When a charity lets down its community

27 Feb 2019 When a charity lets down its community

Can a charity grow so big they lose all agility and a view of what they are receiving all their grants and tax concessions for?

A well-known charity who owns a very prominent venue in my home town recently announced the closure of the successful café they operated (for the second time). A café that most mornings / lunches would barely have seats available. This much loved community space was frequented by locals and travelers, community groups, couples, hungry surfers and remote workers. 

Apparently the café wasn’t viable, though I think most cafes would love this sort of “unviability”. The closure is one thing but the joy of closure was just strange, then there was an obvious lack of care for staff, lack of transparency and seemingly total confusion about future direction. You get the feeling that no revenue is better than some revenue.

The "unviable" business busy (with very little food on offer at the time - last days).

The first time it closed the community rallied and it was reopened for 6 months as a trial with high targets set. The second closure was announced only 4.5 months into the trial (including the quiet (with a 2 week closure) Christmas / January period). A new manager had been appointed and did a fantastic job, hitting the ground running and building the operation up after the first closure had appeared in newspaper’s and the internet. Not an easy task.

After the 6 months was cut short it seemed the plan was to never allow it to succeed in the first place? Just a feeling.

Nevertheless the community again got behind it, offering to lease the venue and run the café, with a much needed plastic-free bulk foods store that would maintain the charities ability to offer counselling services within. Surely a win win?

Keeping in mind;

  • There are no bulk-foods or decent healthy grocery stores within kilometers.
  • The community keeps access to a great space with great food
  • The space is large enough for better utilisation for events, groups and revenue generation
  • The charity receives a rental income and keeps its venue open without having to take part in the business side of things
  • Counselling services remain
  • Employment for current staff and others is maintained

The town also has a tradition of running a billycart derby, announced to be returning.

The Wonderwalls festival showcasing amazing street art and bringing people into the town.

New businesses opening and a council revitalisation plan for the suburb.

Music and food venues increasing activity in the evenings.

All things pointing to stronger business.

When the community asked to lease the space, the decision to do what still isn’t clear was already made without public tender or community consultation and decisions seemed to be made from another state altogether. The plan for a bulk foods café was met with “the other option would likely get up”, though they still don't seem to know exactly what that is. Another thought of theirs was leaving the doors open, allowing people to buy coffee from another café and bring it there to eat / drink. We were told that a café would never work, hard to believe if you knew the venue.

It may be said that it’s an opportunity for other businesses to fill the gap and let’s hope that is true. Though I believe more options are a good thing, more venues help each other. Multiple options mean people are willing to risk the travel in case one is closed. Many of the properties in the area are owned by just a few people who are often unwilling to see any businesses rent their space. Yes this is true!

I still believe this charity does good things, however it seems they are so big the left isn’t aware of the right. A small organisation or individual lucky enough to have a venue like this would be far more likely to have vision in comparison to these giants.

The charity will also receive $88,000 of community money to refurbish their “community” space. While a café with a few staff may not be worthy of their giant funds, they seem to have no trouble supporting an army of paid higher ups. Personally, I fail to see the difference between what they are doing to receive public money and what other businesses are doing especially when others continue to offer a space for the community.

Further to that, counselling services are a fantastic offering, though I believe the benefit to those attending services would be far greater being part of a thriving community hub, complete with smiles and interaction. 

Perhaps it’s time for a little more open minded thinking and working with the community that supports them, communicating at the local level? Core business is one thing, though different, bigger, more flexible thinking can possibly achieve both?

Paul Hellier

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