Judy and Alan Broadbent created Maytree to find solutions to poverty in Canada, which they believed caused injustice, inhibited collective national prosperity, and limited the human spirit. They began the work in 1979 by granting personally. In 1982, they officially registered Maytree federally as a charitable foundation.

Like many Canadian foundations at the time, Maytree functioned without staff. The principals, Judy and Alan, operated the foundation with support from administrative and accounting staff of the commercial businesses they operated.

During the 1980s, Maytree largely operated as a granting foundation. Its grants tended to assist organizations working on supports for seniors and community-based adult literacy programs. The interest in seniors was to help them to age in dignity and avoid falling into poverty by connecting them with youth and their local communities. The interest in literacy came from learning about the correlation between illiteracy and the inability to participate successfully in society. People without literacy skills tended not to engage publicly or politically, had limited success in the labour market, and therefore had little voice in changing their conditions. Improving their literacy skills helped them reverse their situation.

Immigrant and refugee focus, 1990-2014

In 1990, Maytree funded the Toronto-based Multi-Lingual Literacy Centre, which focused on newcomers without literacy skills. The centre recognized that literacy was conceptual rather than a roster of words and phrases, and that it was easier for someone to acquire literacy in their first language and then subsequently learn English (or French, or any other language).

It was through this grant that Maytree came into contact with Canada’s immigrant and refugee community and began to learn that immigrants and refugees had a suite of other needs beyond literacy. Enabling them to meet these needs would put them on a solid path to prosper.

During the 1990s, this work led to providing grants to the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture and the Quaker Committee for Refugees, two important organizations helping refugees deal with the trauma they had experienced in their home countries and with the practical matters of settlement in Canada. These grants led to support for the Canadian Council for Refugees, and to learning about the policy frameworks that controlled the experiences of immigrants and refugees in coming to and settling in Canada.

Throughout the decade Maytree hired staff to work on particular grants or to help inform our approach. This culminated in 1998 in hiring Ratna Omidvar to become Executive Director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program at Maytree. Ratna had been the highly successful head of Toronto-based Skills for Change. In that capacity, she had collaborated with a corporate foundation at a Broadbent-related company on a program teaching entry-level skills for people in the hospitality industry.

In her distinctly effective 17 years with Maytree, during which she became Executive Director of Maytree and then President, Ratna built the immigrant and refugee program. She left Maytree in 2014 to establish the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University, with substantial financial support from Maytree. Moving with her to Ryerson University were a number of Maytree programs with their staff. Ratna was subsequently appointed to the Senate of Canada.

In 1999, Maytree established the Maytree Scholarship Program as a development of its work with refugees. At that time, protected persons couldn’t access student loans, so most couldn’t afford post-secondary education. The Maytree Scholarship Program helped to fill the gap. Led by Judy Broadbent, it provided refugee students in Canada attending university with tuition and a stipend to help with other costs.

Direct support to refugee students was only a part of what Maytree undertook. Maytree also worked on getting the Canadian Student Financial Assistance Act changed so refugee students could be granted access to student loans. The act needed to be changed by adding “and protected persons” to its terms, a seemingly small change for which there seemed to be significant political support across all federal parties. It turned out to be quite an effort due to some political tomfoolery, but in 2003 the change was made, and these students qualified for student loans.

By that time, the program had proven valuable beyond the dollars. Each year a cohort of students were selected to receive the grant and, more importantly, to meet regularly as a group to share their experiences and offer support to each other. Maytree engaged actively with the students to help them succeed, overcome barriers, and engage constructively in the community. In 2009, Maytree published Making Their Mark: Canada’s Young Refugees, which featured profiles of 22 Maytree scholars who had gone on to career and personal successes. The program’s last cohort was selected in 2015. Maytree remains engaged with alumni of the program who are living and working in many countries around the world.

