Approaching Philanthropy Differently

Partnerships built through trust and dialogue.

Partnerships built through dialogue and trust

We create safe spaces for dialogue.

We respect the knowledge and decisions of community partners.

We seek to learn from grantees and partners.

We work toward reconciliation, reciprocity and decolonization.

We network and collaborate to build larger movements.

We recognize the importance of long-term funding relationships.

Promoting radical social change through joint action and networking

The Catherine Donnelly Foundation is committed to promoting positive social change by funding and financing initiatives related to the environment, housing and homelessness as well as adult education. Our efforts are intended to promote joint action and networking by helping organizations work together and build on one another’s strengths to pursue radical systems change.


Our unique approach to philanthropy

Trust-based relationship building

As a foundation, we recognize that the manner in which grant makers attained their wealth and the structures used to distribute those funds often contribute to systemic inequalities.

We are committed to a trust-based philanthropic movement that confronts those inherent power imbalances and works continuously to change behaviours as they relate to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability and immigration status, among other factors.

Our grantmaking values and practices begin by respecting and trusting our partners, opening ourselves up to their wisdom and working proactively with them to cede and redistribute power and shift to a more equitable nonprofit-funder ecosystem.

As part of our approach to decentralizing power, we listen and collaborate with humility and an open mind and an open heart.

Offering necessary flexibility

When COVID-19 arrived in March 2020, we listened when partners said they needed flexibility in how and when programs were delivered. We are providing more funding and relaxed or delayed application and reporting requirements. Placing honesty and trust at the centre of our relationships helps our partners build more of the systemic change we both seek.

Intentional collaboration with racialized communities

The pandemic has reinforced the scale of racial, economic and political inequity and encouraged the Foundation to be more intentional about collaborating with Indigenous and Black communities and communities of Colour. We are working to increase grants directed to BIPOC organizations, are diversifying our Board and are supporting efforts to build capacity, leadership and mentoring opportunities within those communities.

Funding innovation through program grants

The Catherine Donnelly Foundation is funded through an endowment that provides regular income to enable our charitable giving. That privilege allows us to provide grants, capacity and networking opportunities to new and innovative ideas and programs that others often can’t or won’t fund. In 2019/20, we granted more than $2.4 million to over 50 organizations with the potential to change the world.

“Without the support of the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, we would never have gotten this project off the ground. your initial investment kicked it off.”
-Katie McKenna, Executive Director of The Leap

“The Catherine Donnelly Foundation was the catalyst in creating For Our Kids. What’s remarkable to me is that the Foundation saw the opportunity and took the risk on something new, whereas many funders are quite conservative. And it paid off!” 
-Matt Price, co-founder, For Our Kids, January 2021

Long-term investments to grow new national initiatives

We also know it can take time for bold new ideas to take root. That’s why in addition to our program grants, we have committed more than $7 million to help others build long-term initiatives that will have a lasting impact.

For ten years and counting we have provided funding for Ecojustice in their work to establish environmental rights as part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – a legal strategy that could guarantee every Canadian’s right to a healthy environment. In 2020, that support helped Ecojustice and seven young climate activists claim victory in their efforts to sue the Government of Ontario for weakening climate targets. A Canadian legal first, the suit affirms citizens can challenge a government’s environmental actions under the constitution and will put government inaction on the climate crisis on trial. Watch their Thank You video to CDF here.

“Ecojustice has been at the forefront of environmental protection using the law for over 30 years. Yet it was our partnership with the Catherine Donnelly Foundation which spawned our most visionary work – fighting for Canada to join a global movement of legally recognizing the human right to a healthy environment. With CDF’s support, Ecojustice has pushed legal boundaries in litigation to fight for Canada’s youth to have the right to a climate-safe future, and law reform to entrench that right. When we achieve those goals, it will be because of CDF’s support. I am proud to be supported by this remarkable organization that shares our values and vision of a thriving environment, safe climate, and healthy communities.”
– Devon Page, Ecojustice’s Executive Director

We are also proud The Catherine Donnelly Foundation co-led the funders’ table that launched A Way Home, a national coalition committed to ending youth homelessness through transformative solutions in policy, planning and practice.

