It’s a brand new project for the new-look Black Country Arts Council. For the last few years I’ve been supporting this small charity that has been running for a whopping 73 years to promote arts and creativity for everyone. I’m really pleased that it’s been able to launch a project in the midst of challenging circumstances.
In 2018, the charity faced a crossroads. Its board of trustees felt that they had taken the charity as far as they could in a changing world. The future was either to breathe new life into the charity by handing its reins to a new board of trustees or to close the charity completely. One long-standing member felt strongly that if the right people could be found, Black Country Arts Council could be rejuvenated and become a powerful network for promoting all art forms across the Black Country.
Together, we helped to identify and engage people who were interested in transforming Black Country Arts Council and soon we had a group of 7 potential new trustees who would come together as a sub-committee to explore what Black Country Arts Council could be. I helped the potential new trustees to do some visioning for the organisation and explore ways they could re-engage with and expand its membership. We looked at the constitution, thought about networks, what the offer was, how it could communicate, raise its profile and build its base with small scale projects. I also gave a brief workshop on the legal duties of trustees and helped the potential new trustees to liaise with the then current trustees so that there could be a seamless handover.
This resulted in a general meeting at which the new trustees were elected. The outgoing trustees gave some lovely encouragement and shared ideas for forthcoming activities that the Black Country Arts Council could get involved in (sadly, activities that will be cancelled or at least postponed in the current circumstances).
At about the same time, Creative Black Country was gearing up to launch its Arts Council funded project Creative People and Places into Dudley. This was a great opportunity for Black Country Arts Council to expand its networks and I was really pleased to see members at one of Creative Black Country’s meet-up events.
Thankfully, the connection that had been established meant that Black Country Arts Council trustees were organised enough to be able to bid to Creative Black Country’s Creative Communities programme, which now focused on kickstarting arts activities that could take place during the lockdown.
Which brings us to the here and now! With a grant of under £1,000, Black Country Arts Council will be putting together 200 arts packs containing a range of accessible and quality art supplies, and a leaflet offering fun ideas for creative projects that children can engage in during the lockdown. The dedicated team of volunteers includes artists who will design the leaflet for the packs and offer instructional “follow along” videos through Black Country Arts social media, supported by a British Sign Language interpreter to ensure everyone can be included.
These packs will provide support for up to 200 families across the region, offering ways for parents to engage their children, promote artistic interest and learn new skills. The packs will be distributed by Black Country Foodbank and Dudley Performing Arts to make sure they go to families that have been hardest hit by the pandemic and who may have barriers to accessing good quality arts materials.
The project-leads hope to flood social media with art, positivity and togetherness by encouraging people to post their creations using the #YoungSketchBookers hashtag and when the lockdown is eventually lifted there will be an exhibition of the artwork created, giving children a sense of achievement and community participation by bringing together everyone involved.
It sounds like such a positive project and I’m looking forward to checking out and celebrating the creativity of local children. I think we could all do with some of that right now!
It’s probably fair to say that it’s an uncertain time for the not-for-profit sector. The Coronavirus pandemic has affected organisations in different ways, depending on their activities, their size or how they’re funded. Some have had to suspend their activities; others have continued but scaled down; some have had their income streams completely dry up; others have faced an unprecendented increase in demand. Odds are also that added into that mix have been the challenges of doing things differently, loss of staff or volunteers due to sickness, shielding or furlough, and mental health implications.
Reassuringly, people have come forward in their droves to help in their community; this is very welcome and many of us are beginning to think about how this impetus is best harnessed as we enter new phases. The increase in volunteering could pose challenges in itself as organisations try to ensure that people volunteer safely.
I wanted to bring together some of the useful things we’ve been sharing to help not-for-profits over the past few months, share what’s coming up and pose some questions for us to explore over the next few months.
I’ll start with what’s coming up.
Next week is Small Charity Week and there are lots of events listed on the Small Charity Week website. We’re hosting three events next week.
On Thursday, we’ll run a brief training workshop on the Charity Governance Code to help trustees understand their role. It will be most useful for trustees of registered charities or people who are thinking of registering their organisation as a charity.
This builds on the excellent series of webinars NCVO has produced on a whole range of topics, from protecting people, financial planning and making decisions during the Coronavirus pandemic. The webinars are all recorded and published on Youtube, so don’t worry if you’ve missed any; you can access them here.
I recently caught the recent NCVO webinar on ‘Board leadership: Supporting your charity through the next phase of the Coronavirus pandemic’
It encourages you to think about where your board of trustees are currently. Have they been helping out with delivery recently? It’s important to understand where the board is so that it can move on from emergency / survival stage and into the next phase; easing the board from management into governance and setting the charity’s direction will be important. And if planning might seem a futile exercise at the moment, there are some tools and tips for planning during uncertain times.
