The Seed of an Idea to Support Communities
The McConnell Foundation, established in 1937, was the second family foundation created in Canada, following the Massey Foundation. It was run by the founder with the help of a secretary. The grants it made reflected long-standing interests and commitments of J.W. McConnell, including McGill University and its affiliated hospitals (notably the Montreal Neurological Institute), the YMCA, Salvation Army, Old Brewery Mission, the Victorian Order of Nurses and a number of churches and agencies ministering to Montrealers in need.
Some of the organizations that received support in 1937 continue to be recipients of Foundation grants to the present day. The Foundation provided space for what would become the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and Pointe St. Charles YMCA facilities, and was a prime sponsor of the construction of Place-des-Arts. Granting was mainly in the Montreal region, the province of Quebec and the Maritimes (grants to Montreal-based recipients represented 85-90 percent of total grant amounts until the early 1980s).
After McConnell’s death in 1963, the family wished to continue his work and renamed the foundation The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, whose Board of Trustees would comprise direct descendants of the founder.
In its early years, grants were usually for capital campaigns, primarily university and hospital buildings and medical equipment. McConnell’s longstanding interest in supporting programs for young people was maintained through regular grants to the YMCA, the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs and summer camps, but there were also major contributions to homes for the elderly.
By 1974, total grants made by the Foundation passed the $100 million mark. The Foundation was a mainstay for many important health, educational and cultural organizations and institutions in Montreal, but it had also innovated in funding new programs such as the pioneering Palliative Care Centre at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
In 1980, the Trustees decided to give the Foundation a broader, national focus. Many of the educational, health and social service organizations originally supported by the Foundation had ceased to be private bodies funded through a mix of membership fees and individual and church donations. The state had become the principal source of revenue for universities and health establishments.
The Foundation’s granting was refocused to address special needs and innovative projects aimed at making these organizations more productive, responsive, and efficient in their services to the community.
The most important commitment of the 1980s was the bold decision to commit some $40 million to renovating, extending and endowing the McCord Museum, which belonged to McGill University but functioned largely autonomously in inadequate facilities. This grant, the largest single commitment in the Foundation’s history, was seen very much as a gift to the people and city of Montreal to mark the 350th anniversary of the city's founding.
By the 1990s, the Foundation had a small professional staff and a new, proactive mission to help Canadians adapt to the profound economic, political and social changes beginning to affect Canada. National initiatives were launched to promote community economic development, to support innovation in higher education and to widen the impact of successful local innovations.
A number of Foundation initiatives were launched, including the Community Economic Development Technical Assistance Program (CEDTAP); the Green Street environmental stewardship program; and work with organizations addressing disability issues, including PLAN, Philia and Tetra, and respite support for caregivers. In September 1996, a new school-based funding program was launched to enhance learning by involving young people in hands-on artistic and creative activities; this was ArtsSmarts.
The Foundation’s granting focus had essentially moved from capital grants and institutional support to initiatives aimed at building up the capacity within organizations to improve their communities.
Larger and longer-term program grants became more common, with particular efforts made to strengthen the community sector by providing core funding to bodies like Community Foundations of Canada, IMAGINE, and Volunteer Canada. An innovative MBA-level program for leaders of national voluntary organizations was developed in partnership with McGill University. Another initiative sought to identify successful local initiatives that had the potential for far broader reach. Over the ensuing years, more than 20 such grants were made in fields as varied as early childhood (Roots of Empathy), impaired driving (Nez Rouge), disabilities support (PLAN), comprehensive community development (Vibrant Communities) and others.
Towards the Future
Family foundations balance tradition and change, evolving in response to external needs and challenges and internal family dynamics. For The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, a clear line can be drawn from the personal generosity and values rooted in the founder’s Methodist upbringing, which found expression in his tithing as a very young man, his later active fundraising for many causes and finally his major philanthropic legacy, the Foundation that bears his name.
Foundations can generate attention and action to tackle challenges that may otherwise be overlooked or inadequately addressed. The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s role now is to be a catalyst, to use its limited funds to leverage individual and community assets, resources and skills to effect needed change. Those challenges are constantly shifting; an effective foundation therefore is in permanent evolution toward the elusive goals of relevance and results.