The following article is about Sarah Lavallée’s (PhiLab Intern) experience working with the Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia and her reflections on future opportunities for philanthropy in Atlantic Canada.
My involvement as a student intern with the Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia (RCFNS) started in February of 2022 during a work placement coordinated through the PhiLab Atlantic Hub. As an undergraduate student in Community Development at Acadia University, I had spent the past four years of my degree learning research, writing, and facilitation skills to use in the professional world. Part of our program’s final requirement to graduate is to complete a six-week work placement at an organization of our choice. I had reached out to the PhiLab Atlantic Hub after watching a presentation by Brady Reid at an online conference and marveling at the interesting research and community work undertaken by the PhiLab. As I was also in the final stages of finishing my Honours thesis on the topic of greenspace attachment and community resilience, I saw many overlaps between the work conducted by the PhiLab and my research interests. Once my placement with the PhiLab was established and I learned that I would be working with the PhiLab Atlantic Hub’s community partner, RCFNS, I was excited to work with such an organization that has strong connections with various community groups and that has a big impact on rural communities.
The Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia (RCFNS) is a charity and a community foundation that supports community organizations in rural Nova Scotia, through convening, grant-making, and capacity-building. For more than 20 years, RCFNS has been developing and delivering grant programs and has been widely recognized for their excellence and leadership in the field of rural grant-making. RCFNS is committed to using the lens of the 17 UN Sustainable goals, the 7 pillars of the Canadian Philanthropic Commitment to Climate Change and Nova Scotia’s 10 Social Heterminants of Health when supporting community-based initiatives in rural Nova Scotia. These lenses direct the foundation in all that they do: from board education and make up; policy adaptations; community outreach; and RCFNS’s own 3 pillars; convening, fund development and granting. RCFNS convenes to improve their understanding of issues facing communities and how they relate to the UN Sustainable Goals. RCFNS develops funds to address the gaps and offers grants that seek to help find community-based solutions to problems and challenges. Ultimately RCFNS’s mandate is to support projects that enhance and sustain rural communities while adhering to their commitments.
My task was to assess the impact of RCFNS grants on the individuals involved and their communities. I interviewed eight different grant recipients from across the province, including the communities of Truro, Digby Neck, and Annapolis Royal among others. The grant recipients were involved in various projects that addressed a wide range of issues that included stigma for 2SLGBTQ+ community members, addressing the lack of mentorship opportunities for female leaders, and supporting individuals with substance use disorders. Although the grant recipients worked in diverse fields and lived in communities spread out across the province, there was a significant amount of overlap in the challenges and experiences among grant recipients.
Seven key themes emerged from the interviews: (1) the importance of place-based projects, (2) RCFNS funding was used to leverage more funding from other organizations, (3) projects were able to amplify the work of other community organizations, (4) ability to amplify marginalized voices due to the power of storytelling, (5) tradition and heritage in rural communities act as a strength and a barrier, (6) lack of resources in rural communities as a major barrier, and (7) the mutual aid model is one of the greatest strengths of rural communities. These themes are explored and discussed in-depth in the final report, “Thriving in a Time of Uncertainty: Grant Impact Report” which will soon be available on the PhiLab and RCFNS website.
While seven themes emerged overall, it was apparent that storytelling as a way of amplifying the voices of marginalized populations was particularly important for all of the community projects associated with the interviewed grant recipients. Storytelling as a tool for dissemination, giving agency to those with lived experience, empowerment, and celebration have important implications for philanthropy in Atlantic Canada as storytelling amplifies marginalized voices. This ability of storytelling to give underscores a new importance to one of humanity’s oldest traditions that continues within the digital age.
Although all of the grant recipients received RCFNS funding for diverse community projects, storytelling was a common thread to all of the projects, albeit in differing capacities. While the use of storytelling differed, the purpose remained the same across all projects: to amplify the voices of marginalized populations. As an example, The Women Strong Documentary directed by Jan Rofihe used storytelling as the main premise for their project that aims to empower women by providing an outlet for women on the South Shore of Nova Scotia to share their journeys. The Women Strong Documentary also highlights the stories of past local women as a way of demonstrating the collective voice of women throughout history. One of the participants in the documentary discussed how “to be aware of and honour how far we’ve come” requires knowing about the stories of past women (March 8, 2022). Jan Rofihe, the director of the documentary, hopes that having viewers “reflect on women of the past and what they had to offer” will inspire them to “offer something of value to the future” (March 8, 2022).
In addition to having the opportunity to share their own stories, participants in the documentary discussed how learning about the stories and struggles of other female participants made them aware that as a society, “we still have a long way to go” and that women “aren’t given all of the credit that [they] deserve” (March 8, 2022). It was clear that for participants of the Women Strong documentary storytelling was a vehicle for building a shared sense of empathy. Storytelling was also a source of strength for participants to feel validated by having a shared lived experience. This source of strength through storytelling is reflected in the current #MeToo movement that aims to effect social change through the sharing and publicization of experiences of sexual harassment and assault.