For both individuals who want to help and groups that have been taking on more volunteers during the period. This contains
hints and tips for what individual volunteers can do to keep themselves and others safe
ideas for what people can do to help depending on their circumstances
help and resources for groups that involve volunteers covering safety, confidentiality, lone working guidance and more.
We are still offering one-to-one support to Dudley borough groups. We can offer this support either by email or by online meetings. We do have quite a bit of demand so we appreciate your patience on this; please don’t hesitate to make contact with us!
For our first ever Dudley CVS podcast, we got together with colleagues from Dudley Council and Black Country Community Grants (run through Walsall Council) to talk about the next rounds of ESF Black Country Community Grants.
Listen and learn more about the programme and how to produce a good-quality application with Becky, Martin, Ruth and Jacki.
We’ll provide a transcript of this podcast as soon as we possibly can.
Over the last six months or so I’ve been publicising this grants programme through our email bulletin. I recently learned that the number of organisations from the Dudley borough applying and receiving funding is very low in comparison to the other local authorities in the Black Country.
As a result I have been discussing alternative approaches with colleagues (Becky and Helena from Dudley CVS, Jacki from Dudley MBC and Ruth from Walsall Council) in order to redress that balance and motivate organisations within the Dudley borough to consider this funding programme. The key area of our discussions has been around the range of support all of us can provide to potential applicants.
The programme itself
The Black Country Community Grants Programme is jointly funded by the Education & Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and the European Social Fund (ESF) providing small grants (£5,000-£20,000) to be distributed in the Black Country region during the period 1 April 2019-31 July 2021. The administration of the programme is managed by Walsall Council providing a range of support to potential applicants as the Grant Co-ordinating Body.
Small community and voluntary groups, charities or not-for-profit organisations (annual turnover below £300,000) based in and providing services in the Black Country that help an individual’s progress towards employability/access to employment are eligible to apply. Grants can be used for the delivery of a range of skills and employment support activities that will engage with people aged over 16 who are hard to reach, affected by multiple disadvantages, unemployed and economically inactive. Projects should help them improve their skills/job prospects to progress towards/obtain employment with priority for over 50s, females, disabled people and ethnic minorities.
One of the charities to already benefit from Community Grants is Top Church Training (also known as The Connect Project), which has been supported by Dudley CVS colleagues for over 10 years. Top Church Training received a grant of just under £20,000 to run the Choices Project, which aims to empower women and provides a holistic package to support the participant’s wellbeing.
The Choices project offers a range of activities from Craft sessions to Yoga, Coffee mornings to Cooking classes. Each of these sessions take place every week and are ran in groups to help to decrease isolation and low levels of confidence.
The majority of participants are long term unemployed, the Choices project is supporting local women to feel more “work ready” by building up their skills and confidence. Top Church Training’s Head of Operations said:
We are delighted to have been successful with our ESF Community Grants application.
The funding has enabled us to expand our activities and practical support service to help more women in our local community who are feeling lonely and isolated.
We have been able to provide a safe environment for women to come to, to meet new people and to make new friends. By coming to our groups we are hearing how this is improving their mental health, their confidence and self-esteem and for two others, has motivated them to find employment.
The Top Church Training Team
The support available to organisations interested in learning more about and applying to the programme
In Dudley borough, we’ve a team of people who can support organisations making applications to this funding programme:
Martin Jones (Funding Officer at Dudley CVS) can discuss the application process with potential applicants and provide guidance on completion of the application form. Once the form is completed I’ll review the application before submission to ensure all the relevant information is included and all questions have been answered in full.
Jacki Lakin (External Funding and Compliance Officer at Dudley Council) is passionate about Dudley based organisations being properly resourced for their very valuable work in communities and is very keen to assist applicants to this programme helping them obtain funding to continue providing essential activities and projects for their beneficiaries. She will meet with organisations and discuss ways in which she can support them.
Ruth Burgess (External Funding and Community Grants Manager at Walsall MBC) manages a small team running the Black Country Community Grants programme. She is responsible for delivering the programme within each of the four boroughs and meets with organisations on a regular basis both before submission of applications and afterwards if they are successful. Her team provide one-to-one support so that organisations have help and guidance when running their projects.
Becky Pickin (Small Groups Development Officer at Dudley CVS) has been working with small organisations for over a decade helping them not only with applying for grants but also ensuring they are in a position to apply for funding. It is important that organisations are fit for purpose before making funding applications and Becky ensures they have the correct structure in place as well as all relevant policies and procedures. She also assists with business planning ensuring that fundraising is driven by their future priorities and aspirations so they can continue providing excellent services to people in need.
