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Calgary Outlink introspective about crisis

Strapped group had to let go of executive director

A CYCLICAL PROBLEM. Melissa Luhtanen, president of Calgary Outlink, says the organization is in a bind because of a reliance on programming grants that did not include funding for core services. Credit: (Kevin Allen photo)

Melissa Luhtanen, president of Calgary Outlink, is positive about the future after driving a rocky road over the past few months. The not-for-profit, formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Association (GLCSA), hit a series of funding speed bumps late in 2007, resulting in the loss of their executive director.

“Last summer we had applied for three different grants and to our surprise did not get any of them,” says Luhtanen. “So we had to let go of our executive director because we did not have sufficient operating funds.” The organization has money in the bank, but those funds are restricted to program expenses and hard costs such as rent; administrative expenses such as salaries are not allowed to dip into the account.

“We find ourselves in an ironic situation: all of our programs and support groups are going crazy — they are really healthy — yet we have not focussed enough energy on our core. This is something that has been cyclical with the organization, which we need to get to the bottom of now. Too often in the past we would have gotten a grant and said, ‘Great, now we are fine,’ but still ignored some of the basic building blocks that we need — specifically that our programs need to be supported by core operations.”

The Outlink board of directors is unfolding a fundraising campaign to seek both private donations as well as less restrictive institutional funding. To date, the campaign has been successful amongst the users of Outlink’s services and amongst its support groups. “For example, our Inside Out Youth Group has been amazing,” says Luhtanen. “I have had youth giving me $5 donations, because that is all they had, but who have told me that Outlink is so important to them. It is the people outside the organization who are not sure what is going on, so we have to get better at communication to the larger community.”

Marketing to organizational funders is also a priority. “As we do our research and apply to funding bodies in the Calgary community, we have found that there are not many organizations with specific pockets for funding to the [queer] community. It is our feeling that they do want to give funds to our community, but they are still in the consulting phase.”

Interestingly, Outlink has built a solid reputation when it comes to partnerships. It recently budded two projects — YouthSafe (a violence prevention website for Albertan youth) and a working group addressing violence in gay male relationships. The toll-free queer support phone line 1-877-OUT-IS-OK was a partnership with the Calgary Distress Centre and now has Province-wide reach, particularly important for rural Alberta.

Luhtanen adds: “Our great strength currently is that we have a strong board that is also representative of the community. Right now we are reframing the organization, and part of that has meant we need a little period of introspection to reframe it properly.

“I am tired of the cyclical ups and downs of the organization and we need to get on better footing. This includes a bit of navel gazing, as well as a needs assessment to find out what the community wants, and how best to move forward.”