March 14, 2010
It all began when the curling rink’s ice-making equipment failed. The club had no money set aside for such eventualities. What community organization ever does? So it turned to the municipal government. Actually, it turned to two municipal governments – the town of McCreary, Manitoba, pop. 500, and the surrounding rural municipality, pop. 600. Neither one had a budget for such things.
The curling club’s crisis brought a deeply-unsatisfactory situation to a head. McCreary has six major recreational organizations – a dance hall, a community centre, a golf course, an agricultural society, a swimming pool and, of course, a curling rink. The six organizations were competing to raise funds in a tiny community – and people were getting tired of giving. I don’t curl or golf, so why should I support the rink and the golf course?
The leaders of the six organizations held a summit meeting, and came up with a brilliant idea. They would form an umbrella group named The McCreary Umbrella, and they would fund-raise together, allocating money to three of the six organizations each year. They went to the municipalities, and asked them to put into each of their own budgets a $5000 annual contribution to the Umbrella. The municipalities were happy to do it, knowing that the contribution would end the desperate and unpredictable pleas for emergency funding.
The Umbrella committee members rolled up their sleeves. Each organization agreed to host a fund-raising event once a year, and to work together to provide volunteers for all such events. They ran a monthly bingo, and raised $30,000 in a year. They did the catering for weddings in the hall, up to 15 a year. They collected everybody’s junk and held a huge community auction in the rink, and raised thousands of dollars in a single day.
Admittedly, they had great auctioneers. I heard about the Umbrella from Don and Doris Fletcher, who attended a conference in Brandon with me in January. Don and Doris are professional auctioneers, and astonishingly good ones. Don auctioned off a $35 book of mine for $53, and Doris auctioned a second copy for more than $80.
Don is a former municipal councillor, which helped in persuading the councils – but the Umbrella members also realized that they were spending public funds, and they had to be both transparent and fair. The key thing, says Don Fletcher, is that the Umbrella demanded that each of the six participating organizations draw up a five-year financial plan, and update it every year.
“That stumped them,” says Don. “They never had any foresight before, and it took them a long time. I knew how to do it from working on the municipal road program. But it forced them to think about management, and about maintenance and all those things.”
It’s true. How many community organizations ever have a financial plan that forces them to think about the fact that the furnace will need replacing, the roof is looking seedy, and you can’t get away forever without replacing the equipment in the bar? When a consultant from Winnipeg attended a meeting about the decrepit rink, he made furious notes – which turned out to be a drawing of a bulldozer.
In five years, however, The Umbrella distributed nearly $200,000. It also set aside $20,000 as a reserve fund, never to be disbursed. This wasn’t just prudence. The Manitoba government has programs that provide matching funds for community needs – but the community organization has to find the original funding. The reserve fund was available for all six organizations, who could literally take it to the bank and borrow against it, then repay the loan from its semi-annual allocations. No project in McCreary was ever stuck for matching money again.
The Umbrella also forced its members to act as a single community. When the rink was in desperate need, the agricultural society and the golf course gave it their allocations. Within three years the building was up to code. Instead of driving wedges in the community, the new fund-raising mechanism was pulling the community together – and, says Don Fletcher, it had turned the work into fun.
Brilliant. Simple. And why wouldn’t it work just as well in Middleton, Middle River or Middle Stewiacke?
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