Helena Norman (Dudley CVS Communications Officer) can help organisations tell their stories and celebrate their successes more widely so that they can not only become better known but they can also be more attractive to potential funders. Helena could help organisations develop their social media presence so that they can have a wider and more engaging reach.
Future plans to increase the number of applications to Black Country Community Grants
In January we’ll be producing a podcast about the fund involving ourselves at the CVS alongside Jacki and Ruth. We aim to dispel the myths around the difficulties in running projects/activities and the recording of data/outcomes achieved etc. We will clarify aspects of the whole procedure from application to conclusion and the support available along the way.
We’ll also gauge interest in a Community Grants focused event in February where people can learn more and meet those involved in the programme who can provide support to them.
All of this will take place so that organisations will have the opportunity to apply for a Community Grant in either of the three forthcoming rounds (4, 5 and 6) with deadlines 2 March, 1 May and 3 July 2020.
Watch this space for further communication and details about the Black Country Community Grants programme!
Update, January 2020
Community Grants workshop for Dudley borough!
We’ve organised a workshop where you can learn more about Community Grants, meet us to talk about your ideas and get support.
A couple of weeks ago, I headed to Birmingham for the Good Finance Live event on social investment to meet experts, social investors, not-for-profits that had accessed social investment and, hopefully, to bring some useful information and ideas back to Dudley borough.
I should say that social investment won’t be for every organisation because of its repayable nature. For instance, it wouldn’t suit an organisation that provides free services because that organisation would find it difficult to raise enough money to pay off the investment. But for an organisation that has something to trade, be it facilities for hire, goods, merchandise or services to sell, social investment could be a feasible source of finance to help it develop. As I’m seeing more requests for support around social enterprise development and community asset transfer, repayable finance might be an appropriate option for these types of organisation (a social enterprise is set up to trade to achieve its social or environmental purposes and an organisation with facilities might be able to generate an income from hiring them out).
So what did I get from the day?
Generally speaking, social investment is repayable finance where the investor wants to receive a social return as well as a financial one. But within that, there are many different types of social investment. The conference centre at BVSC was packed with different social investors that support charities and social enterprises. Between them, they provide a whole range of social investment options, such as:
social impact bonds
social investment tax relief (SITR)
A mind-boggling array of options that may sound very daunting. You can find out more about them here on the Good Finance website.
On top of that, while some investors offer general support to any type of not-for-profit, there are some that are interested in certain areas of work or themes, like:
PICNIC – which is interested in delivering social and environmental impact in parks and green spaces
Sporting Capital – which supports organisations that help communities through sport and physical activity
Homeless Link – which supports organisations that aim to reduce homelessness
As well as meeting social investors, it was incredibly helpful to meet and hear from organisations that had been successful in raising one or more kinds of social investment. Particularly inspiring were contributions from:
Wellington Orbit, a cultural hub owned by the community who raised finance through a community share offer and incorporated social investment tax relief SITR into its funding mix in order to open a community cinema and cafe bar
Creative Optimistic Visions CIC, run by the passionate Stacey who shared her journey from setting up her CIC from scratch, being supported through UnLtd finance and mentoring to taking on blended finance, allowing the CIC to employ staff and expand its work
These examples really demonstrated that social finance is not only for large organisations and already well-resourced organisations.
If you’re interested in finding out more about social finance, I’d always recommend learning from other organisations that have gone through it. Many will be happy to share their experiences and learning with you. As well as the two listed above, a couple of months ago I posted about Stretford Public Hall, which ran a successful community share offer.
I’d also recommend starting with the Good Finance website, which is packed with tools and resources to help you decide whether social finance is a good option for your organisation and what social finance options might be most appropriate. It’s a great source of information.
Finally, I’m doing some work behind the scenes to increase knowledge and understanding of social finance in the Dudley borough. This might include sharing more information about social finance, increasing our skills and bringing in experts who can give support and encouragement. If you’re interested in learning more, or getting involved in any initiatives around social finance in Dudley, please let us know and we can keep you informed.
Did you know that over the last 11 years, Martin and I have supported nonprofits to access more than £11million in grant funding? You probably didn’t because we only recently realised this ourselves!
Given that Martin and I have recently completed our eleventh year at Dudley CVS, and because we’re both utter geeks when it comes to keeping records of the people and groups we’ve worked with over that time, we thought it would be interesting to pull together all of our data about successful funding applications we’ve worked on. We’re both pretty staggered by (and proud of) the results.
Martin and I joined Dudley CVS within a month of each other back in 2008. Over those years we’ve worked together and helped each other to offer the best support possible to all types and sizes of not-for-profit.
