In this Community in Action feature, we’ve profiled dozens of charitable organizations who work to improve various aspects of life in our community. Over the years, many of these groups have applied for, and received funds from, the Comox Valley Community Foundation (CVCF).
The CVCF—itself a charitable organization with a volunteer board of directors—was founded over 25 years ago with a goal to raise and steward funds for the benefit of other local charities. Think of it as being like a community bank account, where donors contribute dollars to be pooled in what’s called an endowment fund, which is then wisely invested. Some donors contribute a lot, some a little—but the main thing is that the donations aren’t spent. They’re invested to generate income, and that’s what gets distributed to various groups and causes.
The CVCF’s endowment fund now sits at over $16 million, which means that every year, several hundred thousand dollars are made available to local groups from Black Creek to Hornby Island.
In the past, any Valley organization who wanted a piece of the pie needed to apply for a grant, explain how the funds would be used, and, later, provide a follow-up report. Funding decisions were made by a granting committee or the board of directors. Applications were project-based and ongoing operational costs weren’t usually eligible for grants. So if a charity wanted to do something specific (like build a playground), it usually had a better chance of receiving funds than if it needed to pay the rent.
The thinking behind this was that the Foundation needed to be accountable to its donors and show measurable outcomes for dollars spent. The other 200 or so community foundations across Canada use a similar process, and the model has worked well for decades.
But recently, the CVCF began reimagining its methods.
“The whole pandemic really made us think about everything we did,” says Executive Director Susan Auchterlonie. “It brought the disparities between the Valley’s haves and have-nots front and centre.” She mentions, for example, children suddenly unable to access nutritious food through breakfast and lunch programs when schools shut down in spring 2020. Frontline groups sprang into action to help those most affected by COVID-19, and within 30 days, the CVCF was directing funds to these initiatives.
Shortly after, the CVCF started letting go of the purse strings. “What we’d done in the past no longer seemed relevant going forward,” explains Auchterlonie. “We wanted to put decision-making back with the community and let each organization decide its priorities.”
By moving away from the traditional, paperwork-heavy granting model, the Foundation has found itself at the forefront of Canadian philanthropy. Today, while some CVCF grants are still determined through a traditional application process, most of its other monies are disbursed on a trust- and community-based basis that’s remarkable in its simplicity.
The Comox Valley Coalition to End Homelessness is one of the beneficiaries of this new model. After the CVCF asked local organizations to identify issues of concern, and homelessness and housing insecurity emerged as the clear priority, the Foundation launched a three-year “trust pilot” partnership with the Coalition.
The Foundation assures a revenue stream ($75,000 per year for three years) allotted through a consensus-based decision-making process that involves a review committee made up of Coalition members, advisors, and the community.
This is a significant shift from business as usual, and one that Betty Tate, a member of the Coalition’s Leadership Team, says is “huge and welcome. It brings the decision making closer to where the work is being done in the community.”
The Coalition consists of 39 member agencies working on a variety of initiatives related to housing, homelessness, and community support. Additional informal outreach groups working to address housing insecurity can also apply for CVCF funding. In the past, agencies have unwittingly competed for funds, but the current process is more transparent and allows for greater collaboration under the oversight of Angela Fletcher, the Coalition’s coordinator.
Now, members of the Coalition decide, on a rotating volunteer basis, how funds will be allocated. “The coalition feels good about having that responsibility,” says Tate, and Fletcher adds that it’s brought the various agencies closer together.
As Auchterlonie notes, “If our goal is to address housing insecurity and support those experiencing homelessness, what better way is there to do that than to engage those organizations and individuals who know the issue best?” She adds, “We use this same approach for all our granting programs now.”
In addition to the housing trust pilot, the Foundation has handed over the reins of decision making in many of the areas it funds—arts and culture, environment, Indigenous, and more—so those who understand these sectors best can make collaborative decisions about which initiatives to fund. This shift is already yielding results in terms of better communication and more effective use of funds.
“Trusting that the community can do this, and do it well, was a big risk that the Community Foundation took, and huge kudos to them, because in the long run, when we do these collaborations, we end up with better results,” Betty Tate says. “That makes me want to step up and do a good job.”
Sunday Station is a non-profit group that provides a free meal service every Sunday in Courtenay.
TRUST IN ACTION
In the two years since the trust pilot began, the Coalition has granted CVCF funds to six organizations working on the front lines of the homelessness crisis:
• Comox Bay Care Society received funds for its mobile Care-A-Van outreach program.
• Comox Valley Affordable Housing Society received operating dollars for the regional rent bank.
• Comox Valley Head Injury Society can assist its most vulnerable clients with rent and utilities subsidies to ensure they remain housed.
• Dawn to Dawn Action Society on Homelessness has been able to offer recreational programming.
• Hornby Island Housing Society undertook a housing needs assessment and is developing a comprehensive, inclusive community housing strategy unique to its rural, island location.
• Sunday Station purchased a storage container to aid ITS weekly meal program.
The Coalition has also been able to fund some of its own operational costs, and provide financial support to the Connect Warming Centre, which provides services to help meet the many needs of the unsheltered within the Comox Valley.