PhiLab interviews: Arthur Bull – Former Chair of Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia

Par Brady Reid , Ph.D. student and Atlantic Hub Coordinator
03 December 2019

May 21st, 2019

Arthur Bill

Interview conducted by Brady Reid

Arthur Bull lives on Digby Neck. His past positions include Chairperson of the Coastal Communities Network, Co-Director of the Rural Communities Impacting Policy Project, Executive Director of the Bay of Fundy Marine Resource Centre, Executive Director of Saltwater Network, Coordinator of the Fundy Fixed Gear Council, President of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, Chairperson of the Digby Neck Community Development Association and Senior Policy Analyst with the Government of Nova Scotia.


BR=Brady Reid (interviewer)

AB=Arthur Bull (interviewee)

BR : To begin, maybe can you talk about the Rural Communities Foundation (RCF), how long you have been there, and what is your role?

AB : I was first involved with RCF when it was formed about 19 years ago. At the time, I was the chair of the Coastal Communities Network (CCN), and I had been doing that for about nine years, this is sometime around 1999. The CCN received money via the provincial government to start up a community foundation. I was involved in the very beginning, starting with the formation of RCF. 

I have been more or less involved over the years, without consistently being on the board. About four years ago, I was in semi-retirement mode, and I thought that this was something I could get involved with again. When I reached out, it just so happened that the current Chair of the organization was stepping down, so I became the new Chair. That is my involvement: from the very beginning and then for the past five years.

RCF is a bit unusual as most foundations begin with an endowment and go from there. The organization doesn’t have an endowment. We had the initial few hundred thousand dollars from the provincial government, but when you compare it to other community foundations, there are several digits added to that. We have had to do some workarounds in a sense to think about how we are going to carry on with our mission. The organization has built up a small amount of money, but we do not have enough to get any significant return. 

We have been doing small grants ever since and I think we have developed a strong capacity for giving them, even without an endowment. 

BR : When the Provincial government had given you a starting pot of money, was that specifically designated to begin a Rural Communities Foundation or did RCF develop over time?

AB : It was meant for rural innovation. They went through the CCN, which is one reason why our name is odd – in the sense that it is Rural Communities, plural, similar to Coastal Communities Network. It is purposeful to say that we are serving communities, which is different from community foundations that have a community. It was specifically rural since day one.

BR : With these small grants and the money that you find in other places, does your funding come from more urban centers, rural areas, the Provincial government, or a combination?

AB : There have been a couple of instances of government funding, the one in the beginning for example, and then another one that was leftover money within the provincial government, a rural grant that was transferred over for us to do something with it. It has been kind of an unusual grant program, without any other major funding. For instance, we did a grant program under the Community Foundations of Canada’s ‘Canada 150’ grant. We also have this other one coming up with RBC, so we’ve done that and a number of similar initiatives. We have also done some other side projects, which also generated some income. 

RCF did a three-year project called the Seniors Navigator Project, which is about piloting a model of having navigators for seniors in remote or rural areas. It was a tool for how to deal with health that brought in a small amount of income. However, there have not been any major donations, either rural or urban. There have been donations here and there, but we have not really had any major gifts in our 20 years.

BR : Is there a “regional” dimension to where the money is invested or where it comes from? Maybe on a year-to-year basis, depending on the grant?

AB : We operate pretty much throughout rural Nova Scotia, which basically means everything outside of metro Halifax and metro Sydney. We’ve never done a place-specific grant, such as “we have a gift to do in Yarmouth county”. That has never happened. The other community foundations in Nova Scotia are much more place-based, and we actually have quite a bit of complimentary set-up. Everything that RCF does is thematic. We’ve done leadership grants, seniors grants, youth grants, and rural innovation.

Our board is regionally based, with good geographic coverage, with people who are well-grounded in rural. The board is made up of all rural people who have been active in rural philanthropy. Having said that, rural Nova Scotia isn’t actually “a thing,” there isn’t really an entity called “rural NS” other than what isn’t the city, only because there is so much diversity even in a small province like this. 

Even in this county, the difference between communities is quite significant. The towns that are around Halifax, that are close enough to commute, are not in decline. Their populations are increasing. They are not boomtowns but they are not decreasing. On the one hand, you have that, then there is where I live, in Digby Nine*, the prosperous fishing villages. This is basically lobster fishing country. Within that, you have the Mi’kmaw communities, the African Nova Scotian communities and the Acadian communities, so it is incredibly diverse and very hard to generalize. We try our best to spread it out the best we can, but not in a rigorous way. We don’t say, “We have to make a grant in Queen’s county”. Instead, if we get something in Queen’s county, good. We do our best to be equitable around that. We have also included the Mi’kmaw bands but now Ulnooweg Community Foundation is going to get involved with them. We’re working closely with them but they are clearly in a position to play a lead role in that regard. We work very closely with them and have since day one. One of our board members is the director.

BR : That seems like the culturally appropriate approach.

AB : Yeah I mean their Board is made up of the chiefs, and it’s a question of self-governance. On the other hand, we do work very closely with them. On Wednesday the 29th of November, one of the things we’re going to do is have a panel with the three community foundations saying that we will launch these youth grants, with different models, but are going to coordinate and work together.

BR : That would be RCF, Ulnooweg and one more?

AB : Community Foundations of NS, they just got a new board member.

BR : Who are the major players in the philanthropy sector in Nova Scotia?

AB : In terms of community foundations, there is RCF of course, the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia (CFNS), and Ulnooweg Community Foundation. The latter is a Mi’kmaw initiative that works with and for Mi’kmaw communities in the province. There are other community foundations of course such as private foundations. Bear in mind that CFNS works with these funds within communities. In terms of community foundations, there are three.

BR : You have been involved since the beginning, are there any major change you notice since its inception? 

AB : The basic reality is that rural communities are already philanthropic places, in the broader sense of the word. People do not necessarily give endowments and gifts or similar things to community foundations, but if somebody’s house burns down, the community helps to rebuild it. If a kid is diagnosed with a chronic disease, within a week, there are cans on the counters in stores from people collecting money for them, or music event benefits. It is absolutely part of the social fabric. This is not to say that people in rural communities are more virtuous or nice or anything, it’s just part of the culture. So, that is there too, and that hasn’t changed. 

It depends on how you define philanthropy. If it is just about giving to the public good, there is a ton of it in rural areas. If you define it by giving according to CRA standards, not so much. 

If you look at wealth in Nova Scotia, and there is a lot of wealth, as there is in all Atlantic Canada, it doesn’t translate to communities in terms of community foundations. There is much giving to universities and hospitals, but very little goes to helping people build vibrant communities, dealing with local issues, or even climate change – even these major things that are coming down the pike. There are two disconnects, one is that local philanthropy is disconnected to the broader community foundation movement, and two, private wealth is disconnected. So, we are sitting in the middle of all of this, and this is how it looks in my opinion. RCF has been up and running for 20 years now, and we haven’t had the kind of gift-giving you see with other community foundations. For example, Hamilton, Ontario has roughly the same population as Nova Scotia, roughly the same GDP, and is very hard-hit economically. They have an endowment of $250 million – so what is going on? Why is that?

Personally, I find it is an interesting question and is why research into this sector is important at this time. 

BR : I agree and think that research partnerships between actors in the philanthropic sector and universities can help understand the issues that continue to persist within the sector in order to facilitate the most good being done in the future. I want to thank you so much for your time and all that you have shared with me. 

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