My role is about helping people that want to establish or develop their not-for-profit by providing them with information, guidance and support on a range of topics they’re likely to run into, including:
What type of not-for-profit? Such as the concept of social enterprise, the definition of charity, appropriate legal structures
Planning, including long term vision, mission, purpose-setting, project planning, reviewing the organisation, financial planning
Roles and responsibilities of the people that lead not-for-profits, including governance training for directors and trustees
Connecting with others, which is becoming increasingly important
Governing documents and registration
Compliance – including regulatory obligations, insurance, reporting and policies and procedures
Asset development and asset transfer
Fundraising and income-generation
When I support groups with funding, it tends to be as part of wider support to help a group become established and ‘funding ready’, such as Dudley Feelgood Choir, Wall Heath Tennis Club and Bayer Street Allotments, though I do also help groups to identify appropriate funders for their work or projects and they do the rest. The idea is to give support in a way that helps groups to become more skilled and confident in putting applications together.
Martin’s role focuses on income-generation and because of this, he primarily supports organisations with larger bids. Martin says,
“Like the support groups give to their beneficiaries to help them to increase their skills, confidence and ability to do things for themselves, the way I work with groups can start quite intensively with a lot of handholding until they are in a position to work on an application themselves with me on hand to review it before it’s submitted. Lots of the people I worked with years ago are now flying with their bidwriting!
I supported Dudley Voices for Choice who received £415,720 at the end of 2018. What stood out for me was how the group involved their beneficiaries throughout the process as well as the enthusiasm of the partners in the project led excellently by Sarah.
Overall 80% of the organisations I have supported during the last 11 years have received funding.
Over the last eleven years, between us, we’ve supported:
With 614 successful applications
To 113 grants programmes
Totalling £11,764,436.65 (65p!)”
Of course, this only covers the work that Martin and I have done to support organisations as that’s the data we have to hand. The real total over that eleven years is likely to be much higher if we could incorporate the support that our previous colleagues gave too. On top of that, for obvious reasons, we can only include the successes that our groups have told us about, which doesn’t always happen. Nonetheless, there’s some interesting things to say about the figures we’ve got.
The largest single grant was for £800,000 from the Football Foundation to a local community football club (one of Martin’s)
The smallest grants were two £30 grants from TESCO and the Blakemore Foundation to help the Seniors Luncheon Club get started in 2009 (they’re still going now!)
Here’s a breakdown by grant size:
86% of grants were valued at £10,000 or less. The majority of grants (35%) were for under £1,000, while 33% of grants ranged from £1,000-£5,000. This means well over half the grants (68%) were awards of up to £5,000. 18% of grants were between £5,000 and £10,000 in value. I think this suggests that most of these awards are contributions towards project costs, rather than core funding.
Which funding programmes have been the most accessed by the groups we’ve supported over the last decade? This graphic shows us:
67 of the 113 (59%) of funding programmes made one grant only (that we know of), the remaining 41% gave multiple grants amongst the groups we supported. When we support groups, we help them to identify the most appropriate funders for their needs, matching projects to funders’ interests areas and criteria. This is why there is a spread of 113 grants programmes.
Within that, the ten most prolific grants programmes were:
Dudley Council’s Community Forums (including previous Area Committee funding)
Awards for All (National Lottery Community Fund, formerly Big Lottery Fund)
Dudley Borough Small Grants Fund
Rant About the Grant
Improving Physical Activity Fund
Reaching Communities (National Lottery Community Fund, formerly Big Lottery Fund)
What’s staggering in this list is that 6 of the ten programmes no longer operate and have not been in operation for some years now (programmes that have come to an end are: Dudley Borough Small Grants Fund, Grassroots Grants, Rant About the Grant, Improving Physical Activity Fund, Dudley Council’s Small Grants, BeActive Coaching Bursary). This chimes with our knowledge and our increasing encouragement of groups to look to new sources of income as grant funding opportunities continue to reduce, because the four remaining funders may not be able to increase their level of award.
What else can we say about these grants programmes? We can see how much they have granted the Dudley borough groups we’ve supported:
An enormous 55% of funding awarded to the groups we’ve supported has come from Reaching Communities, that’s £6,507,553.00 of the £11,764,436.65 total! This is perhaps due to a combination of the size of grants available through this programme, its popularity as a programme and the relatively high success rate it enjoys. Other popular programmes like Awards for All and the Community Forums give smaller grants (up to £10,000 and £5,000 respectively).
“As regards Reaching Communities I have a success rate of almost 60% in both number of successful applications and grant values. 50% of the groups I’ve supported with Reaching Communities have received repeat funding from that programme. These include Phase Trust (3), Dudley Counselling Centre/Dudley Community Church (3), Beacon Centre for the Blind (2), Age UK (2) and Headway Black Country (2).
