Community bonding

by Jini Stolk

The lack of reliable support for arts venues (and for those running, renting, maintaining, upgrading and renovating them) often feels like the elephant in the cultural policy room.

Two recent meetings, one convened by the Toronto Arts Council and one by the Metcalf Foundation, acknowledged the additional pressures (including but not exclusively financial) of owning a space. While neither meeting was meant to advance new program or funding plans they were useful gatherings that clearly defined the issues at hand: the need for production and co-production formats (and ideally funding) that take into account the venues’ contributions; and the need for flexible capital expertise (and adequate funding) on an as-needed basis.

For spaces with such a large community impact, we’re currently leaving each organization to find its own solutions in its own way and on its own time. Not perfect.

This is why creative capital financing solutions become so exciting.

The Centre for Social Innovation, always a leader in new ideas and brave ventures and whose board I served on for 10 years, was one of the first to use interest-bearing community bonds to finance a nonprofit workspace – CSI Annex, where I work.

And they’re doing it again. On October 16th CSI announced that they’re buying the Murray Building, across the street from CSI Spadina – a brick and beam building with 64,000 sq feet of “urban goodness and world changing potential.” CEO Tonya Surman wrote a blog about the why of buying a building to secure affordable long term rental space for social innovation in downtown Toronto.

To raise the capital needed for this purchase, CSI is issuing a new series of Community Bonds with minimum investments starting at only $1,000. This week they reached their first goal point of $1 million, with $3 million still to go. While community bonds are not a solution for every organization – they require a healthy and sophisticated financial and organizational capacity – they definitely have potential for a number of arts organizations in our community and beyond. They’re also, as you would imagine, a superlative opportunity to expand community ties, drawing a wide range of people closer to your organization’s goals and space.

If you’re interested in aligning your money and your values, the CSI is hosting information sessions for anyone interested. Contact Leah Pollock 416.407.8040 or [email protected].

Ideas like this are necessary to prevent the struggles of many arts organizations in the States, who’ve been succumbing to a pattern of crisis recently outlined by the Nonprofit Quarterly:

  • A commitment in 2007 or 2008 was made to a new building or other expensive outlay on the basis of pre-recession assumptions.
  • The recession hits, and not only does it negatively affect the group’s capital goals, but it also affects its operating revenue.
  • Debt grows and the organization often cannibalizes its capacity in an attempt to stay afloat.
  • The organization no longer appears viable unless some institution, be it public or private or some combination thereof, realizes that the group is a valuable enough city asset to make a strong enough investment to bring it back.

In retrospect, we’re very lucky that the Province of Ontario acknowledged these pressures on some of the Cultural Renaissance building projects supported by the Canada-Ontario Infrastructure Program, and provided increased operating funding to help them avoid debilitating financial difficulties. In fact, although I’m knocking on wood as we speak, very careful planning combined with the sort of natural caution we’re good at in Canada, seems to have resulted in relatively strong and successful arts capital projects of all sizes in Toronto.

I have to end by saying, with frustration and some anger, that MaRS’ inability to find tenants for their newest building or make timely payments on their loan could very well close the door on expanding access to the province’s Infrastructure Loan Program. The Ontario Nonprofit Network worked very hard for years – as did a number of sectors including, prominently, the arts community – to negotiate opening this capital loan program to a wider range of nonprofits. We were all committed to doing this in a way that reduced any likelihood of default through a system of thorough financial analysis, tight business planning, and the provision of ongoing professional expertise and support – ensuring that organizations receiving loans could safely afford their carrying costs.

It’s particularly galling because some of the officials we talked to over that time seemed to feel that well-qualified and capable arts organizations, daycares and nonprofit housing groups posed an unacceptable risk to the province’s financial stability. As if! The front-page news around MaRS has done more harm than any loan-ready arts group, community-run daycare or nonprofit housing provider could ever have done.

The vast majority of nonprofit and charitable organizations feel a compelling responsibility to use public funds well and carefully. Why is this still such a little known fact?

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