Historical Background

Imagine a community where business, local government and community groups work together like a fine-oiled machine, addressing social issues in their own backyard. Where busy business professionals volunteer their time, expertise and company resources to support local organizations and truly demonstrate social responsibility at work. Where the more affluent citizens totally understand the social value of philanthropy and enthusiastically offer their connections and financial support to institutions and community groups. Where people of different cultural backgrounds, languages and socio-economic status can live side by side in harmony. Their pride in the larger community transcends local neighbourhoods.

Imagine a community high in entrepreneurial spirit. Where the CEO of an industry leader is motivated to bring a great idea to life. Where getting something off the ground is no more complicated than bringing people together for a breakfast meeting, making a few phone calls, and enlisting commitment of others also longing to make a difference. Where start-up funds are volunteered before they were requested. “What do you need? I’ll help make it happen.”

This community exists. Right here, in the West Island.

The West Island of Montreal is a multitude of contrasts. Rich in its history and diversity, it is home to over 230,000 citizens. Located only 15-20 minutes from downtown Montreal, it is a unique and inspiring community.

In 1997, a small, influential group of citizens founded West Island Community Shares (WICS), also known as Partage-Action de l’Ouest-de-l’Île. Its purpose: To create an organization with fundraising know-how in order to help financially-strapped local community groups who help people in need, with a special eye towards long-term community development. A feasibility study was commissioned and confirmed its necessity. West Island residents had been generously donating to the tune of $25 million per year, yet little came back to non-profit organizations in their own community. This information gave the active group of citizens the confidence to bring their vision to life. These champions had the drive and know-how to quickly create a successful fundraising organization. They developed a unique funding formula to build trust with their constituents: Every donation dollar would be allocated and distributed to the community groups supported by WICS. Administration costs would be funded separately by corporate partners in a fully-exposed and transparent way. This unique funding concept contributed to Community Shares’ early success, and since then, the impact on the West Island community has been both astounding – and – measurable.

How It All Started

Breakfast Meetings and Phone Calls

In 1997 three champions of the concept of West Island Community Share emerged: Russell Williams, MNA Nelligan Riding, Robert Vokey of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and Alan Bootes, President of Pfizer Canada.. Robert Vokey had attended a conference in the U.S. and heard about an interesting fundraising organization called Tennessee Community Shares.

The concept, to create a fundraising organization designed to assist community groups within a small geographic area, would be the first in Canada. Inspired as he was, he knew that anything to do with building a better community was the essence of Russell Williams’ passion, so he contacted him to share what he learned about this group. Russell in turn, contacted several people he knew, including Alan Bootes. Sounding good in principle, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation agreed to fund a feasibility study to learn about the giving profile of West Islanders – why they choose to support non-profit organizations, their attitudes about giving or not giving. The study also attempted to reveal how much money West Islanders give annually, and if in fact, any of their donations come back to their own community.

The Head Research study revealed that the West Island is home to many generous donors and tireless volunteers. It was estimated that residents of the West Island gave in excess of $25 million to charitable organizations in 1995; about 33% had made declarations on their income tax return. The research also uncovered that most of this money did not impact local community groups. A hypothesis was proposed that if West Islanders were to learn of this, they may be motivated to invest in their own community. And perhaps the majority – almost 70% - who did not give to any causes, may be persuaded to “do their share” if they learned it would help people in their own backyard. Although many respondents to the survey felt that the provincial and federal governments should be responsible for helping people in need, they also admitted that making a donation, and knowing who it helped, is something that gave them personal satisfaction. Interestingly enough, many people had not yet found a cause that was close to their heart.

The overall conclusion was that West Islanders would be in favour of creating a community fund such as proposed by West Island Community Shares, and that they would be interested in contributing to such an organization, provided some conditions were met. In general, they would like to:

  • Receive regular information on the purpose, objectives, and results of fundraising campaigns in the local media
  • Know who administers and manages West Island Community Shares
  • Deal with accountable stakeholders, be able to verify how all the monies collected are awarded to local community groups and be assured their donations would be used to help people, not cover administration costs
  • Be assured that money collected is used effectively and it truly makes a difference to the quality of life of those benefiting from services provided by the local community groups
  • Measure for themselves how their donations contribute to the well-being of the community
  • Feel that their generosity is appreciated.

Armed with this new understanding of their fellow West Islanders, these champions proceeded to find people and resources to start up this new fundraising organization. Lucie Fournier, a long-time West Island resident, and experienced in grass-roots work at two West Island social providers, was invited to hear about the new venture. Having worked as a youth worker at the YMCA and managed a non-profit community group as Director of the West Island Women’s Shelter, she had a deep understanding of local social issues and the struggles that community groups have trying to acquire funds to do their work. Excited by the possibilities of West Island Community Shares, Lucie became its first Executive Director.

A few phone calls and a series of informal meetings attracted enough volunteers to sit on the Board, be part of key committees and take on leadership of a couple of fundraising projects. George Springate became the first President of the Board.Pfizer Canada became a key corporate player because their president, Alan Bootes, had been looking for a way for his organization to be more involved in the community. Pfizer had experienced rapid growth and was on its way to becoming the leader in the pharmaceutical industry in Canada.  At that time an employee survey indicated that employees felt, that although Pfizer was a great place to work, they could do better in the area of social responsibility.  As a result, when he was approached by Russ Williams about this new organization, he embraced the idea enthusiastically as a community project that could be, and did become, the centrepiece of local West Island activities.  A short time later, to secure Community Shares' administrative costs for the first three years of operations, Pfizer and the McConnell Family Foundation collectively gave $400,000 start-up funds to set up the office and pay for two staff members. Other organizations, like Avon Canada, Merck Frosst and Bombardier provided eager volunteers and access to their creative resources. Behind the scenes Robert Vokey offered his knowledge about non-profit infrastructure and was instrumental in developing funding guidelines, by-laws and other documents, to quickly set up a professional organization.

