Philanthropy Rooted in Five Generations
The Donner Canadian Foundation is a Toronto-based private family foundation with national scope. Established in 1950, through a bequest from American industrialist and philanthropist William Henry Donner, the foundation has had a significant role in Canadian philanthropy for nearly 75 years and has contributed more than $200 million to an array of charitable endeavours across Canada and in many other parts of the world.
Toward the end of his long life, Donner turned much of his attention to Canada, a country he had first come to love decades earlier, as the owner of Squirrel Island in Lake Muskoka. With great personal interest, he supported the pioneering work of Dr. Wilder Penfield, director of the Montreal Neurological Institute, and contributed funds for the construction of the Donner Building for Medical Research at McGill University. Following his death in Montreal, in 1953, the foundation he had set up received a significant bequest. For the next decade, Donner Canadian Foundation grants supported multi-disciplinary medical research at McGill University.
In the mid-1960s, Donner’s grandchildren assumed leadership of the foundation and engaged professional staff. In 1967, the Donner Canadian Foundation launched a new philanthropic vision, with a focus on public policy, to celebrate Canada’s Centennial. Eminent Canadians on the Board of Governors have provided guidance since that time.
At the turn of this century, the foundation began a new chapter of philanthropy, focused on the broad interests of Donner’s descendants. Today, the foundation supports land and wildlife conservation, social services, international affairs and development, and public policy research.
In 2022, Members, Governors, and Staff selected a new logo that features a maple leaf with five branches, symbolizing the multi-generational commitment of the Donner family to Canadian philanthropy.
William H. Donner in the 1940s
William H. Donner as a young man
Donner Building for Medical Research, McGill University (Courtesy of McGill University Archives)
Named in his honour, the steamship William H. Donner transported cargo on the Great Lakes from 1914 to 1970.
William H. Donner
William Henry Donner was born in 1864, in Columbus, Indiana. His keen intelligence, talent for business, and appetite for risk were apparent from an early age. He introduced transformative technologies to a series of companies, culminating in his final industrial venture, the Donner Steel Company of Buffalo, which he operated successfully until its sale in 1929.
From 1929 until his death in 1953, Donner devoted his time and considerable energy to philanthropic work. Donner’s legacy includes two foundations that bear his name: the U.S.-based William H. Donner Foundation and the Donner Canadian Foundation. The Donner family continues his legacy through active engagement in both foundations.
The Donner Canadian Foundation benefits from many connections with the broader philanthropic community and holds memberships in the following organizations.
The Circle on Philanthropy transforms philanthropy and contributes to positive change between the philanthropic sector and Indigenous communities by creating spaces of learning, innovation, relationship-building, co-creation, and activation.
Environment Funders Canada catalyzes funders to respond to environmental crises with ambitious and innovative solutions. It inspires and supports its 75+ members with learning sessions, research, and funder collaboratives.
Philanthropic Foundations Canada’s board and staff believe in the power of philanthropy to effect change and promote the common good. Working in collaboration with its 132 members, civil society, the private sector, and governments, PFC strives for a just, equitable, and sustainable world.