CIGI was founded as a not-for-profit institution in 2001 to advance policy thinking on pressing governance issues linked to economic and global policy challenges. By 2005, CIGI’s research programs were already expanding rapidly, with many projects creating considerable impact.  Most notably, CIGI’s proposals for innovation in the G8 system helped lead to the creation of the G20 leaders’ summits.

From 2007 to 2010, CIGI focused on recalibrating existing internal management processes and systems, leading to the development of its first five-year strategic plan, for 2010–2015. The plan outlined CIGI’s research under distinct themes, each led by a director. During these years, CIGI also partnered with the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University to launch the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA), culminating in the 2011 completion of construction of the CIGI Campus.

By 2012–2013, CIGI had expanded its in-house research capacity — recruiting directors of the Global Economy and the Global Security & Politics Programs, more research staff and new fellows to lead projects — while also creating a more formal program of work and budget for board approval each year. The increase in project publications and events mirrored the expansion of the program mandates and enhanced capacity.

The International Law Research Program (ILRP), launched in 2013, represents the third pillar of CIGI’s core research streams along with Global Economy and Global Security & Politics. These three themes continue to be complemented by cross-cutting initiatives that focus on development, environment and energy, and other relevant issues, with governance remaining the overarching theme.