Investigation: Ontario Trillium Foundation ‘muzzled’ charities with changes to advocacy policy

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request strongly suggest that partisanship influenced the foundation’s shift in 2020 toward a more restrictive approach to grantee advocacy.

Why It Matters

The Ontario Trillium Foundation is one of the province’s — and the country’s — largest funders. Any indication the foundation disapproves of grantees engaging in advocacy, one expert says, could have a ripple effect, “chilling” advocacy among charitable organizations across the province.

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John Good, a retired community foundation executive director and current board member of an environmental conservation charity at the Trent University Wildlife Sanctuary on May 1, 2023. (Photo: Will Pearson)


This journalism ​​is made possible by the Future of Good editorial fellowship covering the social impact world’s rapidly changing funding models, supported by Future of Good, Community Foundations of Canada, and United Way Centraide Canada. See our editorial ethics and standards here.

Last December, John Good and fellow board members of an Ontario-based environmental conservation charity decided not to sign a petition condemning the provincial government’s plan to open a portion of the Greenbelt to development. It was a decision he felt conflicted about. 

On the policy question at hand, Good was clear. “The Greenbelt protects environmentally important land,” he says. “It makes no sense for Premier Ford’s government to destroy 7,400 acres of farmland.” 

Still, he says, it wasn’t that simple. 

The executive director of the charity, which Good asked not be named for concern about reprisals from funders, told the board that signing the petition might put their grant funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation in jeopardy. 

He reminded the board of a clause in their funding contract with OTF that forbade them from engaging in “any activity meant to bring about change in law or government policy, including public policy dialogue and development.” 

Good was stunned. 

“Immediately, the alarm bells went off for me,” he says. “I thought back to, in fact, the Harper government era and what happened with some of the environmental charities and all of the investigations about where their money came from.”

Prior to his retirement, Good worked as the executive director of a community foundation for about five years. In that time, he says, he’d never heard of a funder forbidding organizations from engaging in advocacy.  

Asked by Future of Good about this clause in their grant contract, Ontario Trillium Foundation’s director of communications Marzena Gersho said, by email, that there are “a few words missing” in the clause and that therefore “the expectation is not clear.” 

She directed Future of Good to the foundation’s current eligibility policy which says only that grantees cannot use the foundation’s funds for advocacy activities. She said she had noted down the edit required for future grant contracts.

But while future contracts may provide grantees with more clarity, a Future of Good investigation found that since 2020, contracts used for 15 of the foundation’s 20 granting programs have used the same or similar language as was found in Good’s contract, requiring grantees to agree not to engage in any advocacy

Additionally, for about a year-long period, beginning in April 2020, the foundation’s eligibility policy stated that organizations that had a history of advocacy activities were not eligible for OTF grants.

Since 2020, three sources who spoke with Future of Good also say they have been verbally cautioned by OTF staff about engaging in advocacy, with particular concerns raised about naming politicians and using a critical tone. 

Representatives from all three organizations say these warnings created a “chill” on their advocacy, leading them either not to engage in desired activities or doing so more trepidatiously. 

Further, documents obtained by Future of Good through a Freedom of Information Act request strongly suggest that partisanship influenced the foundation’s changes to its eligibility policy and grant contract toward a more restrictive approach to grantee advocacy. 

In 2020, the foundation’s advocacy policy was changed under the volunteer board leadership of Michael Diamond, the current president of the progressive conservative party of Ontario; and a board committee briefing note from that time, prepared by staff, expresses concern about the potential for foundation funds to flow to charities whose advocacy “could oppose government direction.” 

Future of Good asked Michael Diamond and OTF’s CEO, Katharine Bambrick, for an interview, but Diamond did not respond and Gersho declined on Bambrick’s behalf. Additionally, neither responded to an emailed inquiry about whether the changes to the foundation’s advocacy policy were motivated by partisanship. 

We posed the same question to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, the provincial ministry that provides the foundation with the bulk of its funds. 

A ministry spokesperson, Alan Sakach, did not respond to this question directly, but said by email that OTF is an “arms length” agency of the ministry and that the ministry expects the foundation to undertake its operations in line with its stated mandate. “The board and management of the OTF are responsible for setting policies related to its operations and granting,” he added. 

In reviewing documents obtained by Future of Good, however, John Good says he finds the stated distance between the two institutions hard to believe. 

“I think it’s fair to say that the government is clearly using its funding muscle to circumscribe the ability for the organizations who are doing the work in our communities to speak and to contribute to creating public policy,” he says.


Michael Diamond, the 2020 board chair of the Ontario Trillium Foundation and current president of the progressive conservative party of Ontario, posing for a photo with Katharine Bambrick, Ontario Trillium Foundation CEO. The photo appeared in the agency’s 2019-2020 annual report. 