As for high-value grants, some of my highlights are:
£538,524 over 3 applications to an organisation that supports older people
£513,525 over 3 applications to a disability charity
£1,238,328 from 10 applications from a faith-based organisation that supports vulnerable and disadvantaged people
£679,411 across 4 applications from an advocacy charity
£646,272 from 4 applications by a health-based charity
7 applications with a family support charity, totaling £289,016
7 applications supported with a young persons charity, totaling £1,019,710
15 applications supported from a charity that empowers disadvantaged people, totaling £566,465
6 successful applications supported from a young persons advocacy charity, totaling £614,592″
The National Lottery Community Fund (formerly known as the Big Lottery Fund) which runs Reaching Communities, features elsewhere in this top ten, with Awards for All, Advice Services Fund and the Youth Investment Fund accounting for around 10% of money awarded. So what does the picture look like if we combine the programmes run by one funder?
Unsurprisingly, the National Lottery Community Fund makes up 65% of the total money awarded to groups we’ve supported over the past eleven years. Other funders have contributed as follows:
Football Foundation 6.8%
Young People’s Fund 2.62%
Dudley Council 2.51%
BBC Children in Need 2.42%
Lloyds Bank Foundation 2.39%
Building Better Opportunities 2.38%
Sport England 1.89%
Ibstock Cory Environmental Trust 1.6%
Grassroots Grants 1.3%
Remaining funders combined 11.25
The National Lottery Community Fund is still keen to fund Dudley borough organisations and we have great links with John Goodman, the Funding Officer from The National Lottery Community Fund who covers our patch. John is available at our office on Wednesdays to meet organisations interested in accessing funding from The National Lottery Community Fund. To arrange an appointment, email John at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A new fund for Dudley borough
Finally, Dudley CVS has recently launched a new fund for organisations that can develop and provide creative support for people who frequently use unplanned emergency care services (such as calling 999, attending A&E or Urgent Care Centre).
Based at the Meadow Road Youth Centre, the Senior Citizens Enterprise Woodwork Group, in Dudley, is a group for older people who are interested in woodwork. It’s a fun and friendly environment offering older people a place to learn new or develop existing woodworking skills. It’s also a great place to find new friendships. The group has 23 members in total. Some members live on their own, some are widowers, some just like to get out of the house, make something and put their skills to good use! The oldest member, Ken, is 93 years old.
‘Fed up with looking at four walls? Then come and look at ours instead!’ That’s the motto of the Senior Citizens Enterprise Woodwork Group.
The wood workshop is fully equipped with modern tools and machinery. There really isn’t much that the group hasn’t made, and they’re always on the lookout for new projects to keep them occupied. They’ve kindly created cosy homes for many of the animals at Dudley Zoo, a castle hideout for the zoo’s female guinea pigs, a hotel for rabbits, bird, bat and red panda boxes. They’ve even built penguin boxes – they tell me that they have successfully bred since, so must have done a good job making them feel at home!
Members have also kindly given their time and skills to build a variety of bird habitats for the Midland Metro Alliance which will be installed along the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill route for the Midland Metro. It’s hoped that the bird boxes will attract a wide range of nesting birds.
They’ve built a bench for Acorns Children’s Hospice, nest boxes for local schools and they’re now looking to build Pine Marten boxes for an RSPB site in Shropshire.
The group acquire offcuts of wood donated by local businesses which enables them to build all of the items, these materials would otherwise have gone to landfill. They have even rescued supermarket trolleys from the canal and used the wheels to make wood replenishing trolleys that fit snuggly under the workbenches.
Steve is one of the youngest members of the group, he joined when he was 63 and mainly makes things for the family like shelving and benches. He tells me that people like to come to the workshop because they enjoy the camaraderie and they like to have a good laugh. A couple of members don’t look forward to the Christmas holidays as it just imposes on them coming to the workshop! They’ll open up again as soon as Boxing Day arrives, as long as there are two people in the workshop, for health and safety reasons, they will happily come in over Christmas!
Steve contacted Dudley CVS to get support to apply for a Dudley Community Forum Grant of £550. The application was successful, helping them to purchase sanding disks, belts, saw blades, machine saws and new router bits. They’ve also received £900 from Age UK, which they have used to buy a new router machine.
Dave is one of the founding members of the group, he’s made things including rocking horses and dolls houses. It usually takes him about 3 months to make a rocking horse which is made in blocks, glued together and then carved and painted. He’s also carved a shark out of wood, which sits on his fireplace at home.
Chairman Mick, is highly skilled on the woodturning lathes, he’s made fruit bowls and pens. He’s even made a beautifully carved walking stick.
