The Finnish Cultural Foundation has its origins in an informal meeting of young university staff and students, when the idea of supporting Finnish endeavours in the arts and the sciences to counterbalance the traditional strength of Swedish-speaking culture in Finland was born. The prime mover and force behind the idea was the historian L.A. Puntila. Other figures involved included Martti Haavio, Lauri Hakulinen, Urho Kekkonen, Yrjö Reenpää, Tyko Reinikka, Ilmari Turja, and many others.

Puntila penned an article in the weekly Suomen Kuvalehti at the beginning of 1937 in which the idea of establishing a cultural foundation was voiced publicly for the first time. The writer was keen to turn the idea into reality as soon as possible, and the Finnish Cultural Foundation Association was formally established on Kalevala Day, February 28, 1937. The initial funds for the Foundation were provided by donations from a bank director, Mauri Honkajuuri, and a teacher, Juho Jäkälä.

Collections

The base capital for the Foundation was provided by collections from the population at large. The idea for the first collection, proposed by Puntila, was widely marketed in the press, a unique development for the time. A collection carried out by some 30,000 schoolchildren in 1938 promoted the idea further. A total of 170,000 Finns took part in the charter collection, which generated 10 million markka for the new Foundation, of which seven million took the form of small donations of less than 1,000 markka, the equivalent of around €300 in today's money.

In addition to the charter collection, a separate donation collection was also arranged for more affluent donors. The first such donor was Helmi Nuuttila, a farmer's wife from Asikkala. She was followed by Artturi and Aina Helenius from Vyborg and Ewald and Ingrid Henttu. Others included Hanna Parviainen and Emil Kärpänoja.

In addition to private individuals, companies also began to sign up to support Finnish cultural endeavours. By 1939, the Foundation had amassed 20 million markka in donations and bequests, of which 25% came from companies. The Finnish Cultural Foundation was founded on February 27, 1939, when the capital collected by the Association was transferred to the new organisation. The Foundation awarded its first million on its first Annual Gala held on February 27.

Since the beginning, the Foundation's donors have included a broad cross-section of people. Heikki Huhtamäki donated a majority shareholding in the Huhtamäki company to the Foundation in 1943. Anna Palmroos, a teacher from Pori, made two significant donations in 1937 and 1942 out of money she had saved from her salary. Thriftiness has been a feature of many of the Foundation's donors over the years.

Finns took part in a second major collection for the Foundation on the occasion of its 25th anniversary in 1964, when three separate collections were organised. These generated 4.3 million markka from 560,636 donors.

The collection promoted the Foundation and its activities among a new generation, and saw the total amount of donations given to the Foundation rise to 30 million markka the following year, 1965.

Involving the provinces

The focus of the Foundation's activities has always reflected the spirit of the times. During the early years and the war, uniting the nation was high on the agenda, and promoting the arts and the sciences was seen as an important way of achieving this. In the 1950s, the emphasis shifted to promoting awards and competitions and general education.

A more active approach to developing the arts nationally, together with regional development, emerged as general trends in the 1960s, and the Foundation turned its attention to the provinces and established a series of regional funds. There are now 17 of these, which cover the entire country. The first regional fund to be created was the North Finland Regional Fund, which saw the light of day in 1953, initially as an independent trust before being integrated into the Finnish Cultural Foundation in 1954 and splitting into the Lapland, Kainuu, and North Ostrobothnia Regional Funds. The Central Finland Regional Fund was the next to be established, in 1958. The remainder were created in rapid succession by 1964. The last regional fund to be established was the Päijät-Häme Regional Fund, in 1971.

The regions account for an average of 30% of the total sum distributed by the Foundation in the form of grants. Each regional fund distributes hundreds of thousands of euros annually. Thanks to its regional funds, the Foundation is present across Finland. While following the Foundation's general approach, the emphasis of regional funds is on taking local conditions and local needs into account.

Towards the end of the 1960s, the Foundation decided to take a lower profile in public debate and focus on supporting the arts and the sciences. The amount of grant money distributed did not increase in real terms between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, however. It was only after the major economic downturn at the beginning of the 1990s that a major growth in the Foundation's assets began to make itself felt, and has now made the Foundation a significantly more important source of funding than at any time previously. At the same time, the Foundation has had to reassess its overall role, particularly in relation to the cultural policy pursued at state and municipal level. The Foundation remains committed to its vision of a national purpose and to the role the arts and the sciences have to play as a dynamic force in society. The Foundation also believes that in today's increasingly global world Finnish science and the arts have even more to give.