Concern about advocacy that could oppose ‘government direction’ 

On January 17, 2020, about three years before John Good’s board decided against signing the petition, Katharine Bambrick, Ontario Trillium Foundation’s CEO sent a letter to then Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, Lisa MacLeod. 

She thanked the minister for meeting with her in the days prior, and expressed her desire to “gain assurance” that OTF grant funds were flowing to support community programs directly benefiting Ontarians and not used for partisan activities nor to support organizations with a “strong advocacy mandate.” 

She told the minister she had set in motion a “full review” of the foundation’s eligibility and advocacy policies and that she looked forward to reporting back on this matter to the ministry within three months.

On February 3, 2020, about two weeks after Bambrick’s letter, the policy committee of OTF’s volunteer board of directors met to discuss and suggest changes to the foundation’s eligibility and advocacy policies, with the goal, according to a briefing note prepared by staff for the discussion, of providing “clear messaging and align[ing] with Government and Board direction.” 

In doing so, however, the briefing note highlighted a challenge. 

“Most nonprofits and charities that qualify for funding do some form of government relations, advocacy work,” the briefing note said. “This varies from work that has been invited by a level(s) of government, to work that is directed by an organization’s mandate and that could oppose government direction.” 

The note continued: “Some organizations that fit the OTF potential applicant pool may be viewed as posing a particular risk to government regarding their advocacy mandate or activities.”

The note said that it is not always easy to tell just by looking at an organization whether they engage in advocacy that could pose a risk to government, because some of these activities occur from “time to time” rather than being stated in an organization’s mission or mandate. 

In a January 2020 letter, OTF’s CEO, Katharine Bambrick told Lisa MacLeod, former Minister of Tourism Culture and Sport, that the foundation would undertake a “full review” of its policies to ensure granted funds were not being used to support organizations with a “strong advocacy mandate.” 


Relationship to partisanship? 

For Dan Wilson, the language used in the board committee’s briefing note is surprising. 

From 2001 to 2019, Wilson was on staff at OTF, rising to the role of chief of staff prior to his departure. During that period, Wilson says, the provincial government loomed large. 

As an agency of the government, OTF can have its funds boosted or cut at the whims of the province. The provincial government, too, appoints the foundation’s volunteer board of directors and grant review committee members. 

In these appointments, Wilson says, there’s always been some aspect of partisanship. He adds, however, that things were somewhat different under recent Liberal governments than he noticed them to be after Premier Doug Ford took power.  

Under Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne, Wilson says, there was “nuance” in the connections between appointed board members and the official party apparatus. “We all [knew] that these [were] big Liberal supporters at the table but not quite so big as to be…party officials or former candidates,” he says. 

When Premier Ford took power, things weren’t quite so subtle anymore.

In January 2019, about six months after the Progressive Conservatives formed government in Ontario, Michael Diamond was appointed to OTF’s board. The year prior, Diamond was the campaign manager for the Premier’s successful Progressive Conservative leadership bid; and in 2010, he served as director of operations for the mayoral campaign of Rob Ford, Premier Doug Ford’s brother. 

Additionally, in April 2020, when the foundation’s advocacy policy was changed, Diamond was joined on the foundation’s board by three volunteers who had previously run for or represented the PCs in the provincial legislature, one volunteer who was subsequently nominated to run for the PCs in the 2022 provincial election, and a longtime federal Conservative staffer who served in the prime minister’s office under Stephen Harper. 

Despite the partisan nature of the appointment process, however, Wilson says, the granting decisions made by volunteers weren’t partisan. “These people are so community minded, regardless of their party,” he says. 

Yet, when asked about the expression of partisanship in the briefing note prepared for the board’s policy committee in 2020, Wilson admits surprise. 

“I’ve never heard it expressed so plainly, so explicitly and so strongly,” he says. 


Aligning with a new federal mandate? 

About three and a half months prior to the meeting of the board’s policy committee in February 2020, OTF staff prepared a briefing note that recommended the foundation change its advocacy policy to explicitly permit non-partisan advocacy in alignment with a recent federal policy change

In 2016, Canada Without Poverty, an Ottawa-based charity, took the federal government to court, arguing that the country’s charitable advocacy law violated their charter right to freedom of speech. In 2018, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled in their favour; and several months later, the federal government changed the law to allow charities to engage more broadly in advocacy.

The new law still forbids charities from participating in partisan advocacy, but it scratched a provision that had previously required charities to use no more than 10 per cent of their resources on advocacy. In January 2019 CRA guidance also affirmed the many types of non-partisan advocacy charities could engage in, including research, mobilizing others and advocating via social media. 

The briefing note prepared by OTF staff in October 2019 recommended the foundation follow CRA’s new guidance on the subject.