Dave and Derek have a background in upholstery. Derek recently made an intricate money box. He enjoys coming to the workshop, but doesn’t like Thursdays much, as that’s when the workshop closes for the weekend!
Ken, the oldest member, is making clocks for his sons out of an old sideboard that belonged to his parents.
Bruce makes detailed wooden toy trains, plains and trucks. He finds his inspiration in woodwork books.
Bill is 84, he came to the workshop when he was 70, he started out as Chairman. He likes to make clocks and other things. He remembers the days when they used to walk around timber yards asking for offcuts of wood. He said “Coming here is good, we can discuss things over lunch, at our age, we don’t see anybody, pubs are too expensive and not good for you!’
George, the treasurer, likes to make boats with sails. He keeps them in his large shed, apparently, you have to go in sideways because of the number fabulous boats, lifeboats and submarines he has made.
All members are extremely skilled and talented. Some had skills before, some hadn’t, many have learnt skills from each other. All of their items are beautifully made and finished to a high standard.
The group originally started in the early 2000s when a few people were faced with redundancy from local businesses. It was suggested they go on other courses to re-skill, one of those was a woodwork course at Dudley College. When that closed down the group moved to Mons Hill in Dudley, then amalgamated with another group from Brierley Hill, it was then that they moved to Meadow Road Youth Centre where they have been based for over a decade now. They still use the original machinery that was donated by Dudley College over a decade ago.
The group has recently become a member of UK Men’s Sheds Association. Men’s Sheds provides support and guidance to individuals and groups across the UK, raising awareness of the social and health benefits of Men’s Sheds in reducing isolation, loneliness and in empowering local communities. Men’s Sheds supports individual groups to connect with new members of the community. They also provide advice and guidance on starting up and running a shed providing practical information guides, example documents and toolkits on topics such as registering as a charity, insurance, funding, sourcing equipment and venues, and volunteer recruitment.
To anyone who might be interested to join, they would say, “Come in, do your own thing, we’ve got heating, toilets and cups of tea to keep us nice and warm! What more could you want?”
Over the last few months I’ve been working with the lovely Lorraine, a music enthusiast who wanted to explore the idea of setting up a new ladies choir. I recently visited the choir and spoke to the ladies now taking part in its activities to see how far they’ve come in such a short space of time, a testament to the work Lorraine and her team have put in to get this off the ground!
Setting up a group of any kind takes time and plenty of groundwork to move from being one person’s idea to a collective that a whole team is behind. Much of the requests for support that I receive focus on getting paperwork in place, like constitutions, and funding. I can understand this impulse – having a constitution (with certain key clauses) makes a group eligible for funding and constitutions aren’t something people come across every day – apart from me, I suppose!
But a constitution isn’t a group’s starting point and diving straight into writing one misses crucial steps in the process of setting up a group: team building and planning.
Team building and planning
A not-for-profit group of any kind is always a collective. Although one person might start with their vision and be the driving force, a group should never be run by just one person. A successful group needs a strong, diverse team with a range of skills to be able to make good decisions, reflect society and benefit the people it is set up to help. For me, this is one of the hardest and most crucial aspects of setting up (and continuing to run) a group; building a team will help to ensure that goals are set collectively and that there’s greater motivation to achieve them.
Which leads us to planning. Planning is a really important step in establishing a group and in keeping a group going. The planning process helps everyone involved in the group to agree exactly what the group is about, what it’s trying to achieve and the activities it will do to meet its objectives. Doing it as a team will unite team members behind collectively agreed goals and it will bring lots of different skills and viewpoints to the process, making a plan robust. Planning is also about connecting with others, considering what’s already happening in the community, identifying gaps and linking with other people and organisations to show how the group will operate and demonstrate the level of interest in its work.
Lorraine and her team did this really well, linking with the many community groups in Wall Heath in order to build a picture of potential members, to get word out about the new choir and to secure a venue. This process also helped Lorraine to think about and demonstrate the potential value of the choir and how singing together has social benefits and supports good wellbeing and mental health.
The benefits of planning and connecting with others helped Lorraine to feel more confident about applying for small grants to launch the choir. I helped to identify some small funders who might be interested in supporting the choir, particularly as a way to help people become more connected in their community and feel less isolated. Soon, Lorraine had secured grants totaling just over £3,000 from Blakemore Foundation, Geoff Hill Charitable Trust, Helping Hands Wall Heath CIC and the local Community Forum!
It was great to hear that Wall Heath Ladies Choir could start its activities thanks to the small grants it received which helped to cover venue hire, materials and small items of equipment. It was even better to pay a visit to one of the rehearsals to see how members were getting on!