In working with the immigrant and refugee community in Canada, Maytree looked at filling critical gaps that would accelerate for newcomers to Canada their successful settlement and inclusion in Canadian society. While it was generally accepted that over time newcomers would settle successfully, Maytree sought to collapse those timeframes so that what might traditionally have taken a generation or two could occur dramatically more quickly by the application of intentionality and design. Sometimes Maytree was able to find effective programs and organizations, which it chose to fund. In other cases, Maytree created programs and took the attitude that it would fund and run them at a level required to achieve success, saving them from the distracting work of fundraising, particularly at a time when the donor community had yet to focus on this set of issues. The idea was that a high-quality program would attract funding from other sources, which often happened.

Maytree collaborated with educational institutions like York University and George Brown College to develop programs in management and leadership training, and operated other programs at Maytree, such as Cities of Migration and DiverseCity onBoard. Maytree also supported legal scholar Benjamin Perrin in writing Invisible Chains, a penetrating look at human trafficking in Canada, and former chair of the Refugee and Immigration Board Peter Showler in writing Fast, Fair and Final: Reforming Canada’s Refugee System.

A major Maytree program was the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), founded in collaboration with the Toronto City Summit Alliance (now known as CivicAction). TRIEC’s goal was the successful integration of skilled immigrants in the labour market. Where traditional programs focused on remediating the deficits of immigrants in language, Canadian experience and credentials, and job culture, TRIEC broadened the focus to include the deficits of employers in hiring from a non-traditional stream. Thus, TRIEC had two major programs:

  1. The Mentoring Partnership matched Canadian mentors with immigrants in a sector and job-specific way (e.g., pharmacist with pharmacist, or accountant with accountant) to coach on specifics of that work in Canada and to open up networks of association to the mentored person; and
  2. Hire Immigrants, which helped employers understand how to design their recruitment and human resource management to get good at taking advantage of a new and highly qualified labour source.

TRIEC operated as a Maytree program from 2003 to 2012, after which it was established as an independent organization.

Capacity building in the community sector

Maytree has long been interested in building capacity in the community sector. Some of the programs mentioned earlier in management and leadership training were established in response to workers in the sector looking for ways to increase the effectiveness of their organizations and to build individual skillsets. The community sector has traditionally been “thinly managed” by dedicated people working in organizations with limited financial resources and a small staff. Few organizations can afford specialists, and most workers must perform a range of tasks, for many of which they have no training. Taking a long time away from their organization for a university semester is beyond the financial reach of many staff and their organizations. Maytree responded to this by creating accessible part-time management and leadership training programs in collaboration with educational institutions like York University and George Brown College, as mentioned above.

Another capacity-building program has been Five Good Ideas, a series which invites an expert in such topics as fundraising, human-resource management, strategic planning, or government relations to offer five good ideas that would help participants think and act practically to improve their performance. The first session was in 2003 and each year since has featured up to eight sessions which are archived on the Maytree website and are now available as podcasts. Maytree published in book form 40 of the sessions: Five Good Ideas: Practical Strategies for Non-Profit Success.

Maytree Policy School rose from a similar source, an expression by some workers in the community sector that their work would benefit from greater acuity on public policy processes.

Maytree Policy School is a six-month program which supports non-profit organizations with a social policy focus to advance evidence-based public policy solutions. It is designed for senior policy professionals who are in a position to influence the public policy direction of their organization and are interested in enhancing their engagement and effectiveness in the policy process.

Maytree has incubated several programs that have gone on to operate independently. One was Roots of Empathy, the groundbreaking program using infant observation as a tool for teaching empathy. Educator Mary Gordon was hired from the Toronto School Board to design and implement the program and has taken it forward as an independent organization. Vital Signs, the signature program of Canada’s community foundations, was co-developed with Nathan Gilbert of the Laidlaw Foundation, with the leadership of Mary Rowe, and gifted to the community foundations.

Maytree has also housed (and continues to house) a number of organizations with which it shares values and goals, offering free or reduced rent plus back-office services. These include Ashoka Canada and the Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation, now known as Loran, in their early days. More recently Maytree has shared its facilities with the Open Democracy Project, Transparency International Canada, Publish What You Pay Canada, Canadians for Tax Fairness, and the Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation. Many small organizations, particularly those tackling big issues and affecting vested interests, find office space and supports difficult to afford.

International learning tours, 2006-2011

Maytree organized and led three international learning tours.