This was not the approach the foundation took, however. 

 On April 15, 2020, the foundation’s board of directors approved changes to OTF’s eligibility policy that rendered organizations ineligible to apply for foundation funds if they had a “mandate or history of political or advocacy activities, such as furthering the aims of a political party; promoting a political doctrine; or persuading the public to adopt a particular political view.” 

Drawing from the old CRA policy, political activities were further defined in the document as any activity that: encouraged the public to contact an elected representative about changing law or policy; explicitly communicated to the public that a government law or policy should be changed; or any activity that was intended to encourage others to put pressure on a political official to change a law or policy.

John Cameron, a professor at Dalhousie University who has studied charitable advocacy, says the approach the foundation took was “mind boggling” in its conflation of partisan activity with non-partisan public policy and advocacy activities. 

Though the wording in the 2020 policy has since been scrapped, Cameron also says he believes it may have been “unconstitutional” given the Ontario Supreme Court’s 2018 free speech ruling. 

Learning of the approach the foundation took, Wilson, too, is surprised. During his nearly two decades at the organization the foundation’s advocacy policy was often reviewed, adjusted and tinkered with, he says, but largely followed CRA’s direction.

He wonders why the foundation didn’t follow this same pattern after the federal government changed their policy. 

“How could it be possible that you would have a higher standard or be more restrictive than the federal body that regulates charities?” he asks. “[Yes, CRA’s] liberalized it, but let’s be honest. It’s not cuckoo bananas. It’s not crazy. They’re not running with scissors up at CRA. They’ve liberalized it over 25 years and each step was so careful.”

Six days after the board approved the new policy, in April 2020, OTF’s CEO sent a follow-up letter to former Minister MacLeod.

“As promised in my January 17th letter to you,” Bambrick wrote, “I am pleased to update you on actions taken to increase our assurances that OTF granted funds are being invested in community programs directly benefiting Ontarians and not used for partisan activities nor to support organizations with a strong advocacy mandate.” 

To that end, she said, the foundation had completed a “full review” of all granting policies “to tighten” their processes.  


Hanah McFarlane, director of communications for Compass Early Learning and Care in Peterborough, Ontario on May 1, 2023. McFarlane’s organization learned in early April 2021 that they were deemed ineligible for an OTF grant. (Photo: Will Pearson)


Deemed ineligible for funding: Childcare charity

On April 8, 2021, about a year later, staff at Peterborough-based Compass Early Learning and Care got an email with some bad news. 

The email was sent by Beth Puddicombe, OTF’s vice president of community investments, and it said the childcare charity had been deemed ineligible for a $145,000 grant they’d applied for to help recover from the pandemic — to do some strategic planning, develop an outdoor learning curriculum with a local friendship centre, and to evaluate their work with a gender-based lens. 

The rationale for the rejection, the email said, was based on OTF’s assessment that the childcare charity had a “mandate AND/OR history of political and/or advocacy activities.” 

For the charity’s executive director, Sheila Olan-MacLean, the news came as a shock. 

How was it determined, she asks, that a big part of our organization’s work is advocacy? “It’s not,” she says. “We have a $25 million budget and we have one communications person who spends a fraction of her time on advocacy.” 

In response to the rejection email, Hanah McFarlane, the organization’s director of communications, reached out to their regional OTF program officer and booked a meeting to get feedback on their application. 

In that meeting, McFarlane says, the OTF staffer said it was a few of the charity’s social media posts that were the root of the problem. She shared some examples, McFarlane recalls — posts from June 2020, almost a year prior.

Reviewing her notes from this and a subsequent meeting she had with the same staffer, McFarlane says she was also cautioned about the frequency of the charity’s advocacy communications: “When a particular issue comes up, occasional posting might be OK,” she recalls of the direction she received. 

McFarlane also remembers being encouraged by the OTF employee to be cautious about asking their community to contact politicians directly, and being steered toward taking a more positive tone — for instance, to focus on the benefits that families would see from particular policy changes. 

For McFarlane, this direction from one of the province’s biggest funders felt like a “catch 22.”

In June 2020, when the charity posted the messages on social media that were subsequently flagged by OTF, they were advocating for more funding from the government to address significant challenges facing childcare workers at the early stages of the pandemic. 

“What we needed to do at that moment was draw attention to public policy that was harming children,” McFarlane says. “It wasn’t about ‘Rah, rah, rah. Let’s make a beautiful world for children.’ It wasn’t the time for that sort of message.” 

“Our sector has been undervalued since its inception,” she says. “We don’t have the luxury of not being advocates for our sector.” 

A former advocacy director of a food security charity says she, too, was also told by two OTF staff members to be cautious about her organization’s advocacy in the early days of the pandemic. 

