Vancouver Foundation celebrates community by connecting with BC residents over a meal and conversation
From "Loneliness and Social Connection" issue of Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (3), pp. 42-43
The idea for Vancouver Foundation’s On the Table initiative began almost two years ago, when we learned about the On the Table (OTT) program established in 2014 by the Chicago Community Trust (CCT).1 The annual CCT event unites people from diverse backgrounds, bringing them together to share a meal and conversation, to build personal connections and explore ways to strengthen their community. The concept of the project resonated with us because of its simplicity and its impact.
With support and guidance from CCT, we created our own version of On the Table. The key piece of advice we received from CCT was that the On the Table initiative should fit with the work we are already doing. For Vancouver Foundation, OTT is an initiative that gets to the heart of what community foundations are all about—connecting people to each other and building stronger communities. The initiative was also a clear extension of the work we had started in 2012 with our connections and engagement research, which focuses on social isolation in the metropolitan Vancouver area.2
In 2012, when we released our first Connections and Engagement report, we were surprised by the immediate buzz it generated. We knew then that we had hit upon something vital to the health of our communities. Through our research, we found that Vancouver can be a difficult place to make new friends, and that frequently, people's connections with their neighbours are cordial but weak. Many people were spending more time alone than they would like. The greatest obstacle to community engagement was an individual's feeling that they didn’t have anything of value to offer others.
Our follow-up report in 20173 found that levels of community participation had declined even further since the initial research. We were encouraged, however, to find that most people wanted to find ways to increase their levels of connection and engagement. Despite increasing reliance on technology, people still prefer to connect in person. Most people, particularly those who have lived in the area for a short period of time, want to get to know their neighbours better.
Over the past six years of study, we have learned that people long for a deeper connection to neighbours and community. We saw our 75th anniversary as a way to live our values of being community-inspired and increasing a sense of community belonging. On the Table became the perfect vehicle for us. Instead of organizing one large community event, we gave people the tools to create their own events, focusing on what mattered most to them.
On the Table took place on September 13, 2018. Across British Columbia, 4,500 people from communities large and small participated in 361 hosted events. The initiative served as a province-wide celebration but more importantly as a catalyst and platform for people to connect within their own communities. We learned several things from those events.
Not surprisingly, many of the conversations focused on belonging and community engagement, but an inspiring range of other topics also emerged. Some were fun and social, such as What's Good in the Hood? and Does It Belong in a Museum? Others were more serious: Is Democracy in Trouble? and Mental Health and Art. Some meals were hosted by seasoned conveners, but many others were initiated by people who had never even attended something like this, much less hosted such an event. Venues included boardrooms, coffee shops, backyards, living rooms—even a cargo container. Meals ranged from tacos and cider to kombucha and blueberries. No two conversations were exactly alike, but what they all had in common was that they were started by someone who had something they wanted to share and talk about.
We started this project with the belief that people want to connect with each other but they might need a bit of a nudge to do so. Our OTT follow-up survey proved our assumption to be correct: 98% of hosts reported that On the Table provided an opportunity to host a conversation that would not have otherwise happened.4 Even more exciting for us was that 72% of OTT guests said they wanted to stay in contact with someone new they had met at an event. In addition, many participants reported that they had been inspired to take action based on their conversation.
When we launched the initiative, we were not sure if this would be a one-time event for our 75th anniversary or if it was something we could repeat and build upon. Thanks to the support and encouragement we received from community members, we are pleased to be organizing our second On the Table event in 2019. We hope to expand the circle even wider, inspiring more communities to take part and bring people together, face to face, to share food and conversation about what matters most to them.
Social isolation is a complex issue. We know that one meal is not going to solve the problem, but it is a good place to start. In September 2019, we invite you to be part of the conversation. Please visit www.onthetablebc.com to stay in the loop.
About the author
Trina is Manager of Partnerships & Community Initiatives at Vancouver Foundation, a community-based philanthropic organization. She has worked on the Vital Signs and Connect & Engage reports and with the provincial On the Table initiative. She is currently completing a master’s degree in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership at Carleton University
The Chicago Community Trust. (2019). On the Table. https://cct.org/about/partnerships_initiatives/on-the-table.
Vancouver Foundation (2015). Connections & Engagement Report 2012. www.vancouverfoundation.ca/about-us/publications/connections-and-engagement-reports/connections-engagement-report-2012.
Vancouver Foundation (2015). Connections and Engagement. www.vancouverfoundation.ca/our-work/initiatives/connections-and-engagement.
Vancouver Foundation (2018). On the Table: Community Reflections & Insights. onthetablebc.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/On-the-Table-Community-Reflection-Insights.pdf.