Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Center - Renewing a Sense of Community

In my recent blog post How I Got To Know My Community by Getting Involved, I described the origins of a nonprofit group I have been a member of since I moved to the US, The Center For Community Renewal. I wanted to describe a little more about what "The Center" has done over its history, because unfortunately, the organization could soon fold.

The Mission Statement of The Center is "Foster and support local, grassroots initiatives that strengthen communities and neighborhoods by providing financial, volunteer, educational and consulting resources not readily available elsewhere." Ian Durand, the Executive Director, brought together a group of local people who were involved with different nonprofit groups in the area. Our meetings often consisted of brainstorming sessions where we discussed projects of our own respective organizations or of others, and how to solve some of the problems that arose. Because the members have always had a wide range of experience, wonderful symbiotic relationships developed. Whatever the problem or challenge, there was usually someone who had found an answer, had good information to share, or could come up with some good ideas.

We initiated our own projects. Among the most successful were several series of "mini-grants." These were small awards of up to $500 made to a local organization or individual in order to get a grassroots project going. The recipients of these grants had a great idea that would generally help to foster a sense of community, but were not likely to receive money from elsewhere. Ideally, we wanted the awards to help get a project off the ground in a way that could be sustained. We also offered the recipients advice and support.

One such project, "Heavenly Angels," started with a very detailed application from its founder, Linda Seickel, for under $100 for materials (yarn, etc.). Linda wanted to make clothes, blankets and related items for premature babies in local hospitals and burial gowns for those who had died. We asked her what she might be able to do with $500. Eight years later, Heavenly Angels has made and donated well over twenty thousand items. Another recipient was a woman who wanted to put together and give "kitchen start-up kits" to households in Manville, NJ who had lost everything in Hurricane Floyd.

Another project of The Center was something we called "Passport to Edison." This was a weekend event designed to help familiarize Edisonians with the different parts of our Town and local organizations. We set up "checkpoints" at places of significance around Edison Township. Collaborating with different township groups, we "stamped the passports" of people traveling around town, the idea being to collect all the stamps. We produced a guidebook to Edison to accompany this event.

A few years ago, Ian Durand and his Wife April Cormaci decided to move to Canada. Up until now, The Center has survived, but in a much scaled-down version. Members have taken turns to facilitate meetings. We did offer a round of mini-grants, and organized a round-table discussion and networking event for local groups. However, without Ian and April at the helm, there have been problems. The couple supported the organization financially, so when they moved, our group was without a revenue stream. In addition, we are so heavily involved with our own projects and organizations that we are unable to devote the amount of time The Center deserves.

At the most recent meeting, we started discussing whether to continue The Center or not. It is looking like the Center may not be around for much longer. I am personally very upset about this, as we have done some wonderful things, but I can see that without a dedicated leader and a revenue stream, it really cannot continue in its current form.

I am already thinking about the possibility of starting another group or project to keep the spirit of The Center alive. I want to preserve some of the best parts of the organization. This would probably include offering small grants to great projects that might not otherwise get grant money, and creating opportunities for nonprofit organizations, community groups and individuals to build useful relationships with one another. Of course, it would need to be financed in some way. There is also the issue of people having the time to participate. It is possible that there could be a role for Social Media and other ways for people to get involved virtually.

I would love to hear your opinions or any input you might have about this idea. Please post a comment.


Leora said...

I hope you find your niche, even if this particular organization can't continue in its same form.

I was just talking with someone about how so much private grant money is down, due to the economy and the stock market being down (and that's without ponzi schemers like Madoff).

Graham said...

Thanks, Leora! I think the key would be to keep things small and manageable.

I was thinking a loose collective of people, probably mainly keeping in touch via social media, with a variety of expertise.

It would need a revenue stream of some kind, if we wanted to offer small grants (I'm still thinking that $500 is a good figure to get a small project off the ground).

This way, a grassroots project can get advice, support and financial help.

While I'd like to see this explode nationally (internationally), I think a local start would be best.

Any thoughts?

Graham said...

I'm very pleased to say that things are looking better for The Center! Originally we had 501(c)3 non-profit status through an umbrella organization, The National Heritage Foundation. Since this organization has filed for bankruptcy, we no longer enjoy that status.

However, we have found renewed enthusiasm within the group, and are now determined to regain nonprofit status for ourselves. It's not going to be easy, and we're going to have to raise some money (which is more difficult when you don't yet have nonprofit status), but the wheels are in motion, and we have set ourselves some targets.