The charitable sector professional, who asked that she and her former employer not be named for fear of funder reprisal, says she had a meeting with Trillium staff and was told to be more “mindful” about her organization’s advocacy “when speaking about government.” 

Unclear about the direction, she asked for examples. In a follow-up meeting, she says, another staff member shared a few screenshots of her organization’s social media posts where government officials were named. 

The former advocacy director says she asked specifically what the concern was, noting that it’s well within CRA regulations to name the premier or ministers in social media when critiquing a policy under their purview. The Trillium staffer didn’t disagree, she says, but urged her to tread lightly. “They were like, ‘Well no, actually, this is all fine,’” she recalls. “‘You just need to be cautious.’”

The advocacy director says she relayed the meeting to some of her team’s communication staff. 

For some time after that, she says, her teammates would send her draft social media posts and ask whether the content was OK or if OTF would find it objectionable. “Usually we were able to do what we wanted to do, but it created a chill,” she says. “Because folks in communications didn’t want to jeopardize funding for programs.”

Future of Good asked OTF how many charities have been deemed ineligible for funding as a result of advocacy activities but did not receive a response to this question. 

As per the foundation’s existing eligibility policy, however, Marzeno Gersho says organizations are ineligible for foundation funding only if they are engaged in partisan activities or if their major activities or resources are used to bring about a change in law or government policy. 

Additionally, as per the policy, organizations are not able to use Trillium funds for advocacy activities, including public policy development. 

To be sure, the experiences of Compass Early Learning and Care and the food security charity do not appear to be ubiquitous. Future of Good spoke with several charities who have received funds from Trillium within the past few years who said they have not been prevented from engaging in advocacy.

Maureen Fair, executive director of West Neighbourhood House, said by email that she’s never heard of any interference by OTF regarding advocacy. WNH is a Toronto-based multi-service agency that has received OTF funds as recently as 2022 and has engaged in advocacy around affordable housing and decent work. 

Yaneth Londono, the executive director of Links for Greener Learning, a St. Catherines-based charity, says she’s also never been warned by Trillium about their advocacy activities, which have included working with United Way Niagara to advance food security locally. 

Yet, John Cameron says the cautioning of even just a handful of charities can have a big effect. 


Harper political activity audits led to significant advocacy ‘chill’

For proof, Cameron points to the political activity audits that occurred under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Over several years, about 55 charities were audited and none were found to be in violation of political advocacy rules, Cameron says.  

Despite this, the audits created a climate in which many, many of the country’s 85,000-odd charities felt they needed to stay silent on public policy issues, he says. “That’s ultimately what’s at stake.”

Cameron adds that few charities have the budget to get advice from a charity lawyer on their draft social media posts, policy petitions, or protest slogans. When word gets around among charities that a funder is monitoring organizations’ social media or is particularly sensitive to advocacy, he says, their boards, who tend to be risk-averse by nature, often interpret it as a “blanket prohibition on everything.”

John Good, too, worries about the impact of making charitable organizations think twice about engaging in advocacy. 

“We’re in a silly situation where, if you pity someone, and out of the goodness of your heart, you give them money, that’s charity,” he says. “But if you’re outraged about the social determinants of health and income inequality, and you want to address that because then fewer people would be hungry or unhoused, then that’s somehow not charity.”

Good says it’s the expectation of Ontarians that OTF empowers communities across the province, not the other way around. 

“I don’t think people see [Trillium] as an instrument that’s meant to create a chill in the charitable sector or to muzzle legitimate voices in public dialogue,” he says. 


‘Trust has been broken’: childcare charity executive

Since 2020, the Ontario Trillium Foundation has used five different advocacy clauses in contracts with grantees across 20 funding programs. The foundation’s eligibility policy has also been subsequently updated, after the change in April 2020. 

Asked about these shifts, Gersho says, by email, that OTF ensures transparency by “consistently reviewing applicant and grantee resources and from time to time making updates and refreshing language.”

She adds that the agency’s founding documents “provide a clear definition of eligible and ineligible organizations,” which she said, have continued to be the “guiding principles” for the organization in their granting. 

For Good, it’s tough to stomach. 

“The sheer amount of time and energy devoted by OTF’s management, the ministry and the board to dealing with this element of their policy— It just seems very clear to me that the government was transfixed, or paranoid, about the potential — is damage the right word? — that the charitable sector can do to their agenda.” 

Sheila Olan-MacLean, too, is discouraged. 

She says she’s glad to hear the foundation has, in response to Future of Good’s inquiry, updated the language in their 2023 granting contracts to clarify that non-partisan advocacy is OK. But, she says, the proof will be in the pudding.  

“Do I trust the process? Not really,” she says. “That trust has been broken, and it’s going to be hard to regain that.”