At a crossroads: Dynamic funding club losing steam just as YW’s shelter needs soar

Heather Lackner (left), founder of Club 84, and Elizabeth Clarke, Chief Executive Officer, of the YWCA. Club 84 has been focused on women’s safety and well-being since its inception in 1980.

By Barbara Aggerholm | Photo by mathew mccarthy

There’s a group of local women passionate enough about a woman’s right to be safe and secure that they’ve given money every year for decades to help make it happen.

They call themselves Club 84 and they give without fanfare. There are no glitzy fundraising events, strawberry socials or luncheons with famous speakers these days. But that doesn’t mean members are quiet, and given the chance, they’re very convincing about the need to donate money annually to the women’s shelter and other work of YW Kitchener-Waterloo.

Once a year, every year since Club 84’s inception in 1980, members have written a cheque for the work of the YW. At first, each member gave $84 a year. Later other levels were added: $184 or $484 or $840. In its heyday, club members, forming strong friendships, also organized membership-building and inspiring fundraising events.

After all, as donors put it, if it isn’t caring women who try to put the brakes on cycles of abuse, poverty, homelessness, mental health problems and addiction hurting women and their families, who else will do it?

That question is as pressing today as it was when Club 84 began.

Heather Lackner, founder of Club 84 and former YW board member, recalls the YW’s “terrible financial straits” in 1980 when she started the club. Then, there were lots of community-oriented clubs for men to raise money for projects the men earmarked.

“When there was a fundraising project, it was predominantly men who ran these fundraising projects and they gave back generously to the community,” Lackner says. But no one was raising money for the YW, she says.

In 1980, women knew they had to help other women, “particularly women in need, because most men weren’t going to,” club member Sheryl Loeffler writes in an incisive retrospective of the club she authored for its 40th anniversary in 2020.

Since its beginning, 850 past and current members have raised almost $2 million for the YW, including building an endowment fund of more than $1 million by the end of 2020. (2021 figures aren’t yet available.)

But the donor club is at a crossroads. It comes at a time when the YW grapples with much more complex problems experienced by women and their families.

Club 84 members are aging, membership is declining, and it’s more and more difficult to attract young women, busy with families and careers, to volunteer and commit money year after year. Competition for fundraising dollars is fierce and donors are weary. Many people don’t want to make a long-term commitment to a charity.

In 2011, there were 341 Club 84 members who gave a total of $90,343. In 2021, 282 members gave $61,114.

Though Club 84’s committee structure has faded away, the commitment among its faithful members to donate annually remains strong.

Longtime members are sounding a rallying cry for new members – young women who can contribute both energy and money to reinvigorate the club and provide a boost for the fast-growing, important work of the YW.

It was a year of firsts for Canadian women when Club 84 was born in 1980. Club 84 was named after the address of the YW’s 84 Frederick St. shelter in downtown Kitchener which received the funds. Later, other YW programs benefited too.

Women’s voices were getting louder, and they were getting noticed.

In 1980, Jeanne Sauvé was the first woman to be appointed Speaker of the House of Commons. Alexa McDonough was the first woman chosen to lead a major political party (New Democrats in Nova Scotia) and The Rev. Lois Wilson became the first female moderator of the United Church of Canada, writes Loeffler who gives an enlightening, historical perspective on women’s issues in the club’s anniversary publication.

Once she got the wheels in motion, Lackner had no difficulty finding women among her family, neighbours and friends who would give $84 every year to the YW. She used any extra time she had as a stay-at-home mother caring for children and aging relatives.

In 1980, $84 was worth $274.91 in 2020 dollars, says the club’s retrospective.

“I made 85 appeals, telephone and personal, and 84 responded immediately. Only one person had to check with her husband,” says Lackner, now 82. “Every time I visited my mother who played golf, she’d say, ‘I’ve got a list for you.’ ”

Today, fundraising is more important than ever.

“The need of our shelter is greater than it ever has been,” says Elizabeth Clarke, chief executive officer of YW Kitchener-Waterloo. “The majority in the shelter have high needs, and there’s mental health and substance abuse issues,” she says. More staff is needed so costs have increased significantly.

