Four local community centres came together to be more competitive in tendering for regional funding.
Their successes, challenges and disappointments are indicative of the challenges of collaborative practice.
For years four neighbourhood and community centres have enjoyed close working relationships to address local issues on the Sunshine Coast. Government funding was being made available to provide community services in the Sunshine Coast region, but as locality based organisations, the community centres were missing out. About six years ago they decided to formalise their relationships into a model of collaboration to provide services across the region and hopefully attract the regional funding that had alluded them. But the Sunshine Coast Community Cooperative has not yet been the success its founders hoped it would be.
The Co-op’s four member organisations are Caloundra Community Centre, Hinterland Community Development Association, Maroochy Neighbourhood Centre and Nambour Community Centre. The Hinterland Community Development Association is a little different to the others in that it is not a neighbourhood centre per se, but rather a community development organisation that supports a group of neighbourhood centres in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland that do not receive government funding. The Co-op is governed by a board comprised of a board member and the manager from each member organisation.
The member organisations were careful to take the time to research and explore options and possibilities of what the collaborative model would look like. They received $15,000 in funding to develop the model under the Building Links Queensland Government program. This employed a consultant over 12 months to develop the model, from which the Sunshine Coast Community Cooperative was born.
Successes and benefits
“We were looking at how we might strengthen our position in the community…and retain our model of work…retain our locality focus,” Caloundra Community Centre manager Carolyn Nolan said. The cooperative model allowed the member organisations to remain locally based but have a vehicle in order to work across the Sunshine Coast. Nambour Community Centre coordinator Mark Wischnat explains: “The Co-op is a regional organisation, a non-trading co-op that the four member organisations have started so we can play around in the regional space legitimately. The Co-op is a hat we can put on when we want to work regionally.”
This has allowed the members to provide a raft of workshops and community events over a large region under the Sunshine Coast Community Cooperative banner. To date most members would say their greatest success is the Sunshine Coast Multicultural Excellence Awards which recognise the contributions made by the region’s residents with a migrant background. Developed in partnership with students from the University of the Sunshine Coast, the awards are a celebration of diversity. They are widely reported each year in the local press and have clearly gained traction in a region where one in 17 residents was born overseas.
Other Co-op activities have focused on building the capacities and strengths of community groups in the region. Local government funding of $5,500 was received to provide a community development program in Beerwah, one of the localities with an unfunded neighbourhood centre. “It’s addressed a lot of gaps and things that were not happening in Beerwah – information and referral and provide a neighbourhood centre where people can go,” said Carolyn. This project allowed the Co-op to demonstrate its flexibility. Staff from the Hinterland Community Development Association of Caloundra and Caloundra Community Centre delivered the program as they had the established relationships and capacity to extend hours in the Beerwah community.
Other activities highlight the Co-op’s ability to attract partners to share their expertise. A range of social enterprise workshops were delivered in partnership with Social Ventures Australia. ‘Sexy and Local’ was a program of media workshops facilitated by two local public relations professionals to assist community groups to better target their messages to draw media coverage for their activities. The Community Crawl took staff and volunteers from each of the four member organisations on a road trip to see and experience the work of their Co-op partners. The activity promoted cross pollination of ideas and skills and was a big hit with volunteers in particular.
One of the enduring benefits of the Co-op is what it gives to the managers of each member organisation and their staff. They speak about the strength of the relationships which the Co-op facilitates and the support they receive from each other. They also speak about the Co-op creating a space to foster innovation.
Hinterland Community Development Association community development worker Holly Aston: “The benefits are the relationships, the peer support …how we all keep abreast of what’s happening…with the department, with the government…trends on the Coast. It keeps us up with the big picture because we are so focused on the local.”
Carolyn: “It’s brought about this whole level of support for each other, it’s brought about sharing of resources and sharing of expertise and knowledge that we wouldn’t have.”
Mark: “The Co-op gives us a space to aspirationally throw up ideas and dream about things. You need that for your own motivation in your job. That’s an invaluable thing to have. A lot of energy comes from that.”
Maroochy Neighbourhood Centre manager Michael Henning: “For me personally and professionally it’s been a tremendous exercise to have that level of collaboration…That level of robustness (of discussion) that brings in some really good thinking. (It) allows us to be lateral (in thinking) and innovative in some respects in the way that we want to approach stuff.”
