A grand way to mark the millennium

We mark passages with gifts — weddings, graduations, christenings, bar and bat mitzvahs, a twenty-first birthday, housewarmings, retirements…. The gift is a tribute to the occasion; the giving is an expression of caring.

Since we’re on the doorstep of the biggest public passage of them all, entering the new millennium in the year 2000, what should we do to mark this occasion?


It’s a question that preoccupied Peter Ackroyd, who had been engaged in planning Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967, and is now 85 years old and living in Kingston. He came up with the idea of people giving gifts to their communities, and he took the idea to Community Foundations of Canada.


In a flash, « It captured our imagination,’’ says Betsy Martin the foundation’s director of programs.


The foundation called in Eric Young, a Toronto social marketer I’ve long admired because of his inventiveness in promoting sustainability, and — presto — a national millennium project was born.


The project will encourage people to form groups that will give a millennium gift to their communities.


The foundation will be printing a million copies of what it calls A Catalogue of Possibilities, a handbook of at least 75 pages for which a prototype has already been prepared. The catalogue will be distributed across Canada, and will offer advice on how to organize a group, how to raise funds, and how to go about choosing a gift. It will contain a long list of gift ideas.


Among the ideas in the prototype are: planting wildflowers and trees; restoring wetlands; donating books and toys to a daycare centre; forming a grocery shopping club for seniors; protecting a local landmark; running workshops on conflict resolution and managing stress; sharing skills through mentoring programs; helping build a new playground; donating materials to a drama or music club.


In addition to the catalogue, the foundation will establish a web site, and it will provide a contact centre to advise people how they can connect with other groups, and where they can go for funding.


« In its essence,’’ says Martin,’’ this will be a process of civic engagement.’’ And that’s what makes the idea so attractive to anyone interested in sustainability.

It’s people who care, and people who participate that make communities strong and healthy and sustainable. The prototype catalogue hopes to see people « getting together and giving together.’’ It talks of strengthening the web of connections within communities that « make life rich and colourful in good times and bearable in bad.’’ Of reinforcing the fabric of communities, and of « making a difference to the quality of our lives.’’


The gifts – the tributes — will be valuable. But more important by far will be the involvement of the givers. Those who express care for their communities. I expect that the relationships they form and the networks they create will remain long after celebrations for the millennium have ended.


A Catalogue of Possibilities will be available in communities early next year. But  if you want to get a head start on forming a group and developing ideas for a gift, and you need guidance, you can get in touch with the Toronto Community Foundation at (416) 204-4082. If you don’t live in Toronto, and there is no local community foundation, you can telephone Community Foundations of Canada at (416) 601-4776 for advice.


There are 81 community foundations across Canada, the oldest being the one in Winnipeg, founded in 1921.


Community Foundations of Canada, founded in 1992, is the umbrella organization for the local foundations. Some local foundations are well endowed. For instance, the Vancouver foundation has assets of $517 million and the Winnipeg foundation has assets of $117 million. The Toronto foundation, established in 1981, has assets of 26 million.


Once the project is up and running, says Betsy Martin, « We think it’s going to go crazy.’’ So do I. I’ve already talked to a couple of people in my local area about what we can do to finish building a library, stalled for lack of funds, in Lyndhurst, the village closest to where I live.

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