Time for non-religious enterprises?

I had an idea today. Like most ideas, it’s not original, and builds a lot on work that others have done, but it’s one that hasn’t been applied within the freethought movement yet, to my knowledge (at least in Canada).

The idea is, as I’ve now learned, based off the growing social enterprise movement which seeks to have companies run for financial, social and environmental gain – the triple bottom line. In many cases the corporation is actually a non-profit or charitable organization which runs a business to fund its work and expansion. A highly successful model of this sort of idea is the Salvation Army’s Thrift Stores which finance much of their missionary and religious work.

So the idea that I had today was sparked by a desire within the Vancouver skeptical/freethought community to have a place of our own, that is a venue where we can routinely host out discussions, meetings and set up an office or two.

Currently CFI Vancouver meets sporadically in cheap or free spaces that are provided by campus groups or rented at reduced rates (through its charitable status) and the BC Humanist Association meets weekly at the Oakridge Senior’s Centre through a deal they have there.

CFI is committed to seeing something more permanent in the next few years be established and while the Senior’s Centre is a great venue for the BCHA, there is the justified concern both inside and outside the organization that the word “senior” in the venue’s name is a deterrent.

So the idea I had was that these organizations ought to found a coffee shop/cafe, which during regular hours can be open to the public for coffee, cookies, and what-have you, with an extra influence of humanism and skepticism present (such as a resource library for the curious and some science-inspired artwork or something). Then, during evenings, weekends, or whenever it is needed, the shop can close up, move the tables aside (or not) and serve as a meeting venue for the invested groups.

There’s a few bonuses in this format. First, the coffee shop serves as an advertisement and fundraiser for the associated charities. Second, the venue would accommodate the majority of the events being held (the larger lectures and debates will always require large campus lecture halls), and would have coffee and snacks available, and could even be potentially licensed.

The drawbacks are the large initial investment required (likely a few $100,000 which none of these organizations have), and the requirement that someone will actually have to manage the business end of things.

However, with a strong business plan and the right people, it should be possible to raise the requisite funds via government grants, personal donations, and loans if necessary.

It’s also worth noting that under Vancouver’s basic commercial zoning laws [pdf], most of these types of spaces can be used for the categories of cultural and recreational (including clubs and community centres), institutional (schools), offices, retail and services. So there should be no difficulty with this portion.

Now, who has some entrepreneurial experience and wants to get this started?


4 thoughts on “Time for non-religious enterprises?”

  1. That sounds like a fantastic idea. I know of a few progressive community-oriented organizations who have self-financed through a similar coffee shop idea (although I don’t know of any atheist/humanist/etc organizations specifically doing that). It seems like it would create a perfect atmosphere for discussion and collaboration.

  2. That sounds like a great idea. I have encountered a few church-run coffee shops – eg an internet cafe in Morris MN (yes, PZ Myers has blogged from there).

    One other possibility that recently occurred to me was the idea of co-operating with a hackerspace.

    1. The issue that I see with going the hackerspace route is that we perpetuate the over-abundance of the male gender and fail to diversify. At least if we open cafes and cultural centres we can appeal to a broader base and shift our demographics to one of more balance.

      1. I suppose you have a point there, though the hackerspaces that have a strong “makerspace” component tend to have better gender balance. Here in Ottawa, we are thinking (or at least some of us are dreaming) about having a physical space for the atheists/humanists/skeptics/secularists/freethinkers, and also thinking about how we can do outreach to the public, especially children and teens, hence the attraction of a hackerspace/makerspace (and in my experience, the gender balance for that is often skewed towards females for the younger set). How about a coffee shop with a hackerspace in the basement? 🙂

        [In the interest of full disclosure: I agree figuring out how to attract more females to atheist/humanist/skeptic/secularist/freethinker groups is an important challenge, and I have no idea how to address it. I am female, but I’m an engineer (and a longtime hacker), so I am probably not the right person to answer the question.]

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