One of the ideas from the outset was to use the Co-op as a banner under which the member organisations could share costs and resources. Sometimes this was simple and straight forward, such as the purchase of a data projector that could be shared across the community centres, but other expenses were far more difficult to rationalise.
The Co-op looked at purchasing computer programs that could be shared, but found each of the organisations had different computing needs that could not be addressed through joint purchasing. They also looked at bulk purchasing stationery but discovered they could not improve upon the cheap prices they were already receiving. Bulk purchase of insurance was also explored but the Maroochy Neighbourhood Centre, unlike the other member organisations, runs a childcare centre and so has much higher insurance premiums than the others. “Bulk insurance for the four organisations, how does that work? In actual fact it doesn’t. (Because) we have different insurance needs,” said Michael.
“Has the Co-op been cost effective for us? Absolutely not. If anything…the Co-op has drained resources, both in human resources and finances from the member organisations.”
Holly says the Co-op has “other benefits, but not financial.”
The Sunshine Coast Community Cooperative has applied for regional community services funding without success. On one occasion it joined up with a regional mental health organisation to provide a model of service delivery in which the Co-op would have brokered mental health workers based in each of the community centres. The member organisations reflect on that disappointment and wonder if the Co-op’s model let them down.
“If you say a consortium, funding bodies, government, seem to grasp that idea, they understand that. But when you’re actually saying ‘It’s a non-trading cooperative,’ I think they seem to struggle to get their head around that,” Mark said.
Another factor working against them is that although each of the community centres has decades of history, the Co-op is still relatively new.
“How long has the Co-op been around for? How many dollars has it managed in the last few years? The Co-op hasn’t got any of that,” said Mark. Mark wonders if they had established themselves as a consortium led by one of the member organisations, and therefore able to lean on the reputation of that organisation, the group might have had a better chance with funding submissions.
Michael agrees. “Government really like older, larger organisations because if you’ve got a track record of successful funding, successful infrastructure development, successful outcomes, government will fund it. We don’t have that track record and we don’t have the capacity to do that because we’ve never been provided an opportunity to do that. So it’s a kind of a chicken before the egg type of stuff that we constantly have to face.”
“In order for the Co-op to survive as an entity, it relies solely on the viability of the (member) organisations,” Michael said.
This understanding is shared by his colleagues. “The strength (of the Co-op) is in the innovative thinking. (But) while we as neighbourhood centres have to continue to resource the Co-op, that’s it weakness,” said Carolyn. “When it stretches your resources, when you’ve got so much happening in your own organisation and you’re trying to find the time, the space to find resources to put into the Co-Op…it’s very, very hard.”
The viability of each member organisation is being tested at the moment as all have experienced funding withdrawals. The Maroochy Neighbourhood Centre is perhaps the hardest hit.
“When we formed the Co-op, financially we were all quite viable because we were receiving lots of money (from government),” said Michael. “Maroochy Neighbourhood Centre was the highest revenue raiser. Now we’re down the bottom because we lost a lot of funding in the process. We lost about $580,000 in funding last year. We’ve lost programs and staffing. We’ve just had to lose two more staff because we can’t survive. We are looking at merging with another organisation. If we do, that will have an interesting impact on the Co-op.”
Despite this, the members all still have faith in the Co-op and hope for its future. “I think it’s going to take one funded program….one (member) organisation would take on the administration and broker the services to the others,” Carolyn said. They are working on a new model of family support service delivery and hoping it will be successful when they apply for funding.
As Mark believes, the Co-op “hasn’t reached its full potential.”
Case study key themes
Proactive – The member organisations formed the Co-op when they could see they would continue to miss out on regional funding if they did not act.
Investment – The Co-op invested time to develop their collaborative model and despite being unable to attract consistent or ongoing funding, each member organisation continues to resource the group because they value it.
New partnerships – The Co-op has built new relationships that contribute resources to its work, such as the University of the Sunshine Coast and Social Ventures Australia.
Commitment – The commitment and persistence of the Co-op is evident and demonstrates a key ingredient in making collaborations work. Despite disappointments, each of the member organisations continue in their efforts to attract funding because they believe in the Co-op and its ability to provide meaningful services to their local communities.
This case study appears in the Rethinking Resources: Case Studies of Financial Resilience from Queensland Community Services report.