  1. In 2006, a group of foundation leaders traveled to the United Kingdom and Europe, meeting with leading foundations in London, York, Belfast, Brussels, and Gutersloh (the German home of the Bertelsmann Foundation).
  2. In 2009, Maytree organized and led a tour of India for a group of grant makers and social activists, visiting antipoverty urban and rural community organizations in Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai, Tilonia, and Srinagar.
  3. In 2011, Maytree organized a tour of four German cities (Stuttgart, Hamburg, Berlin, and Cologne) to discuss the Canadian experience of the settlement and inclusion of immigrants and refugees. In addition to Maytree staff, leaders included Donna Quan from the Toronto District School Board, Matt Galloway from CBC Radio, Peter Sloly from the Toronto Police Service, and Elizabeth McIsaac from the Toronto Regional Immigrant Employment Council.

Each of these tours was set up to share our Canadian experience and to learn about different perspectives and ways of doing things.

Social policy focus, 1990 to present

In 1992, Maytree co-founded with Ken Battle the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. Ken had been the director of the National Council on Welfare, and was Canada’s leading analyst and commentator on poverty, income distribution, and income supports. Maytree began discussion with Ken its desire to take a policy orientation in its work on poverty. After a decade of grants to individual organizations, Maytree had come to think that public policy offered the chance for constructive change at a larger scale, hopefully at the scale the problems and issues represented.

Ken and Maytree agreed that Caledon would do high-quality research and analysis, communicate in an accessible fashion, focus on identifying solutions rather than merely complaining or assigning blame, and would measure itself by the positive change for people living in poverty to which it contributed. This approach had been the hallmark of Ken’s work, and Maytree was proud to be associated with him. Caledon produced landmark work which identified effective solutions, most notably in income supports for families with children. This led to the 1998 implementation of the refundable Canada Child Tax Benefit, known since 2016 as the Canada Child Benefit.

Caledon worked on income supports for people living with disabilities and provided regular analysis and commentary on social measures in federal budgets, in particular, illuminating the social implications of fiscal measures or changes to the tax code. Ken retired in 2017 after five decades of policy leadership, and the decision was taken to wind down Caledon, which was done at an event featuring the participation of Prime Minster Justin Trudeau. The considerable Caledon archive is now housed on the Maytree website.

Maytree has been involved in the co-founding of several organizations aligned with its work on poverty and creating collective prosperity. In 2001, Maytree co-founded with Paul Born the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement. Tamarack has developed a set of learning events and tools to help people wanting to create a community-wide effort to bring government, business, local institutions, and community organizations to the same table to develop joint initiatives to reduce poverty and exclusion, and hopefully develop enduring local ability to jointly identify issues and solve problems.

Maytree also co-founded in 2004 with Enid Slack, Canada’s leading economist on municipal finance, the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto. IMFG is Canada’s only organization conducting research and analysis on municipal finance and governance, and one of a few in the world. Cities worldwide struggle with fiscal capacity issues that tend to favour national and state or provincial governments. Yet cities are where many of the critical quality-of-life issues are managed, and where many of the critical solutions to poverty, inclusion, justice, and climate change can be dealt with best.

IMFG has researched and analyzed these issues, published accessible research papers, conducted events to lead and contribute to the public discourse, and has responded to government invitations for advice and counsel. Importantly, it has engaged a host of graduate fellows who have gone on to populate city staff and university faculty with expertise in the particular topic matter of municipal finance and its related governance issues.

With Caledon winding down its activities in 2017, Maytree took over some of the continuing activity, particularly Social Assistance Summaries and Welfare in Canada. These two Caledon reports had originated with the National Council of Welfare when Ken Battle was its president, before he co-founded Caledon. When the federal government terminated the Council by defunding it in 2012, Caledon rescued these important reports, and Maytree continued to publish them after 2017.

Maytree also began to build its policy capacity to help fill the significant void left by Caledon’s departure. The strengthened policy team has produced analysis and commentary on income supports and income security, including a look at basic income, housing, and the justice system. It has also focused on how cities can be instrumental in supporting their residents’ access to their human rights.

