Three Northlanders have been recognised with the launch of a new awards programme by Foundation North.

The Tohu Autaia Community Stars Awards honoured 21 people from Northland and Auckland who have made a significant contribution in the not-for-profit sector.

The Northland awards go to Raewyn Tipene, chief executive of Whangārei Māori school Te Kāpehu Whetū; Damien Clark, co-founder and chairman of Whangārei Youth Space, and Haka Bristow, installation leader Healthy Homes Tai Tokerau.

The name of the awards, Tohu Autaia - meaning "sign of an outstanding person", was gifted by Foundation North's kaumātua, Kevin Prime, who is from Northland.

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The awards mark the return over 30 years of a billion dollars into Auckland and Northland communities. Foundation North began in 1988 as the (ASB Trust) community trust for Auckland and Northland after the sale of the Auckland Savings Bank to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. It is a perpetual endowment of nearly $1.4 billion allocated for community projects.

"Over the last 30 years, we have returned a billion dollars to the region in grants to not-for-profit groups and community initiatives,'' Foundation North CEO Jennifer Gill said.

''While that is a significant amount of money, the greater contribution is the commitment made by tens of thousands of people over that time to put time into improving the lives of everyone who is lucky enough to live here.''

Gill said the inaugural Tohu Autaia awards recognise a diverse range of people, from emerging leaders through to those who have made a lifetime contribution to Auckland and Northland, and to New Zealand.

''They are the people who run environmental, sports, cultural, arts and entertainment programmes, who create initiatives that make a difference for the region's children and young people, and who take action to help people in need."

The awards were hosted at Government House in Auckland by the Governor-General, the Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy on Wednesday.