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When uber-fundraiser calls, few people say no

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Salah Bachir is fearless. The 55-year-old president of Toronto-based Cineplex Media, which provides cinema advertising in Canadian theatres from coast to coast, has no fear about asking anyone for money.

"All they can say is no," says Mr. Bachir, who's known as a generous patron of the arts and for his volunteer work supporting the gay community and underprivileged children. "Never have a fear of asking. You can't get an answer if you don't ask, and sometimes people in fundraising are afraid of asking. If you believe in what you're doing, go for it."

In fact, Mr. Bachir's reputation as a leader in philanthropy is so great that sometimes he doesn't even have to ask. When he went into one of the major banks recently, before he had seen or talked to anyone, a manager came to him and said, "Okay, give us your whole list. You can have three."

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"I was going in to see them about my mortgage," says Mr. Bachir. "But I gave them my list anyway."

Philanthropy is all about building relationships, Mr. Bachir says, and a lot of those relationships come through doing business. While his own commitment is personal, he cites a strong economic case for corporations to get involved, whether it's supporting the Run for the Cure for cancer, environmental issues or the Starlight Children's Foundation (dedicated to improving the lives of sick children and their families). Today's idealistic young people will judge companies on it and support the good guys, something he has observed with his own nieces and nephews.

"The business returns for philanthropy are amazing," says Mr. Bachir, who doesn't care particularly about the recognition but enjoys the real high he gets from selling out an event or seeing the benefits of a project firsthand. "It's an investment in people and the future."

The camaraderie that's created when employees work together on an event is a great bonding tool, he says. "There's no real science to philanthropy or fundraising," says Mr. Bachir. "We ask for money as well as give money, and for certain things, just roll up our sleeves and work with people. It's a whole team effort at Cineplex."

Being a good salesman - he drove record-breaking sales at Cineplex Media right through the economic turndown in 2009 - stands him in good stead when it comes to raising money for a good cause.

"Fundraising uses a lot of business techniques in the same way," says Mr. Bachir. "That's the key. At the end of the day, I'm a salesman."

He also leads by example, putting his own money where his mouth is, donating more than $1-million to the 519 Church Street Community Centre, which serves Toronto's gay and lesbian community. In gratitude, they've named a wing after him.

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He has also been given the Heart Award from the Variety Club of Ontario for the money he's raised and was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Toronto Pride Gala in 2009. Mr. Bachir is a member of the board of directors for the Luminato arts festival, Business for the Arts, Reel World Film Festival and is the chair for the 519 Community Centre Capital Campaign.

His passion for social justice started early. As a 15-year-old he participated in the boycott against grapes outside a Dominion grocery store when labour activist César Chávez visited Toronto in 1971.

Although he doesn't like the cliche "trying to make a difference," he says it fits him. He credits his parents, who brought the family to Canada from Lebanon in 1965 when he was 10.

"They left a great life so their kids could get a better education and escape war," says Mr. Bachir. "My dad was a huge contractor there and became a welder here. My mother had to learn a whole new language. If I have any heroes, it's them.

"But I think the sense of community in coming from a small village where everybody knew and took care of each other before the war translates into my whole life now. I carry that with me."

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