This policy work employs a human rights lens which, among other things, considers the lived experience of people impacted by the issues in question. It continues the Maytree approach that while a proper analysis and critique can describe problems well, identifying solutions is what will make the greatest contribution to society. Given the complexity of many issues, a single simple solution is not always obvious, so well-analyzed options are more useful.

Human rights, 2014 to present

In 2014, Maytree began to focus on human rights as a powerful lens through which to find solutions to poverty. Elizabeth McIsaac returned to Maytree as president to lead this work.

Antipoverty work in Canada for the most part has been underpinned by social justice, moral, or economic concerns. Some work has been motivated by the lack of fairness and justice in keeping some people struggling to make ends meet, through no fault of their own. Some other work has been motivated by a collective failure to treat each person as our sister or brother. And yet other work has been motivated by the economic drag on society by keeping so many people from participating robustly in the economy, which has led to fewer jobs, fewer privately produced goods and services, fewer tax dollars to fund public goods and services, and considerably less economic stability for the whole country. Each perspective has its solutions, which leads to a focus on charity, or public policy, or legal recourse.

All these approaches have had their successes. Some individual lives are improved by charity, either private small donations or collective efforts like the United Ways. Public policy successes happen at scale through instruments like the Child Tax Benefit, which has reduced child poverty by two-thirds, or Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which have reduced poverty among seniors dramatically, particularly for single seniors whose poverty was dire.

But Canada has not eliminated poverty. Maytree has never believed that poverty is inevitable, that, as some say, “Poverty will always be with us.” Maytree believes that poverty is constructed by the choices we make collectively to advantage some over others, and that, if we make different choices, we can have different outcomes. To make these different collective choices, politicians must be held to account for the outcome of their decisions. A human rights framework does this. As it addresses a particular issue, it requires that there be a plan in place to support the right, appropriate measurements are taken to know if the plan is being executed effectively, and people have access to recourse if the plan fails to deliver. This latter assurance of access to justice, either through the courts or effective quasi-judicial bodies, is what disciplines political choices, requiring decision-makers to go beyond personal beliefs, ideological opinions, and partisan pressures to find solutions that work.

Maytree chose to ground its human rights work in housing, addressing the fact that Canada has a severe shortage of safe, secure, and affordable housing units, particularly for people living with low incomes. The overall shortage has made everyone experience rapidly escalating house prices and made finding an affordable rental unit difficult.

Housing is a fundamental human right, but about 1.7 million households in Canada don’t have access to housing that is affordable, in decent shape, and suitable for them or their families – and many end up becoming homeless. When people can’t access housing that meets their needs, the impacts ripple throughout their lives, the economy, and our communities.

Canada’s governments have failed to respond to a growing crisis for decades, relying on the development industry to build our way out of it. Canada’s developers and builders are good at serving a part of the market, with government compliance in using public funds to connect sprawl suburbs to each other and to utilities like water, sewage, and power. Those developers and builders have amassed personal fortunes in the process. But people at the lower ends of the economy are left out, and governments have responded tardily and inadequately.

As a result, a very large proportion of Canadians are left paying too much of their income on mortgages or rent, live in housing in poor repair or unsafe, and can not enjoy security of tenure because they can be forced out. They do not have safe, secure, and affordable housing, in human rights language.

Entering its fifth decade of work, Maytree remains committed to fighting poverty through a combination of supporting effective organizations with money and other tools, conducting research and analysis, and offering programs to support the community sector. It seeks to support the work of others who share the same objectives, particularly people with lived experience of poverty who bring important knowledge, insight, and dedication. Maytree understands that the road is long and the journey difficult, but it feels it is a privilege to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with others on this path to realizing our full humanity.

Explore more

Why a human rights-based approach

A human rights-based approach to poverty puts people first. Human rights principles and practices can shape our systems to prevent and eliminate poverty.

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Our approach to granting

We take a relationship-based approach to better understand the ideas and plans of groups, and strengthen connections with the people who are leading the work.

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Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas is a lunch-and-learn program where subject-matter experts discuss powerful and practical ideas about key issues facing non-profit organizations.

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