By Debbi Fluke, Anglicare NSW South, NSW West and ACT
Despite, or perhaps because of, society’s increasing focus on the online world, there is a strong drive for rebuilding community in local areas. Older generations are becoming increasingly isolated; refugees and migrants have limited English and opportunities to engage in community; younger people need safe, social connections and support; and families and individuals struggle with daily expenses and other difficulties. With changes to government services and funding, it is more important than ever to look to the community to address some of these societal challenges.
Anglicare NSW South, NSW West and ACT took the decision to close the Gordon Early Childhood Centre due to an oversupply of childcare centres in south Canberra. In early 2017, Anglicare went into partnership with the Lanyon Valley Anglican Church (LVAC), and with permission from ACT Property Group, repurposed the building into the Gordon Community Centre. Celebrating our first anniversary earlier this year, we took the opportunity to reflect on the challenges and successes of repurposing for community. Four clear and significant ‘lessons learned’ emerged from this time.
The value of partnerships
The truth is, it’s expensive to run a community centre: building costs, staff wages and service expenses. Other than a small allocation of Anglicare’s Emergency Relief funding, the Gordon Community Centre does not receive government funding to operate. Running the centre in partnership makes it a feasible venture, as both organisations contribute to the costs. There is greater use of the building whilst we’re still growing our service offerings: neither of our organisations could run all the current services at the centre.
Our partnership also allows us to combine the strengths of two different organisations and we regularly learn from each other’s approaches, ways of working with community and opportunities for improvement. Anglicare and LVAC share common values but our mission and purpose are different which helps the centre to cater to more varied needs and interests of the community.
Collaborate, don’t duplicate
Another nearby emergency relief service similar to our main service runs one day a week. During centre planning, a decision was made to not operate our service on the same day. It was pointless duplicating services within the same area and now between the two services, more people can access help four days a week instead of one. Another organisation uses a casual hire for space in our centre to deliver a new service. Our target groups are similar, but our service offerings are different, so through sharing information and referring clients, we are both increasing the amount of support for young families.
With goodwill, many organisations in the region share resources and look for ways to work together instead of competing. We are all not-for-profits stretching our resources, but through collaboration we work in more efficient and cost-effective ways, generating more positive outcomes for the community.
Don’t jeopardise quality for quantity
Are we passionate about addressing local need? Of course! Do we have ideas of new services that would add value at the centre? Many ideas! Do we have endless resources to turn those ideas into reality? Unfortunately, no. It is very easy, and very common within the sector, to overcommit resources attempting to meet as much unmet need as possible. Old funding agreements looked at numbers – the more people you had coming through the door, the more successful you were seen to be.
But luckily times are changing, and there is a greater focus on delivering quality services with positive outcomes for participants, than simply increasing the numbers. We may have gotten a bit too enthusiastic in the early days, planning – and sometimes even starting – new activities at the centre. But we quickly realised that without there being a significant cost to the quality of our existing services, it wasn’t sustainable. In fact, we wanted to keep building on the quality of our existing services and we wouldn’t have the capacity to implement improvements if we were spread too thinly over other activities.
We now have clear processes to jointly examine new service proposals in detail and within context, and we are clear about the limits of our resources. We have strategies for growth (check out our last lesson learned!) and confidence that as we do grow, so too will our quality.
Harness the power of community
There is significant and varied need within our community, and we are a very small team – four part-time employees between the two organisations. Whilst our size can be challenging, it means we need to look for unique solutions and opportunities, and we often find this in the community itself. We are regularly approached by people wanting to volunteer; individuals, schools and organisations bring down bags of food donations for our Pantry – or carloads full during the Anglicare Pantry Appeal. People who don’t have a spare hour to give, drop money into donation tins or send us cheques. Small businesses donate goods and services.
Parents at our playgroup help run activities and hang around afterwards to clean up; clients refuse to take an extra item from the Pantry so they can ‘leave it for someone who really needs it’ or they turn up with donations of clothes to help others. It can be daunting at times, but investing our energy into harnessing the skills, time and generosity of these people will always give us – and more importantly, the community – a far greater return.
With hindsight, of course we would have done some things differently; in an ideal world we would have a purpose-built space. But the learnings have been invaluable and only strengthen our ability to meet future challenges and change head on. We look forward to seeing what the next 12 months bring!
Published in ACTCOSS Update, Issue 86, Summer 2018-19 actcoss.org.au