Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

Grassroots Community Fundraising and the Particulars of Location

Covered in plants and delicate white birdcages, the Bernard Street storefront of Tamey Lau’s flower shop was a much-loved and often-photographed feature of Montreal’s Mile End. Lau could be counted on to be at Dragon Flowers every day, helping customers make selections, answering their questions, and taking time out of an interview to prepare a cardboard box full of plants and gifts for the teachers at the local preschool. The shop was a two-decade-old institution, and shock reverberated through the community when it went up in flames on the evening of April 22.

Lau, speaking while putting together floral arrangements, says that she was in the middle of cooking dinner when she got the call about her shop. She biked over in her pajamas to find that “everything was game over.” As she stands in a gutted room with exposed beams and insulation, her plants—the only thing her insurance would cover—are darkened by the plywood-covered storefront. 

But things weren’t as hopeless as she thought: News of the fire spread quickly, and local resident Nora Butler Burke and some friends began an online fundraiser—with word spread primarily through Facebook—to help Lau with the rebuilding costs. The campaign reached its ten thousand dollar funding goal in under 24 hours. A Vancouver resident, who hadn’t lived in the Mile End for nine years, felt compelled to help out. The Royal Phoenix, a local bar, raised money as well, and a supportive tweet from the quintessentially Montreal band Arcade Fire certainly didn’t hurt. As Burke told CBC's Daybreak, Lau is “really institutional to not just Bernard Street, but to the neighbourhood.”

Dragon Flowers' fundraiser benefitted from having a large, committed population, typical of urban centres, from which to draw support. While the idea of a community-led initiative is an inspiring way around the usual lines of funding, in smaller areas the model may be harder to replicate. Getting community projects going is much easier in high-population cities. Even with the same level of community involvement and enthusiasm, projects in more rural areas often struggle to get off the ground.

When organizations in Alberta’s Lac La Biche and Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories, needed to build playgrounds, they looked to a large-scale non-governmental funding option, the Aviva Community Fund. The annual contest, organized by the insurance provider, splits their one million dollar donation between several winning projects, decided by a panel of judges after passing two voting rounds. When support and community enthusiasm far outstrip fundraising potential, initiatives like the Aviva Fund allow communities to capitalize on that support, using it to jumpstart the project's completion. Lac La Biche was awarded five thousand dollars to rebuild the community’s unsafe 35-year-old playground; a sum the hamlet, with a population of only 2,500, would have had difficulty raising through the kind of grassroots campaign used in the Mile End. 

The same was true for Children First Centre, a childcare facility in Inuvik. Fraser Pearce, a member of the board of directors, says getting funding for a new playground from outside the town of only 3,500 residents was essential. “The amount of funding that’s available from businesses and personal donations here is limited just by the fact that we have a small population,” he says. “The community’s been very generous, but there’s a limit to everything. So we were looking for funding opportunities outside the community that the community could still claim a bit of ownership over.” The Aviva Fund seemed to fit that bill. “You still need the support of your community in order to be successful.”

For both playgrounds, the Aviva Fund offered a certain legitimacy. The competition, says Jennifer Okrainec, the interim chair of the Lac La Biche Active Kids Society, “allowed us to have some matching money for when we apply for grants and other funding.” Pearce agrees, saying that the Inuvik centre was able to leverage their performance in the competition to successfully apply for grants. "The amount we were awarded really reflected the fact that volunteers had brought the project this far." 

But even with the backing of legitimate organizations, these projects often do better when they stay small in scope. Dragon Flower’s success in fundraising was no doubt owed, in part, to the fact that contributors felt like even a small donation would make a big impact. Lau recounts that the neighbourhood children “broke their piggybanks, brought the money for me. I said ‘I don’t need kids’ money, get out of here, I’ll tell your mum.’ And they said, ‘My mum knows, it’s okay.’” Even when the contribution comes in the form of votes instead of cash, a small, focused project will often do better. The Inuvik Children First Society initially entered the Aviva competition in 2011 to fund its centre more generally. They didn’t win, and came back the next year with the smaller-scale playground proposal. “We learned that we had to have a really specific project in order to grab the attention of not just the people who are voting for us, but also the judges.”

But while a photograph of Tamey Lau in front of her shop, with accompanying links to the fundraising page, was shared on Facebook over four hundred times within five days of the fire, there might be an advantage to looking beyond community support. The Inuvik playground is hoping to receive equipment by July and have the playground built in time for the centre’s grand opening in September, but Lau’s flower shop has run into problems that might have been made worse by the public swell of support. Lau says her landlord is refusing to take responsibility for rebuilding because of the fundraising money Lau received. The Quebec Civil Code states that the landlord is responsible for repairs to the leased property, and Jamie Benizri, attorney and founder of Montreal law firm Legal Logik, agrees. "Ultimately the landlord has the obligation to put the space back in the shape that it was prior to the fire, to mitigate losses and to allow the tenant to continue operating from that location," he says.

Benizri says that the Dragon Flowers fundraiser should not affect the landlord's responsibility. "It's not for the landlord to make that call… [he] cannot use that to exonerate himself from his fundamental obligations." With a lease renewal looming, Lau is worried that restoring Dragon Flowers herself might be for nothing if, in the end, she’s kicked—or priced—out of the location she’s occupied for over twenty years.  According to Benizri, though small towns have a smaller volume of activity, and fewer legal resources, "I think that the red tape and the bureaucracy is a little leaner in the smaller cities." Though he expects projects in both types of location would see similar delays, "I would probably say that the delays are even heavier, a little more burdensome, in Montreal, as opposed to some of the more rural areas."

For the moment, when asked what else the community could do for her, Lau simply responded, "Just pray for me. Hope I can stay here."