Similarly, another grant recipient spoke about the importance of first–voice when it comes to supporting those with substance use disorders (SUD’s). Many Hands Make Light Work is an organization that provides harm-reduction services in Truro and serves many marginalized populations. Recently, Many Hands Make Light Work has been successful in creating four opioid councils to represent the health regions of Northern Nova Scotia. The councils are composed of individuals in law enforcement, healthcare, crisis intervention, policy makers, and most importantly, those with lived experience and knowledge of the substance use disorder community. The purpose of these councils is to address the increasingly urgent opioid and overdose crisis in Nova Scotia through a holistic, community-based approach. The creation of the opioid councils is in response to a concern that “people just simply don’t want to deal with the marginalized” and thus, organizations often “pull the plug” from “program[s]… that are so essential for people” (March 15, 2022). A recent example was a grocery store chain that stopped supporting a healthy snack program through Many Hands Make Light Work due to a change in branding that focused on traditional families. The grant recipient from Many Hands Make Light Work expressed the belief that the personal component is often missing in decisions to cease support, funding, or programming for marginalized populations. The grant recipient expressed the importance of providing first-voice when it comes to decision-making in the community in an effort to address ongoing stigma for the SUD community. Having many representatives on the opioid councils that can share the personal experience of navigating the healthcare and law enforcement system on the receiving end could provide agency to those that have often been harmed by the system, rather than supported by it. The ability to share one’s lived experience of SUD to influence policy-change in the community is another example of the power of storytelling to affect lasting and equitable change.
In addition to storytelling as a way to amplify the voices of marginalized populations, storytelling also provides a space for knowledge-sharing among grant recipients. In addition to the community projects, grant recipients themselves expressed a strong desire for convening with other grant recipients to share best practices and troubleshoot similar challenges. Although grant recipients reported feeling stressed, overworked, and under-capacity, they were nonetheless grateful for the opportunity to share their own stories (i.e. how they became involved in the project, challenges and strengths in their community, the personal toll the project took on them etc.). As stated in the recommendations section in the report, RCFNS could leverage the apparent need for storytelling and convening by grant recipients through facilitating knowledge-sharing ‘meet-ups’ with current and past grant recipients. Not only does convening grant recipients help build a knowledge network among recipients, but it also provides philanthropic organizations like RCFNS with authentic and important feedback so that they can continue to best serve their grant recipients.
Although convening in-person is often the preferred method, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that convening and storytelling online has significant benefits when it comes to increased collaboration and equity in the knowledge-sharing process. Furthermore, the ability to meet online reduces a significant barrier to those living in rural communities that are spread across large geographical regions (e.g. the costs and time of travel), however it does potentially open up a new barrier in considering access to technology and reliable internet connection. While there is a concern that the decrease in real-world interactions in the current digital age limits storytelling, research suggests that the digital age has increased people’s perception of the value of storytelling and its associated traditions (Dawson, 2020; Wilson, 2014). While the digital age and the ability to access stories anytime, anywhere has altered Western society’s narrative culture, it has allowed for the co-creation and collaboration of storytelling (Wilson, 2014). No longer is it the storyteller with the power educating their “audience”; online platforms and social media allow both the audience and the storyteller to be equals in the creation of stories through platforms that allow for constant feedback and collaborative telling and sharing of stories that can even lead to social movements (Dawson, 2020; Wilson, 2014). The same can be said for the relationship between philanthropic organizations and the communities and individuals they serve. If the donee and the donor are able to co-create and collaborate on solutions and challenges facing their rural communities through storytelling and convening online, this may help decrease the implicit hierarchy of the donee-donor relationship as long as the donee uses the knowledge shared with them to disrupt the barriers. The equity piece is particularly important for marginalized populations that are often not given a voice or are not made to feel empowered by sharing their story.
As the ability to share stories is central to understanding the impact of philanthropic initiatives, understanding the ways in which convening and storytelling can be best utilized in the digital age is critical. Particularly for rural communities in Atlantic Canada that face challenges with access to transportation, lack resources, and often hide or ignore serious issues, receiving funding is not enough to address these complex issues. Storytelling allows all community members to open up and to create a space that brings greater awareness to issues of which granting bodies or donors might not be aware. Furthermore, storytelling allows for a greater focus on equitable philanthropy; finding more ways that philanthropy can support equity will be particularly important as more community organizations like RCFNS work towards achieving the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Philanthropic organizations like RCFNS recognize that philanthropy is not just about giving money, but that convening and storytelling are foundational pillars in the continued sustainability and impact of philanthropy in Atlantic Canada.