“The increase in homelessness and in chronic homelessness has really, really grown in the last few years.”

What’s more, 2,000 evictions in Waterloo Region are pending after the Ontario government had suspended them, Clarke says. “Not all will be evicted, but we are bracing ourselves for an influx of families.”

For the first time, the YW’s board passed a “worst-case scenario” budget for 2022 with a $700,000 deficit. “We’ve never had a budget like this, ever,” Clarke says. A $300,000 deficit is projected for the shelter alone.

The costs associated with COVID-19 have added to the strain. And now, government support to offset COVID costs has ended and a couple of before- and after-school programs have been closed for financial reasons, Clarke says.

The YW’s women’s shelter has 66 beds and a family outreach program.

The YW also offers a 38-bed shelter for homeless men; supportive permanent housing for single women and for women with children who are chronically homeless; affordable permanent housing for families; employment training and upskilling programs for women and youth; recreation programming for youth; before- and after-school programming and licensed child care.

Normally, donations from individuals and companies amount to about three per cent of the YW’s operating budget, with the rest divided about evenly between government funding and fees for services like child care.

It doesn’t help that giving styles have changed over the years.

“Millennials don’t want to just write a cheque. They want to do something. They want to have experiences,” says Loeffler, a writer and musician who was YW’s director of philanthropy from 2000 to 2019.

One popular way of giving is the 100 Women Who Care where a few charities compete by making a pitch for the group’s donations. Then members vote on which charity will get it.

“I’ve presented a couple of times and we haven’t got it yet,” Clarke says. “I actually think it’s a really, really good illustration of how people want to give. They want to have an emotional hook. They want choice.”

Significantly, the structure of YW’s board has changed from mostly retired women to young professionals. It’s a governance body, not a fundraising group. Board members don’t have time or energy to do what Club 84 members used to do, Clarke says.

“They were women who had wonderful philanthropic energy and enough time to pursue it,” says Loeffler who has donated at the top level for two decades. Young board members with high-powered jobs and little children “didn’t have time to go out and get gifts for a silent auction, and the (Club 84) committee system generally waned.

“We couldn’t keep younger members on the committee. I’m not blaming the board. The shift happened around 2010. The board got younger and more business-oriented, and they were women in business and lawyers and accountants, and they said: ‘We are a governance board and this is how we govern,’ ” Loeffler says.

While they weren’t a committee of the YW board, Club 84 donors were sometimes members of the board and helped the club’s efforts.

As well as seeking sustained annual donations, Club 84’s highly developed committee system organized fundraising events, home receptions and well-attended International Women’s Day luncheons with luminary speakers like Hilary Weston, then Ontario’s lieutenant-governor, and high-profile journalist Jan Wong. They held Christmas receptions that raised extra money for gifts for residents, auctions with strawberry galas and wine tasting. They worked with churches and groups such as Zonta and Westmount Women’s Golf.

At one event, a woman stood up to tell the group how she’d stayed at the YW shelter and used the social work and other supports there. She was now successfully selling real estate, she told Club 84 members.

It brought home how “it was all worth it,” says Mary Reynolds, a former YW board member, a big community volunteer and a Club 84 member since 1990.

Club 84 members are looking for a champion to grow the club.

In 2020, a high tea at Langdon Hall in celebration of Club 84’s 40th anniversary, which would have encouraged new membership, was cancelled due to COVID-19.

“There is no committee anymore or cultivation of the group,” Reynolds says. “Then, there was more contact. Now, they might get a letter and it’s gone.

“I think the YW could be more visible and Club 84 was a good idea to do it.”

Some members would like the YW board and staff to step up and get more involved to cultivate members.   

“It (Club 84) still continues to be really important to us,” Clarke says.

She will continue to talk about the club at events and look for other ways to promote it.

“I think that we are going to continue to attract people to it,” she says, “but I don’t see us ever getting back to having a board that has recruiting donors as part of their mandated work.”

“As much as we want to bring back the early days, you can’t,” Loeffler says. “Maybe a new solution has to come from a new generation; a new model perhaps.