Community Shares Comes to Life

Amidst chaos created by the 1998 ice storm, the organizing team and partners persevered to define the mission and set down objectives of the newly-founded West Island Community Shares.

It was agreed that Community Shares would help raise residents’ awareness of problems in the area and the services offered by local community groups, thus helping to reinforce their sense of belonging in their own community. In addition, it would provide residents with an accessible means of helping their neighbours through a unique fundraising initiative. The hope was that heightened awareness about needs not serviced on the West Island would diminish people’s weariness towards fundraising, raise their spirit to help others, and motivate them to increase their support to local causes.

By removing some of the burden of fundraising, Community Shares would facilitate the ability of local community groups to respond to community needs by assisting them financially through annual grants. Funds would also be directed at intervention programs, thus curbing growing social problems. West Island residents would be able to contribute to the health and growth of these community groups, knowing their generosity would directly benefit their own community. Community Shares’ founders clearly saw their role as mobilizing community spirit and building solidarity among the various stakeholders: residents, community groups, government agencies and the business community. Furthermore, their VISION included being in a position to channel resources and interested individuals in community planning and local development.

Years of Stability and Growth

By 2004, Community Shares increased its capacity to raise funds by more than 400%. Under the management and direction of Lucie Fournier, the founding Executive Director, and Pierre Arvisais (RBC Royal Bank), Community Shares’ President from 1999-2003, and Roger Morin, Community Shares’ President from 2003-2005, Community Shares made a significant impact by being able to financially assist increasingly more West Island community groups. During these growth years, the number of groups awarded funds increased from 8 to 20 and the total distribution fund increased from $102 000 to $465,000. Awareness of Community Shares’ contribution to the West Island community increased with the establishment of an annual golf tournament fundraiser, corporate evening fundraiser, fall campaign mailing to West Island residents, adding more companies to the roster of corporate partners and the various fundraising events managed by a growing network of volunteers.

The Head Research findings, described earlier, were the driving force for steering direction of the newly-formed West Island Community Shares.

Community Shares Makes a Positive Impact in the West Island

In that first year, the new organization received a lot of press because they were building awareness by doing a public launch and soliciting support from people all over the West Island. There were two consequences to this. Firstly, Community Shares’ presence in the tight-knit community cluster helped to realize that there was no measurable impact on Centraide’s fundraising efforts in the West Island. People still donated to them, plus they now responded to support Community Shares and its mission. In fact, research consistently shows that offering more choices to give usually increases total giving. Secondly, some community groups and residents publicly questioned whether this new player would have the staying power to realize their mission, but were pleased to see that Community Shares was successfully responding to public protests with facts, developing its fund distribution process, and continuing to attract high-profile corporate supporters. The time had come, so it seemed, to have a home-grown organization to raise funds for local community groups.

Accomplishments in a Few Short Years

From the very beginning, Community Shares did what it set itself out to do: It raised significant dollars from local residents and corporate partners and funnelled it directly back into the community to local groups serving critical needs of West Island residents.

In March 2004, Caroline Tison took over as Executive Director and took the organization to new heights. In April 2013, Community Shares had a successful 2012-2013 campaign with a total $1,105,000 distributed to 36 groups, bringing the total amount raised since inception to $8,5 million. More so, Community  Shares is now one of the only recurrent funders who partner up with local group with a long term vision in mind, thus providing increased stability to the already fragile voluntary sector.

This success was attainable because the founding members took on the role of champions of a cause they believed in. They inspired passion, recruited more champions and helpers, and kept their pulse on the needs in their community. Above all, they kept focused on their mission.

Here are some highlights of our past years.

West Island Community Shares:

  • Actively promoted its unique funding formula to the public, guaranteeing that 100% of donations would become the “distribution fund” to support community groups and ensuring that administration costs would be covered by corporate partners in a transparent way
  • Attracted high-profile board of directors and committee members, who opened doors by enlisting corporate partners, paving the way to set up employee payroll deduction programs and offering many skilled employees an outlet for their desire to volunteer
  • Put in place a sound foundation by developing: carefully-thought out by-laws, goals and objectives to facilitate growth, and high pay-off fundraising programs, guiding principles for grants process, and documentation for evaluating and monitoring grant requests
  • Attained public support by mayors, provincial and federal elected officials, which contributed to the organization’s credibility.
  • Attracted individual donors through targeted fundraising effort to residents, resulting in 2,500 active donors
  • Captured the interest of English and French media, on the West Island, including Montreal’s major newspapers
  • Grew from being an unknown in the community to funding 8, and now 36 community groups and counting
  • Signed up many companies and cities to allow their employees to donate via Employee Payroll Contribution Programs, thus ensuring a regular stream of revenue with low attrition rates. Each year, new companies and their employees join this program.
  • Rallied the energy of over 300 volunteers for standing committees, fundraising assignments, and who assumed major and minor roles at events. 

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