That night I met a dozen or so smiling women, beginning the night with a catch up, asking about each other and chatting before throwing themselves into warm-up exercises and then into a rousing rehearsal that I couldn’t help but join in with (sorry!). The choir is led by the energising and encouraging Karen, a vocal coach, who has whipped the ladies into shape in no time. Karen’s approach is brilliant and engaging; she helps people feel comfortable and confident, and she knows how important it is to involve everyone in deciding on what songs they should perform. She brings warmth and humour to the group and it’s obvious that she’s built a wonderful rapport with the members of the choir.
During the break, I got to chat with some of the ladies. I found out that all but one of them hadn’t sung in a choir before, but that they didn’t feel stressed or daunted by being in the choir. One member remarked that she liked that they don’t get told off if they get it wrong, which shows how welcoming the choir is to all sorts of abilities.
Some of the members knew each other before they joined Wall Health Ladies Choir, though all of them said that they’d made new friends by joining. I was also told that coming to the choir is good fun, a pick me up after a difficult day and a place where you can forget your stresses. One member told me that she hadn’t seen anyone else that day until she came to the choir. It seems pretty clear that the choir is about more than singing, it’s about the fellowship, friendship and sense of belonging that can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing.
So if you’re interested in joining a fun, friendly and relaxed choir, why not go along to a rehearsal and see for yourself? Wall Heath Ladies Choir rehearses on Thursday evenings, 7.15pm-9.15pm at Church of Ascension, Wall Heath. You’ll get a warm welcome!
I’ll leave you with a cheeky video I took of the choir rehearsing ABBA’s Dancing Queen and I challenge you not to smile!
What a difference a year makes! Priory Community Centre now looks a far cry from the empty, not-quite-finished shell of a building I visited in June 2017. Now it’s vibrant, full of people of all ages doing all sorts of creative things together!
It’s a journey that started long before I started working with the passionate group of people who make up Priory Community Association, a charity that’s been without a home since the North Priory estate in Dudley was flattened and redeveloped in 2010. Priory Community Association volunteers live and breathe their community; they continued to work in the community at other venues to make sure they stayed connected, they maintained links with other community centres for support while they were without a home and they provided a strong voice for what the new community centre should look and feel like.
Last year, I was asked to support Priory Community Association through the asset-transfer process, work that had been started by my former colleague Caroline, who’d worked closely with Dudley Council staff on its asset-transfer strategy. In basic terms, asset transfer is when building or land moves from statutory control into the control of not-for-profit organisations. In Dudley borough, this has in most cases been a transfer of management (through a lease) rather than transferring ownership from the local authority to another organisation. Asset transfer can be a lengthy process (with more work required the longer the lease is), so it’s good to approach it with realistic expectations. Generally, the process involves completing a short expression of interest and then working on a business plan that will show the community support for the transfer, what kinds of activities will happen there and how they will benefit the community and the financial viability. Understandably, the local authority will want to make sure that the transfer will benefit the community and that it is sustainable.
So this is the process we started with Priory Community Association. We got busy with the business plan and I think together we made a really strong case for the community benefits, linking not only with the Dudley Council plan but showing links to priorities of the Health and Wellbeing Board, West Midlands Police and Dudley Clinical Commissioning Group. We had some help and good feedback from Martin, who’s the principle link with the local authority for groups looking at asset transfer – he does an excellent job!
What we all found more difficult was the financial figures. We were lucky enough to be able to get some figures from other community centres, but we weren’t sure how realistic they would be, given that Priory’s was a completely new building (and hopefully more energy efficient!). On top of that, while we were working on the plan, the completed building risked standing empty and Priory Community Association couldn’t give any certainty to potential users and hirers of the centre. So I asked Martin whether a temporary lease might be an option; this would allow Priory Community Association to get in the building and start managing it, giving them experience, building interest and providing a more realistic view of what the costs would be thus making their business plan more robust. At the same time, the building wouldn’t have to stand empty for too long and be at risk of deterioration.
Dudley Council was open to this, which was wonderful news! We thought ahead and it seemed that the timings might coincide with the summer holidays, so I suggested that Awards for All might be interested in funding a playscheme with a difference – one that would help to launch the brand new community centre and kickstart other activities that would happen there. Together we worked on the application – it was a good one! – and Priory Community Association landed a grant of around £5,000 from Awards for All. The group also successfully applied to Dudley Council’s Community Forums to help them furnish the kitchen and other areas of the centre, and their good relationships with other community centres in the borough meant they had lots of chairs and tables donated.
