Eight governments came together in 1949 to form the modern Commonwealth. Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and the United Kingdom declared themselves to be “united as free and equal members” co-operating together in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.

More than six decades later, membership has grown to 53 countries. The Commonwealth Foundation was registered as a Charitable Trust and came into being under English law on 1 March 1966 and has been steadily evolving since. At the outset, Commonwealth leaders recognised the value that the efforts and endeavours of people acting outside the realm of government bring to the Commonwealth, primarily through the associations of professionals.

Throughout the 1970s the concept of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) developed and Commonwealth leaders responded by expanding the mandate of the Foundation. It was reconstituted as an intergovernmental organisation (IGO) in 1982, with a remit to work with a wider range of civic organisations on specific issues including gender equality and culture.

From 1982 the Foundation started to establish an international network of development orientated NGOs, beyond the professional associations. These NGOs were largely national in their focus and distinct from the relatively well-resourced international NGOs. The Foundation worked with these partners to advance a development agenda that was broadly consistent with Commonwealth priorities. The 1980s also saw the Foundation support several professional development centres or hubs across the Commonwealth and many of these still function effectively today.

In the 1990s the Foundation used its grant making to address an emerging global development agenda, for example by supporting the participation of NGOs in major international development processes. In 1999 the Foundation presented a major piece of research on the relationship between participatory governance and good development outcomes to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Durban. This heralded a new era of facilitating dialogue between Civil Society and governments through Commonwealth processes.

At the CHOGM in Port of Spain in 2009, Heads of Government committed to the reform of Commonwealth institutions. They established the Eminent Persons Group, which highlighted the importance of Civil Society Organisations to the future of the Commonwealth. In their final report they made several recommendations on ways in which the Foundation could support this constituency. When the report was received in Perth in 2011, Commonwealth Heads of Government committed:

“To promote the future of the Commonwealth through the strong and important voice of its people by … re-launching the Commonwealth Foundation in 2012, while retaining its fundamental intergovernmental nature and maintaining its accountability to member states, with a revised mandate and Memorandum of Understanding so that it can more effectively deliver the objectives of strengthening and mobilising Civil Society in support of Commonwealth principles and priorities.”

The Commonwealth Foundation re-launched on 1 November 2012. Responding to this mandate, a new strategic plan marks the beginning of a third phase in the evolution of the Foundation. It breaks new ground for the organisation, signaling a determination to apply more focus, rigour and an outcomes orientation to its work.