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For Laurie Edward, newly appointed the executive director of the Banff Canmore Community Foundation, the strength of community can be expressed in a single word: belonging.

“It’s my second day on the job,” says Laurie Edward when I reach her by phone at her home in Canmore. She’s in the midst of what’s been a whirlwind few days, something that’s apparent even in her voice. As the new executive director of the Banff Canmore Community Foundation, the first order of business, she says with a chuckle, is “learning how to disarm the building.” She’s also preparing for media interviews, as well as a community dialogue with early childhood care providers that she will moderate later in the week. “I’m kind of feeling like I’ve just jumped right in.”

While Edward may be jumping into the new role, her interest and association with the BCCF extends back years, including a project she once worked on with the organization’s founder, Lorraine Widmer-Carson. It was an instructive relationship, even apart from the work being done. “She feels very deeply the needs of the community,” says Edward, “and she’s also remarkably courageous about inviting people to take bold action in support of community … demonstrating with her own actions what it means to make authentic connections in community, and then creating opportunities for other people do to the same.”

That sense of invitation—creating space for people to take bold action—is something that Edward looks forward to expressing with her new role. “This community foundation is really anchored in the core value of collaboration.  The ability to listen is a foundational capacity. To stay curious and appreciative of the different ways people are experiencing community.” We’re all different, to be sure, with lots of “surprising things in common, and surprising things not in common, but what I learned from Lorraine is that it’s possible to engage a lot of different kinds of people.”

A foundation in the community

Indeed, that understanding sits at the very heart of what a community foundation is. The concept was first developed by Frederick Goff in Cleveland in 1914. It’s a very specific place, at a specific time, for a very specific reason: that’s the year that John D. Rockefeller moved from Cleveland to New York city. A prominent philanthropist to say the least—second perhaps only in our memory to Andrew Carnegie—there was a fear that the Cleveland community would feel the loss. Rockefeller, to be sure, provided resources that fuelled much of the social and cultural life of the city.

That said, Goff saw the moment as an opportunity; while something may be lost, there was room for something new and vital in its place. Before Goff, foundations were the creations of wealthy men, and they were private. It was what John McKnight would later call a client model: wealthy people cited needs and then donated in order to fill them. If they liked libraries, for example as Carnegie did, then that’s what they funded.

Private foundations were great for what they were, and indeed Carnegie’s libraries were essential at that time to an involved, educated citizenry. Yet Goff somewhat boldly felt that the concept could be improved upon, namely through endowments that were of the people, and not privately held. They would be supported by people at all echelons of the community, each offering funding as they are able as well as ideas, skills, and time. Because they were publicly held, and not tied to private funds, they would reflect the character of the communities they sat within, rather than only the interests of the individuals who headed them. Importantly, they would be in place in perpetuity—the endowments wouldn’t leave when the wealthy benefactors did—allowing people throughout the community to really think of them as their own.

Goff didn’t seek to diminish or compete with private endowments, but instead to create another kind of community support. The model that he created, known generally as community philanthropy, is one that many others have followed in the century since. It’s estimated that there are now 1700 community foundations around the world, all direct descendants of Goff’s work. The biggest in terms of financing may be the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which holds an endowment fund in excess of $13 billion. (Having been created in 2007, it’s also one of the youngest.) The first Canadian community foundation was established in Winnipeg in 1921—there are 191 now active across the country—and is perhaps the largest as well.

Still, size isn’t as important as the effect that the foundations have within a community, and the relationship they have with the members of the communities they serve. They are quite literally a public pool of assets managed by the community itself. Sometimes funds are used to address a pressing need, much as the BCCF did at the time of the 2013 flood. That said, Goff didn’t want simply to address deficits, but also to help further aspirations. He felt that community members should look beyond base needs—what McKnight calls “problem-oriented data”—to the projects dearest to them, then apply the expertise from within the community to affect change in those areas. You can see that in the work of the BCCF today, ranging from relief efforts, to reconciliation initiatives, to the creation of the Banff Commonwealth Walkway.

“Relentlessly pursuing a future where everyone belongs.”

While we’re given to focus on financials as a metric of success—it’s hard not to be agog at the size of the Silicon Valley example—Edward feels it isn’t the only or perhaps even the most important one. “This work is all about relationship building,” she says. For her the BCCF is compelling in direct relationship to the opportunities it creates for involvement. “Inclusivity is a really big factor,” she says, noting that healthy communities are those “where people feel a palpable sense of belonging”; where they “feel like they are in flow, they’re continuously building their capacity to meet the needs of the moment.” In healthy communities, people are learning, experiencing economic growth, and building their capacity to meet challenges and capitalize on opportunities. “There is a continuous and accelerated sense of progress.”

“I continue to be inspired by the unique role that community foundations can play,” she says, “because they can work across boundaries, they can work across scale—small, medium systems—to make a real difference in how people experience community.” It takes effort, and there is nothing natural or inevitable about how communities develop. But in her time as executive director, Edward looks forward to tackling some of the more intractable issues, economic inequality prime among them, that are barriers to participation. “The need to continuously diversify the economy is very real here,” she says, particularly given that the economy of the Bow Valley relies as it does on tourism.

Edward is also interested in climate actions, community wellness, and promoting physical literacy, an area of interest that she brings with her from her prior role as national manager of community programs for Mountain Equipment Co-op. “What I’d like people to know is that this is an organization that is actively working to bring about our shared aspirations for community life. And that what this organization does is facilitate exchanges between people to make that happen, to bring about the future that they would most like to see.”

It’s hard work, she admits, and she’s keen to approach it realistically. “We have big aspirations in addition to real challenges.” The goal, for her, is “to show what a sustainable community can look like.” She feels, that with all its assets and diversity, it’s an area in which the Bow Valley is well positioned to take a lead role, regionally and nationally. “It’s a place where people come to be inspired and to be transformed in some way,” she says, “and we demonstrate that when we live into our values.” It’s about finding the “right relationship with one another and the natural world”—operating in the service of others, respecting the shared context, and bringing something of ourselves to the work that we do. It may be her first week on the job, but for Laurie Edward it’s the work of a lifetime.

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