I recently went back to the centre on the last day of the playscheme to see how things had gone. I was utterly staggered by what this passionate group of people has achieved! They’ve made connections with children and families who’ve come to the playscheme and joined in the range of the activities on offer, connections that will last many years judging by the ‘Thank you’ cards on display and the wonderful comments Priory Community Centre has received on its Facebook page, which has been joyously charting each day of the playscheme. Honestly, if you want to brighten your day, take a look at the wonderful pictures and comments like the ones below:
During my visit a group of children and adults descended on trustees and volunteers with flowers and chocolates to say thank you for the two weeks of fun they’d had. Of course, I had to get a snap!
Leaders, people like Celia, Sally and Rachel, have also instilled the sense that the community centre is for absolutely anyone and everyone. The behaviours the leaders have shown and the language they’ve used have helped people feel a sense of ownership. Children have made posters encouraging everyone to tidy up after themselves and people feel like they can contribute to making activities happen. The fact that they had enough volunteers to cover a day trip of 59 people to Weston and keep activities going at the centre shows that people are willing to help and volunteers are valued there. This is great news for the future of the centre!
The people I spoke to had lovely things to say about the local PCSO’s too. They went to each day of the play scheme, getting involved in the activities, judging competitions, doing the less attractive jobs! It seems like the play scheme has been a great way to connect communities with each other and with the people that serve those communities, like the Police, who want to be visible and engaged there.
The future looks good. Throughout the last few months, Priory Community Association have been engaging with people and organisations that might want to use the centre. There’s an exciting plan in the pipeline with young people’s charity Top Church Training, which might see the Community Centre cafe opening regularly, and there’s been a lot of learning about what works from the play scheme – a regular families session might be on the cards!
Whatever the plans, I wish Priory Community Centre every success. The people involved make my job an utter privilege and we’ll always be happy to support them as they develop.
Shadowed by the beautifully refurbished Lye and Wollescote Chapels (now known as the Thomas Robinson Building) Lye and Wollescote Cemetery is a peaceful spot for reflection and an historically fascinating site. I visited recently and was overwhelmed by the transformation the Friends of Lye and Wollescote Cemetery have made to the site in the past two and a bit years since I saw them last!
The Friends of Lye and Wollescote Cemetery are working hard to make sure people can still see these links to the past and to create a pleasant environment for visitors. The group came together during the renovation of the Grade II listed chapels led by West Midlands Historic Buildings Trust (WMHBT). As part of the £1.2m project, WMHBT wanted to engage with the community to increase the chances of the project’s long-term sustainability. Soon, a small group of volunteers was clearing the cemetery ground on the first Saturday of every month.
Donna and I met the volunteers in 2016. We visited the cemetery, which was overgrown and pretty uninviting (I’m sure it didn’t help that it was a cold and dismal January morning!) and did a series of workshops in the nearby (and warm) Stambermill House where we built a vision for what the cemetery could be like in the future, painted a picture of the skills, talents and networks that each volunteer brought and created a simple plan. We also developed a simple constitution during our conversations about whether the volunteers would like to become a constituted group or to remain informal for the time being.
Fast forward two years and the group has achieved so much! The Friends of Lye and Wollescote Cemetery signed their constitution and opened a bank account, which unlocked a grant of £5,000 from the Community Forums. They’ve also managed to raise a further £2,500!
The visible difference the group has made to cemetery is clear. They’ve cleared grounds and uncovered graves that they didn’t know were there; they’ve cleaned graves meticulously; they’ve brought in professionals to repair graves; they’ve installed two beautiful benches commemorating those who died in the First and Second World Wars; they’ve set up a system to make it easier for people to carry water from the site’s only tap.
All of this work has increased the number of visitors to the cemetery, whether for the local history, for remembrance or for the peaceful environment that’s open to everyone. The Friends have told me that more people now come to lay flowers at graves, many of which have no family members left to tend to them.
The group’s Facebook group is very active too, and there are always lots of messages of thanks to the Friends from local people who walk through the grounds, as well as progress reports from the Friends themselves. It really feels like these volunteers have built a sense of community around this almost forgotten site.
Coincidentally, when I paid a visit to the grounds I met Ian from Dudley Council’s Bereavement Services, which manages the cemetery. Ian was as enthusiastic about the group’s achievements as I am and he’d love it if every cemetery in the borough had a friends group, testament to how local people really do make local places.
So what about the future? Members of the Friends of Lye and Wollescote Cemetery plan to continue their work. They want to repair more graves, which costs money; each grave that needs professional repair costs in the region of £400-£1,500. I’m in the process of identifying funders that may support this type of work and the group will do plenty of its own fundraising. Wish us luck!
If you’d like to get involved with Friends of Lye and Wollescote Cemetery, you’ll find them on site on the first Saturday of every month from 9.30am. They meet on the third Wednesday of the month, 6.30pm at Stambermill House and you can always join the Facebook group.