The Ontario Trillium Foundation was founded in the early 1980s, a difficult economic time for the voluntary social service sector. Government funding and private sector donations had decreased, and many charities, large and small, were concerned about their ability to find the funds needed to run programs and meet essential community needs.
1982 – A New Funding Agency
In 1982, the concept of a foundation funded through government lotteries – but managed and directed by volunteers – developed as a result of meetings between representatives from nine charitable organizations and the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. All present had a keen interest in either obtaining or keeping private charitable lottery licenses as a means of generating revenue to support the services they provided.
The Government of Ontario recognized that an opportunity existed to do something unique in the public interest. It proposed creating an arm's-length agency, through which funds could be allocated to social services. This led to the establishment and formal incorporation of the Trillium Foundation – as OTF was originally called – on November 17, 1982. Then, as now, the Foundation’s goal was to build healthy and vibrant communities throughout Ontario.
1983 – $15 Million in Social Services Grants
On the first deadline date – April 7, 1983 – fifteen applications were received, and the first grants were approved two months later. All the grants were in the social service sector and the total awarded was just over $15 million.
1999 – Larger Allocation, Broader Mandate
Over the next 16 years, the positive community impact of OTF grants became widely known. In 1999, the Ontario Government increased the Foundation's funding to $100 million annually. At the same time, OTF’s mandate was expanded to cover more sectors – arts and culture, sports and recreation, and environment, as well as social services – and to go deeper into widespread rural communities as well as larger centres.
Because of the substantial increase in budget and expected application volume, OTF also introduced an innovative and transparent grant review process. 320 volunteers were appointed by the Government to serve on Grant Review Teams in 16 catchment areas, bringing their local perspective and diverse expertise to application review and decision-making. To support them, the Foundation increased its staff complement from 14 to almost 100 people, including regional granting staff based in the same catchment areas as the volunteers.
2011 – Value for Money Audit
In 2011, the Auditor General of Ontario conducted a Value for Money audit of the Foundation. The report noted that:
- Compared with most other government agencies that had been audited, OTF’s administrative expenditures were relatively modest;
- OTF’s institutional mindset places emphasis on keeping costs to a minimum.
- The Foundation has a “well-defined grant application and review process”, and grants made have a “community-based focus”.
- The OTF website is “comprehensive and informative”.
- OTF’s practice of distributing its allocation to 16 catchment areas on a per-capita basis ensures equitable access to grant funds throughout Ontario.
Recommendations for improvements included strengthening grant monitoring procedures; increasing the transparency and equity of its granting processes; and developing additional assessment criteria to ensure that the initiatives funded are those that will have the greatest community impact. In his follow-up report in late 2013, the Auditor General concluded that, “the Foundation had made substantial progress on most of our recommendations … [it] developed a new corporate strategy with new performance measurement indicators and targets; expanded its promotional activities; and developed new approaches to grant monitoring, including more site visits to grant recipients. It also strengthened its conflict-of-interest guidance and monitoring.”
2013 - 2014 – Transformation
The Foundation spent its 30th year thinking about change. Taking into consideration both the Auditor General’s report and the results of applicant, grantee, employee and volunteer surveys, OTF made the decision to embark on a major redesign that would improve customer service, and better define the long-term impact it hoped to achieve with the $1 billion it would invest over the next decade.
Throughout 2014, OTF staff and volunteers, with guidance from leaders in the public benefit sector, developed new programs, services and tools needed to achieve both goals:
- Six Action Areas, based on 12 of the indicators used by the Canada Index of Wellbeing to measure changes in the wellbeing of Canadians, were identified to replace the Foundation’s former sectors;
- New Priority Outcomes were developed for each Action Area, against which the individual impact of each investment could be measured;
- The Foundation’s core granting programs were replaced with four distinct, focused funding streams – Seed, Grow and Collective Impact – to ensure that fair comparisons could be made between grants of similar size, scope and purpose; to simplify the process of applying for and reporting on grants for organizations; and, in the case of the Seed Funds, to reduce the time between application and decision.
2015 - 2016 – First Grants under ReDesign2015
Just as the needs of Ontario communities change constantly, so the Foundation is committed to continuously adapting its priorities and processes to meet them. Over the years, we have been honored to hear first-hand how the programs, services and events in which we invest have genuinely improved people’s lives and communities. Under the new Investment Strategy in 2015-2016, we awarded close to 650 grants. We look forward to increasing our impact and strengthening our role in building healthy and vibrant communities across the province.