“The Catherine Donnelly Foundation is more than just a funder. CDF is a strategic partner, working alongside us to create systems change. We wouldn’t be where we are today without their support.”
-Melanie Redman, President & CEO, A Way Home

Practices we strive for include:

  • CDF sees its endowment as an opportunity to support movements and projects that change or challenge the systems that oppress us and to support the creation of new, local, resilient economies that build wealth in low-income communities and communities of colour.
  • We subscribe to just transition principles to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy based on reflective, responsive, reciprocal relationships of interdependence between human communities and the living world upon which we depend.
  • CDF works to simplify application and reporting processes on an ongoing basis, so partners spend time on their work, not dealing with our demands. A short and user-friendly Letter of Inquiry, for instance, ensures organizations not invited to submit a full grant proposal don’t waste too time or resources
  • We invite grantees and partners to share their challenges to see where and how we can offer support.
  • We try to connect partners to other funders and allies. We want our grantees and partners to succeed in the important work they’re doing. We highlight partners’ work on our website and social media.
  • We try to share our own organizational struggles and questions with others.
  • We are working toward more intentional diversification of our Board and Committee membership.

A group sitting in a circle on the ground, with teepees in the background

A decolonized approach to philanthropy

The Catherine Donnelly Foundation recognizes our structure and granting process is influenced by Western colonial attitudes. In moving towards a decolonized approach to philanthropy, the Foundation seeks to promote a power dynamic with First Nation, Inuit and Métis partners different from traditional grantor-grantee relationships. We seek initiatives that promote community decision-making and control over community resources.


As part of our ongoing effort to integrate an Indigenous-influenced perspective, we recognize the need for flexible program areas that show fluidity and appreciation for Indigenous worldviews that all life is interrelated. That flexibility encourages the exploration of partnerships between housing, the environment and adult education.

Committed to Reconciliation and Reciprocity

The Catherine Donnelly Foundation is the legacy of the Sisters of Service, a progressive community of Catholic religious sisters. We acknowledge the histories between the Christian churches and Indigenous peoples in Canada, and the impacts of colonialism that continue to this day.


The Foundation is committed to righting relations by actively seeking to build mutually respectful relationships with First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples through proactively supporting creative initiatives in the area of adult education, housing, the environment and impact investing.


As a foundation, we seek to move beyond transactional relationships defined by giving and receiving to reciprocal partnerships built on mutual benefit. The path to righting relations is a long-term process requiring listening, healthy dialogue, the building of trust and the relinquishment of power.

The development of an Indigenous funding strategy

Sharing power and benefits among grantor and grantee is often at odds with a traditional colonial granting framework, which is why foundations have to work hard to shift from charity to partnership in our relationships. It starts with deep listening, talking and learning. Over time, the goal is to accept one another as equal partners.


In 2015, the Catherine Donnelly Foundation signed the Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action, which was presented at the closing session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa. At the same time, there was learning emerging through our granting relationships that emphasized the importance of direct relationships with Indigenous-led organizations.


Two years later, we sought partnerships with First Nation, Inuit and Métis allies to explore how funders could address capacity needs in Indigenous communities threatened by climate change. After meetings in Toronto and Yellowknife, a new program called Healing Through the Land was launched with some guiding principles:


  • an Indigenous rights-based perspective
  • an openness to learn from challenges
  • the need to balance funder priorities and community expertise
  • the need to develop new tools and approaches grounded in Indigenous ways and knowledge and
  • recognition any measurement framework would require an Indigenous lens.


We continue on the journey of imagining and developing a pan-Canadian, Indigenous-led pooled fund to address community capacity within a climate change and climate justice framework, with a focus on healing through land-based initiatives. Funded projects will integrate and enhance community leadership, cultural revitalization, increasing efficiency and creating renewable energy sources, localizing food and protecting water across Indigenous communities in a holistic and innovate way.


We recognize there are existing Indigenous-led community foundations across the country that could receive funds and administer the Healing Through the Land Initiatives project.


For a more complete description of the Catherine Donnelly Foundation’s reflections and learnings related to the Healing Through the Land initiative, see Navigating Philanthropy’s Role in Reconciliation: A Funder’s Learning Journey.

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