Until 1979, Marine reservists (frequently in their dress blue uniforms) and volunteers would collect and refurbish used toys. In 1980, only new toys were accepted, as reservists were no longer able to dedicate drill hours to refurbishing toys, as well as legal concerns, to prevent the accidental giving of recalled items, and the mixed message of giving hand-me-downs as a message of hope.
In 1991, the Secretary of Defense authorized the creation and affiliation with the non-profit charity foundation.
In 1995, the Secretary of Defense approved Toys for Tots as an official mission of the Marine Corps Reserve.
Noting in 1996 that many communities did not have a Marine reservist presence, the commander of the Marine Forces Reserve authorized Marine Corps League detachments and other local organizations to fill the gaps in toy collection and distribution.
The mission of the program "is to collect new, unwrapped toys during October, November and December each year, and distribute those toys as Christmas gifts to needy children in the community in which the campaign is conducted."
The stated goal is to "deliver, through a new toy at Christmas, a message of hope to less fortunate youngsters that will assist them in becoming responsible, productive, and patriotic citizens."