Thirty Years is Just the Start

A history of ECF

Have you ever seen the sign for Slatter Way and wondered, “Who is that?” Tucked away in the heart of downtown Edmonton, this cosy little back street leads to the hub for Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF). And it’s named for the man who, in the late 1980s, was instrumental in beginning what is today the far-reaching and important work of ECF.

The story of ECF began in 1970, with a letter from then-lawyer Tevie Miller to the provincial secretary. In it, he explained a group of local citizens had hit upon the idea of forming a foundation, which “would provide a very useful service for the city of Edmonton and its citizens … it is thought that the best procedure would be to seek a Private Bill at the next sitting of the Legislature.” On April 27, 1971, the Edmonton Community Foundation Act was passed.

Right from the start, there were glitches. Desirable board members — such as Ivor Dent and Ernest Manning — were approached but didn’t have time to help out. The Department of National Revenue refused to grant charitable status because the act included sport promotion (which was subsequently removed). When the City of Edmonton tried to flow cultural funding through the group, the city’s major cultural organizations protested and the idea was dropped.

By the late 1970s, having had no annual meetings, elected no officers, and disbursed no funds, ECF was abandoned. It would take a decade for the right people to bring it back to life. “In the late ’80s,” recalls Doug McNally, ECF’s CEO from 1994 to 2005, “John and Barbara (Poole) were interested in creating endowment funds for the arts in Edmonton. They had a really sharp advisor at the time, a man named John Slatter.

“It’s hard to overestimate how transformational it all was. It was an entirely innovative thing to say, ‘Hey, let’s take this thing that has no real life at the moment and no money, but let’s create an entirely new concept around it.’”

Doug Stollery

John went away, did some research and found this dormant entity called the Edmonton Community Foundation.”

Dormant, indeed. It had been 17 years since the act had passed. After some intense study — ECF archives contain hundreds of pages of his meticulous research and oversight — Slatter reported back to John and Barbara that this might be the vehicle they were seeking. They agreed and invited John’s brother George, George’s wife Rae, and Bob and Shirley Stollery into the discussion.

“After that,” says McNally, “the conversation quickly turned to the realization that to really make it great, they’d have to do something significant in the way of funding it. That was when they decided to contribute $5 million per couple, for a total of $15 million. Even more amazing is that they decided that half was given unconditionally to ECF to disburse. This gave ECF instant legitimacy and credibility because ECF was deciding what should be supported, not just the three families. They wanted ECF to establish its own identity.”

“It’s hard to overestimate how transformational it all was,” says Bob and Shirley’s son Doug Stollery, chancellor of the University of Alberta. “It was an entirely innovative thing to say, ‘Hey, let’s take this thing that has no real life at the moment and no money, but let’s create an entirely new concept around it.’ And to do it on a scale that blew everything else out of the water.”

In 1989, ECF was reborn, in large part thanks to that meticulous research by John E. Slatter.

That year, with Bob Stollery acting as the new foundation’s first board chair and overseeing the investment committee, and Slatter named secretary to guide operations until the board found its first executive director, the first donation, of $500, came from the Cormack family. The following year, ECF disbursed more than $1 million to 60 organizations, including to the Boyle McCauley Health Centre for a treatment room. 1991 saw other forward-thinking grants disbursed, such as a major grant to the Victorian Order of Nurses for AIDS research. In 1992, the Winspear Foundation made the decision to fold its operations into ECF, highlighting its trust in ECF as a community partner.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a $500 donation or a $500,000 donation, because every story is equally important to that person and important to our community.”

Kathy Hawkesworth

By the mid-’90s, ECF had solidified its place in the community through programs such as Willpower Wills Week in 1996 and Our Children’s Millennium Fund in 1999. Current director of donor services Kathy Hawkesworth joined in 2001. That year, ECF sponsored the installation of the sculpture Return, by local artist Catherine Burgess, on Rice Howard Way in downtown Edmonton. The sculpture’s three intertwined columns represent the three pillars of ECF: donors, the foundation and the beneficiaries. The following year saw the start of the groundbreaking Belcourt Brosseau Métis Awards, which began disbursing scholarships through a $12-million endowment.

These are all significant, says Hawkesworth, but she is perhaps more grateful for the stories she hears from every donor and every grantee about their passion for supporting their communities. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s a $500 donation or a $500,000 donation,” adds Hawkesworth, “because every story is equally important to that person and important to our community.”

When Martin Garber-Conrad took the helm in 2005, one of his first orders of business was to oversee the move from a downtown office building into Hilltop House, where ECF currently resides. This launched another period of significant growth for ECF in its staffing, endowment and the reach of its programming. The Social Enterprise Fund (SEF), launched in 2008, offers financing to social enterprises that might have otherwise struggled to find it. This powerful financing mechanism has transformed our community through loans to such organizations as CKUA and the Whitemud Equine Learning Centre, among many others.

The SEF isn’t the only recent innovation. There’s the Edmonton and Area Land Trust, ECF’s in-house magazine, Legacy in Action, and the Young Edmonton Grants program, whose granting committee is made up entirely of young people. In 2013, ECF — in partnership with the Edmonton Social Planning Council — began participating in Vital Signs, a national initiative designed to use strong data to identify community needs. Vital Signs has focused on many issues, including seniors, sexuality, Indigenous Edmontonians, newcomers and food. A bricks-and-mortar sign of ECF’s growth came in 2015, when Manasc Isaac architects were brought in to design a new building and connect it to Hilltop House. This coincided with the launch of the Well Endowed Podcast, which helps tell ECF’s inspiring stories.

ECF does so much more than gather, invest and distribute money. It is a focal point for our stories and hopes, measuring the depth of our desire to contribute in energy, passion, commitment and intention. Over the last three decades, ECF has gone from a dormant shell to an inextricable part of its community. It’s exciting to imagine what histories of ECF and Edmonton will be written three decades from now.