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The Donner Canadian Foundation

The visionary philanthropy of industrialist William H. Donner has had a profound impact on causes across North America, including a half-century of vital support for U of T.

William H. Donner (1864–1953) was born in Columbus, Indiana during the upheaval of the American Civil War. In his twenties, he earned a reputation for shrewd business sense when he helped make his family’s grain mill profitable. After this early success, William branched into real estate, tin plate manufacturing, and steel. He launched Union Steel (known today as American Steel & Wire Corporation), and a number of other steel companies, including Donner Steel.

In 1929, William’s son, Joseph, died of lung cancer—a disease poorly understood at the time. This tragedy proved transformative for William, motivating him to sell assets in Donner Steel to support medical research. To honour Joseph’s memory, William created the International Cancer Research Foundation. Later, it became the William H. Donner Foundation and took on a broader mandate, which it continues to carry out.

William moved to Montreal in 1940s, where he established the Donner Canadian Foundation in 1950 as a sister organization to his American foundation. In the mid-1960s, the Foundation began to focus on specific program interests, including research on public policy. In 1967 they launched a new philanthropic vision to celebrate Canada’s centennial; their grants have contributed more than $15 million to almost 2,500 projects across Canada and around the world.

Today, the Canadian foundation supports medical research, international affairs and development projects, land and wildlife conservation, social services, and public policy research and education. It is well known in Canada for the Donner Book Prize, given annually for the best book on Canadian public policy.

At U of T, the Donner Canadian Foundation has contributed to the University almost every year over the past 50 years, for a total of close to $9 million. These donations have supported a wide variety of causes and initiatives across the University. The Faculty of Law, the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design and the Faculty of Arts & Science have each been beneficiaries of substantial Donner Foundation funding over decades. Public policy, urban issues, criminal justice and international affairs have been key emphases. Notably, the Donner Foundation has been an important contributor to the Scholars at Risk program at Massey College.

The Donner Canadian Foundation’s long history of benefaction at U of T has supported invaluable research and scholarship over many years as a pillar of the foundation’s commitment to public policy and to environmental, international development, and social service projects across Canada.