Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

For communities, money talks


Last time, I talked in this column about the importance of our community's institutions for our future as an English-speaking minority in Quebec. I suggested that the efforts of community development organizations should be put to the test of asking if what they are doing is strengthening our institutions - schools, health and social service agencies, religious, and cultural establishments. If not, their work needs to be reconsidered.

After making this point in a speech that I gave recently in Hull, a senior public servant made a challenging observation: if the link between a community and its institutions is so critical for the survival of both, why do institutional leaders and community leaders often not work together closely or effectively?

It's a good question. Over the years, it seems like our school and social service agency leaders have kept a wary distance from the community organizations that sprang up in the 1980s. Only grave threats to their institutional existence, like the proposal to unify school boards or the recent assault on the boards of directors of health and social service establishments brings institutional leadership into coalition with community leaders. Why?

I've thought about this for a bit and I've come to an answer - it's money. In matters large and small, money does indeed make the world go round.

It's perfectly understandable that institutional leaders find it worth their while to invest in good relations with the sources of their funding. Unfortunately, our schools and health and social service institutions have become almost entirely the budgetary creatures of the government. We do support these institutions, of course, but it's at such arm's length through the tax system and the administrative structures of government departments that institutional leaders can largely ignore the communities they serve.

This bureaucratized system of service provision has many strengths, but minority communities are not well served by institutional leaders who are simply financial clients of the majority's governing structures.

The most dynamic minority communities are the ones that maintain considerable autonomy in the provision of community services. If we look at the Jewish community in Montreal, for example, or the Armenians, we see that one thing that characterizes their life as communities is a high degree of charitable giving. This money is raised through "combined appeals" and managed through representative foundations. And millions of dollars a year are channeled into schools, hospitals, and theatres. In these communities, there also tends to be a very close and effective relationship between community and institutional leaders.

It all makes sense - if I'm principal of a local school and the community puts $100,000 a year into my institution above and beyond what I receive from the Ministry of Education, then I'm going to work hard to maintain good relations with the surrounding community.

I think the time has come for us to consider expanding our capacity to invest in our community through charitable giving. We need to create structures like community foundations that would allow us to maximize the impact of the resources that we have. Community foundations not only raise new money by providing tax incentives for giving, but can also leverage existing resources by offering existing charitable funds professional management and investment services. These community foundations can also publicize the positive impact of direct financial support of local institutions, creating a virtuous circle of giving and understanding the positive impact of the charitable support.

It is true that combined appeals and community foundations can become the focus of some rather intense community politics. But that is a good thing if the foundation is intelligently managed and has popular support. The check on all excess with these foundations is the voluntary character of participation. In the end, if the community foundation fails to enhance the quality of life of acommunity through its institutions, the people can just take their money elsewhere.

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