All Business is Community Business

Photo by Trevor Taylor.

Fogo Island is located northeast of the island of Newfoundland. 150 square miles in size, it is home to 2,500 persons. Beginning in 1954 the Canadian government introduced a resettlement plan for Newfoundland that encouraged populations in remote areas to relocate to more inhabited centers, arguing that government could not continue to provide needed services in sparsely settled areas. Between 1954 and 1975 this program resulted in the abandonment of 300 communities and nearly 30,000 people were moved.

But not Fogo Islanders.

Faced with the prospect of leaving their beloved rocky Atlantic island home, they chose to band together. Fisherman by culture, they formed the Fogo Island Co-operative Society to build boats and process the cod, mackerel, crab, and lobster harvested off their shores.

The founding of the Co-op was captured in the 1967 National Film Board film by Colin Low. It is part of a series of films known as The Fogo Process that persuaded government officials that the Fogo Islanders could and would maintain a working economy.

Zita Cobb grew up on Fogo with six brothers, an industrious mother, and a fisherman father.  She knew Fogo before electricity and running water. She remembers the day her father returned with only one fish in the boat, defeated. It heralded the beginning of the cod fishery collapse, which further impacted the island’s economy.

She left the island in 1975 to make her mark in the tech field. She returned, as most Newfoundlanders wish to do if given the chance, in 2003, a woman made wealthy by the sale of her company. With two of her brothers she formed Shorefast Foundation, the mission of which is: “to build cultural and economic resilience on Fogo Island. We believe in a world where all business is community business.”

To achieve that mission, Cobb began by asking islanders: “What do we know as a community? What do we have? What do we love? What do we miss and what can we do about it?” Above all Fogo Islanders are hospitable. An inn would provide jobs and a venue for that hospitality.

The Fogo Island Inn emerged, by design, out of the vernacular features of the island’s traditional architecture. Strange and familiar at the same time. Belonging at once to the rock and sea and far horizon. Engaging community at every step. The architect Todd Saunders is a Newfoundlander himself, from Gander.

The Inn would need furniture and quilts, wallpaper and pillows. Shorefast co-created new community enterprises with islanders to utilize their traditional skills as boat builders, quilters, and knitters. Hayward Budden grew his small herd of goats to supply milk to the Inn to make yogurt and cheese. Partridge berry and the fruits of sea buckthorn are harvested for a range of desserts. Shavings from the icebergs in the bay turn into sorbets and are added to cocktails. Lobster stew in a delicate broth is breakfast fare. Plates of crab are piled high for dinner.

It is not inexpensive to stay at the Inn. But a detailed accounting program keeps track of where the money goes. The “Economic Nutrition Label” for a night’s stay shows the following breakdown:

Similar Economic Nutrition Labels are calculated for all the chairs, quilts, and pillows for sale at the Inn. Staff is focused on raising the local economic benefit factors ever higher.

I was at Fogo for a small conference called “Economics for Belonging: Community-Centric Solutions for a Fractured World” which explored how the Fogo Island story could be adapted for other regions. On the way back to the ferry I was in the car driven by Eugene Collins, who was born on the island, worked briefly as a teacher, and then went on to a management job at the Fogo Island Co-operative. Another passenger asked if people from the Island went to Gander on the big island to do their shopping. Better prices, more variety.

“That would hurt the local economy,” was Eugene’s matter of fact reply. The lessons learned from the founding of the Co-operative, the principles behind the Economic Nutrition Labels of the Inn, were plainly evident to Eugene. He thought first not of personal economics, but of community economics.


Photos courtesy of Fogo Island Inn.


On May 19th, Peter Buffett, co-president of the NoVo Foundation in Kingston, NY, and Peter Taylor, president of Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation in Sheffield, MA, will speak at Saint James Place in Great Barrington at 5 PM. The speakers will address the topic of how consciously-placed private philanthropy, including land gifting, can transform and invigorate a local community and its economy. The discussion will be moderated by David Bollier of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, and author of Think Like a Commoner and co-author of the forthcoming Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons. Reserve your seat here.