“I’m not giving up at all. I will be there because I believe in the cause of the YW,” Loeffler says, referring to the club’s original idea that women have to help each other because most men aren’t going to.

“And that’s what I think. This body of women must all stand together.

“My optimism is that people will continue to see a great need in our community and a champion of some sort will come up with either a way to do Club 84 or the work of Club 84.”

If Lackner could restore Club 84 to its heyday with the power of her passion for YW’s work, it would be done.

Lackner, an articulate, gracious and determined woman, was inspired to join the YW’s board in 1974 and later to form Club 84 by the memory of her father, Sid McLennan, and of A.R. Kaufman, a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist.

She’s also keenly aware of her own fortunate circumstances, so different from those of the women she’s helping.

“I got out of my little fish bowl,” says Lackner, a retired teacher. “Ever since I went to the YW, I realized there was an enormous amount of pain and suffering.” She’s especially glad to be able to help children.

Her father, a new immigrant from England in the 1920s, left home at age 15 to live at the YMCA at the corner of Queen and Weber streets in downtown Kitchener until he was 23. He taught swimming and basketball and helped in the kitchen in exchange for board. Later, when the Second World War broke out, Lackner’s father worked with Canadian soldiers at the YMCA.

“He left my mom and I during the war years to be director of physical health and education for the YMCA to provide services” that prepared Canadian soldiers for deployment, Lackner says. “He was virtually gone.”

While her father was busy training soldiers, Kaufman – “Mr. YMCA” – helped move her mother, Heather and her little sister to a duplex he owned, Lackner says. When the family grew to four children, he found them a larger house near Victoria Park.

Lackner was about six years old when they moved. Kaufman “came to me and he said: ‘Heather, how do you like your new house?’ I said: ‘It’s nice but there’s no sandbox.’ Within a minute, his right-hand man … came with lumber and I instructed (him) on how to build a sandbox.” It had red heart seats, just as she’d requested.

It made an indelible impression.

Her father, who later became a three-time mayor of Kitchener, spoke often to his family about the need to give back to the community, says Lackner, whose mother, Elizabeth McLennan, became a member of the YW’s board of directors.

“It just illustrates what people can achieve when they’re given a chance,” she says in a story on YW’s website.

When Lackner founded Club 84, it was meant for women only. When one or two men asked to join, “we had a very, very lively debate about whether or not to admit men,” Lackner recalls. “That created quite a discussion because we had felt very strongly that we wanted to be different from the YMCA. We want to be a woman’s voice.”

In the end, the men’s donations were accepted and appreciated, but “we didn’t make appeals to men,” she says.

Three generations of Lackner’s family belong to Club 84: her parents (posthumously), Lackner and her daughter, Lindsay McKenzie.

Reynolds, 73, shares Lackner’s passion for Club 84 and its support for women who need shelter. Her father was a minister in a small, rural town who was “forever helping people.” In the 1950s, homeless people would knock on their door to ask for a meal.

“I just feel it (Club 84) is very important,” says Reynolds, who was a legal secretary before staying home to care for two children. “If you don’t have a house or an address or an apartment of your own, (it’s like) you are nothing and you are nobody.

“Women leaving abusive situations, they need help, and they need assistance getting into permanent housing. . . . I am so lucky I live in a house and I have stable relationships and I feel badly others don’t.”

Jenna Cruickshank gives Lackner hope that busy, young women will still join Club 84.

Cruickshank, 36, currently a stay-at-home mom with three little boys, ages six, three and five months, happened to meet Lackner while walking in their Kitchener neighbourhood.

Lackner’s “passion was contagious and dedication inspiring” when she spoke about the work of the YW, she says. Cruickshank joined Club 84 in 2019.

It’s an advantage for her that it takes so little time to help. It requires about two minutes per year, about “the amount of time to enter your credit card information or write a cheque,” she says.

“We have a moral duty, a responsibility, to help others,” Cruickshank says. “With a lack of spare time to donate, contributing as a Club 84 member is a fulfilling way to give back. With each donation, we are giving people a chance for change.”