The times they are a-changin' for community groups

Moira Baird
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A year ago, Harbour Breton's first Internet cafe opened its doors at the site of a former fishing premises.

For volunteer groups in the south coast town of about 1,900 people, it was an experiment in forging partnerships with each other, providing new programs and raising money from new sources.

A year ago, Harbour Breton's first Internet cafe opened its doors at the site of a former fishing premises.

For volunteer groups in the south coast town of about 1,900 people, it was an experiment in forging partnerships with each other, providing new programs and raising money from new sources.

The Funship Internet Cafe sells baked goods, sandwiches, coffee, tea, offers free use of its computers, and provides programs for seniors.

Volunteers do most of the work running the cafe.

"We ended up with a social enterprise," said Marie Bungay, co-ordinator of the Harbour Breton Community Youth Network.

"The idea was to offer an inter-generational mentorship program that would involve both seniors and youth."

The seniors teach the youth about traditional recipes, how to bake and share stories with them. The youth network's volunteers help seniors learn how to use computers, e-mail and to navigate the Internet and Facebook.

"It's brought so much to the community," said Bungay. "Many of these seniors were stay-at-home moms ... and now they're taking such pride in the fact they they're going to work. They have a work schedule as volunteers."

Led by the Funship Fifty Plus Club, the project partners include the town, the youth community network, and Central Health's primary health-care program.

It started with $25,000 in funding from a program called new horizons for seniors, and the groups pooled their resources, including their volunteers.

The cafe covers its costs and any profit earned goes back into the Funship Fifty Plus for their own programs.

Bungay said the groups have given presentations on how others can turn new ideas into reality. One key is bringing plenty of partners on board.

"Those things can't come about without partnerships in the community.

"It doesn't just apply necessarily to a rural community, it applies to any community regardless of size - that you can make things happen if you partner.

"You can't do things on your own."

Penny Rowe, CEO of the Community Sector Council of Newfoundland and Labrador, agrees.

The Community Sector Council is working on its own clusters project - which is designed to bring organizations in different communities together. The province is providing support for these efforts on the Bonavista Peninsula and the Burin area.

By working together, Rowe said, small community groups can increase their own capacity to recruit volunteers, train them and deliver programs.

"It's about partnering and collaborating, and not always thinking that each organization has to work in isolation."

Coming up with new ideas is only one part of the equation.

Rowe envisions a funding agency - a research and development fund - specifically for the community volunteer sector to test innovative ways of doing their work.

"As we move forward ... we're going to have to find new ways of doing things. New ways of thinking.

"We will not be able to do things as we've traditionally done them."

The problem for most volunteer-based community groups is, often, they don't have the time or resources to step back from their day-to-day work to come up with creative ways to deliver services.

"Most people are so busy doing the job that they're there to do."

Rowe said the non-profit, community sector is typically risk-averse.

Volunteer groups receiving government funding must account for how those dollars are spent - and only good results will ensure future funding.

"Your accountability always has to show you've had a positive outcome," Rowe said.

"Whereas if you think about innovation in the private sector, typically, people will try things. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail.

"It's very often from the failures that we learn the most."

Rowe said there's nothing wrong with that kind of funding, but it's not the way new ideas are encouraged.

That's where an R&D fund for the volunteer sector would come into the picture.

Rowe points to the province's Research & Development Corp., which is tasked with increasing the amount of research and development activity in the province.

She said a similar fund is needed for the non-profit sector.

"That fund is not open to the community-based sector for the kind of community-based social, health, cultural, environmental work that the sector needs to do."

A fund for community groups would help "seed" new ideas and new ways of doing things.

"Small investment would probably gain huge benefit for the province, for the people, for our communities as we work together to try to do things differently."

Rowe said the same things are being discussed by volunteer groups across the country.

"The world is changing. I think perhaps the difference in Newfoundland and Labrador is we all have a pretty optimistic perspective about what's happening in the province.

"And we've come to expect this particular government to be open to new ideas, to be creative, to want to do things differently.

"To me, it's a really exciting opportunity to be in the vanguard again."

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Harbour Breton Community Youth Network, Community Sector Council, Research & Development

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Burin

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