to business school, of course—you’ve got to look after the people who aren’t so successful in life.”

His relationship with one of the organizations he eventually became a patron of started very early on in his life—right at the beginning. “I was the first, or at least my mother told me I was the first, baby in the maternity building,” Cliff says, speaking about the Vancouver General Hospital’s then brand-new maternity facility. “I wasn’t born in the building, but I was the first patient who went into the cradle room there.”

He went on to attend St. George’s School, where his excellent performance in mathematics first drew him towards a career in accounting. After graduating from UBC in 1949 with a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) degree, he caught the attention of a recruiter from accounting firm Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers), but life had other plans for him.

“Across the street from where I lived was my best friend for years, and his father owned the second largest local accounting firm,” Cliff says. “So, he found out about this interview through his son. He got a hold of me one day when I was over at his house. He’d been a captain in the artillery in the Second World War, and he put a hand on my shoulder and said ‘You’re not going to work for Price Waterhouse, you’re going to work for me.’”

This connection didn’t just lead Cliff to the work that earned him his designation as a chartered accountant in 1954, it also spurred his first substantial engagement as a volunteer for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO).

“Mr. Foster, who I worked for, had been the treasurer of the symphony for quite a few years and he wanted to retire. He said, ‘You’re going to become the treasurer of the symphony.’ And I’d been going to symphony concerts since I was 11 years old, so I appreciated the music and I’d started a pretty good record collection. So that wasn’t a problem.”

Charitable contributions for the VSO and other organizations have earned Cliff numerous honours, including being invested into the Order of Canada in 1986 and into the Order of British Columbia in 2019. The announcement of his induction into the Order of British Columbia recognized that “his efforts to help ensure the sustainability of not-for-profit entities are unparalleled.”

Cliff says that, as a native of the Lower Mainland, this provincial honour holds a special place for him. “I always felt that when your hometown recognizes you, it’s kind of important.”

As for his national recognition, Cliff was made a member of the Order of Canada 13 years after his daughter, Leslie Cliff, had been inducted as an officer of the Order based on her prowess as a competitive swimmer. Cliff sees humour in the fact that his daughter achieved a higher level in the three-tiered Order. “Fortunately, she doesn’t try to remind of that,” he says laughing.

A UBC Sauder legacy

Cliff’s longstanding commitments to improve the community have extended to his alma mater, where he has contributed resources for the benefit of students, faculty and facility improvements.

After his father, Ronald Lorraine Cliff, established a fund to provide bursaries for deserving students at UBC in 1953, Cliff made an additional gift to the Ronald Lorraine Cliff Bursary fund in 1976. Since then, this bursary has supported 387 students with more than $575,000 in awards funding.

In 2010, Cliff made a lead gift and championed the fundraising efforts for the establishment of the Graduating Class of 1949 Bursary, which since then has supported 25 students with a total of more than $24,000 in awards funding.

On the side of faculty, in 1989, Cliff provided resources to establish the Ronald L. Cliff Professorship for Faculty in Accountancy, with the fund providing a stipend and covering research and administrative expenses for the holder. Dr. Joy Begley, an associate professor at UBC Sauder’s accounting and information systems division, has held this position since 1995.

And thanks to a generous gift provided to the school’s Opening Worlds campaign in 2006, students can now enjoy the Ronald L. Cliff BCom Lounge, a social and study space located within the school’s Birmingham Undergraduate Centre.

Cliff’s involvement with UBC Sauder has gone beyond donating valuable resources. From 1994 to 2008, he was a part of the school’s Faculty Advisory Board, helping to shape its strategies, programs, and relationship networks. As of 2016, with the graduation of his grandson from the BCom program, three generations of the Cliff family have graduated from UBC Sauder.

As UBC Sauder School of Business Dean Robert Helsley says, “Ron Cliff embodies responsible leadership through his professional work, philanthropy and community service. His enduring loyalty, vision and generosity is inspirational. He sets a fine example not just for UBC Sauder, but our entire community. It’s an honour to know him.”

UBC Sauder Dean Robert Helsley (left) with Ron Cliff (right) at a celebration lunch in September 2019 in honour of Cliff’s great impact on the school.

Find a cause

For those looking for a way to impact their communities, Cliff advises supporting a cause they can feel passionate about. “I mean, if somebody doesn’t give a hoot about a hospital or doesn’t give a damn about the symphony, obviously it’s not going to work out. The logical thing would be working in something that interests them in the first place,” he says.

“It might be a hospital, it might be a school, it could be giving out turkeys on Thanksgiving, or helping to find homes for the homeless,” he says, adding that volunteering time and expertise can matter just as much as contributing money.

Cliff says UBC Sauder students should take advantage of resources like the Commerce Community Program to figure out how to best give back to the community as early as possible because “it gets you started” on the path to giving.