These are not the easiest times for Canadian charities to stay afloat — according to a Pareto Fundraising benchmarking study looking at trends in the Canadian charitable sector, income from individuals fell 10% and the level of income and number of new cash donors from direct mail fell by 15 and 22%, respectively, in 2009. Things are looking up in 2010, but many charities are still weathering the just-recently-passed downtown.

Youth Boatworks Canada (YBC), a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization and a MaRS social innovation client, is circumnavigating some of these problems by working to establish a social enterprise within the organization. Founded as the Toronto Sea Hawks in 1950 to deliver sailing and boating lessons to youth-at-risk, YBC is now shifting its focus to introduce youth to the art of wooden boatbuilding — and if they can support their programs by selling the traditionally built boats they create, then they’ll have solved their biggest problem.

“Our current challenge is figuring out how to pull this all together,” says Paul Fournier, YBC’s President. “We’re trying to re-launch YBC and the Toronto Seahawks as a skills-based, vocational program. We’ve gone from practically bankrupt to having raised $40,000, but that’s not enough to sustain the organization. We need to find a way to sustainably fund our programs while teaching youth new skills — we think we can do that by introducing youth to the art of building wooden boats, then selling those boats to similar organizations around the world.”

In the early 2000s, YBC was struggling to stay afloat: many of its original volunteers had grown elderly and connections with local youth organizations had been lost. When a new group of volunteers joined YBC in 2005/06, they sat down to discuss their core competencies and how they could build YBC up to its former glory. As it turns out, most of the volunteers were experienced wooden boat builders with a passion for the craft — and a passion for teaching it to younger generations.

Building a boat from scratch requires teamwork, collaboration and listening. It also requires planning and design skills, construction knowledge and commitment to a long-term project. “Our vision for the future of YBC is twofold: first, that we’ll be able to commercially sell the boats we build in order to teach these skills and fund the charity and second, that we can use the proceeds of the sales to offer on-the-water programming for at-risk youth,” says Fournier.

This weekend, YBC will launch its first volunteer-built wooden boat at the Atlantic Challenge International in Midland, Ontario. The boat, a Bantry Bay gig, is powered by both sails and oars and requires extensive teamwork to operate — YBC’s boat will be run by Team Canada, comprised of five youth from YBC and 10 from the Midland area. The Atlantic Challenge, held every two years, brings together Bantry Bay gigs and teams from around the world to compete in a friendly seamanship competition. Youth from 13 teams will spend the weekend sailing, competing and getting to know one another.

The biggest expense of participating in the Atlantic Challenge is the cost of the boat: a new Bantry Bay gig costs about $120,000. YBC would like to change that — with 10 experienced volunteers, it could take as little as 2,000 hours to build a boat. The labour could come for free (from experienced volunteers and youth who are learning), cutting the price of a Bantry Bay gig to about half of the current cost, making it easier for other charitable organizations to afford one.

YBC is still a little charity with big ideas — it can’t yet involve youth in boat-building activities for insurance reasons and it still doesn’t have a dedicated, accessible space to bring youth together. MaRS advisors are working with YBC to help it achieve some of its goals; most notably, building a robust business model that can achieve both financial and social returns.

“The secret to our success is making this actually happen,” says Fournier. “We are 100% volunteer-driven and we have a group of young people who are bursting with excitement over their involvement with YBC and the Atlantic Challenge.”

If you find yourself in Midland, Ontario this weekend, you can catch all the action at the Midland Town Dock (click here for more information). And if you do end up in Midland, be sure to say hello to Team Canada and the folks from Youth Boatworks Canada.

Vanessa Caldwell

Vanessa is a writer at MaRS. She writes all kinds of things, like posts for the MaRS blog, articles for Convergence (the MaRS magazine) and the weekly MaRS eNewsletters. See more…