Reimagining philanthropy in Canada

It’s unlikely William Forbes and Elizabeth Alloway fathomed the growth and success that would meet The Winnipeg Foundation when they established it in 1921. Our community, the community foundation movement, and philanthropy in Canada will forever be impacted by their foresight and generosity.

Bill Alloway, who began as a soldier with the Wolseley Expedition, worked his way up to become a member of Winnipeg’s elite (read more – Right time, right place, right person). He was inspired to give back to the community from which he and his wife had received so much. On June 5, 1921, Bill commented in the Manitoba Free Press:

“Winnipeg has been my home and has done more for me than it ever may be in my power to repay. I owe everything to this community and I feel that it should derive some benefit from what I have been able to accumulate.”1

Rather than simply donate the gift to a charity, Bill had his eye set on something more permanent. According to Peter Lowe, The Foundation’s first paid employee and later Executive Director, Alloway learned of the concept of community trusts from the Cleveland Foundation, the first-ever community foundation, and thought the concept would work well in Winnipeg. Alloway was struck by the idea that more could be achieved if local philanthropists worked together by pooling and investing resources, which could then be used to support the community in perpetuity. According to Winnipeg Foundation minute books from the 1920s, a community trust:

“…provides a channel through which men and women of limited means, as well as those of large wealth, may directly and effectively combine their contributions to the welfare of the community, under a plan which gives flexibility of application together with efficiency, and at the same time enables those who give donations or bequests to the Trust to designate the type of charitable service to which their donations shall be devoted.”2

Once Alloway decided to move forward with the concept, The Foundation came together rather quickly. In February 1921, Alloway convened a group of citizens in his home. The group included Hugh John Macdonald, son of Canada’s first Prime Minister and Premier of Manitoba for nine months in 1900, and four other members of Winnipeg’s elite. They struck a provisional Advisory Board, and solicitor Charles P. Wilson was recruited to draft a petition of incorporation. MLA Edith Rogers – Manitoba’s first woman to be elected to the Legislature – sponsored the petition, and The Foundation’s Act of Incorporation received royal assent on April 26, 1921. It was the first community foundation in Canada.

According to the Act, The Foundation was to be directed by a five-member Advisory Board, which would include the Mayor of Winnipeg ex-officio. The founding Board members were Chief Justice Thomas G. Mathers, Judge Robert M. Dennistoun, Lawyer William E. Macara, Baker (and Mayor) Edward Parnell, and Anglican Cleric Robert E. McElheran.

It was at The Foundation’s first official meeting on June 6, 1921 that Alloway delivered the first gift – a cheque for $100,000. The Foundation did not receive its second gift until September 1924. Three, $5 gold coins were delivered anonymously to the Alloway and Champion Bank. They came in an envelope inscribed with the words “The Widow’s Mite.”

This gift solidified the concept which undergirds The Foundation and community philanthropy to this day: it is not the size of the gift, but the act of giving that matters.

Today, Canada’s community foundation movement continues to gather momentum with at least 191 across Canada, including 56 in Manitoba.

This story was informed by research done by Dr. Gordon Goldsborough, which appeared in The Foundation’s 90th anniversary publication.

Why The Widow’s Mite?

Three gold coins with an old envelope.

The Foundation’s second gift was three gold coins, each valued at $5. This gift was delivered anonymously in a white envelope with the words ‘The Widows Mite’ written on the front.

This term was common at the time, with clergy preaching of how virtues would accrue from “a gift of seemingly little value if directed properly and given in the right spirit.”3

It was this gift that established the philosophy that guides The Foundation to this day: It’s not the size of the gift, but rather the act of giving, which matters.


Chief Justice Thomas G. Mathers, who served on the founding advisory board of The Winnipeg Foundation, was appointed to head the royal commission on industrial relations following the 1919 general strike. That commission led to minimum wage legislation, an eight-hour workday, unemployment and health insurance, and free collective bargaining in Canada.

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