Investing in Somerset’s communities
When we launched the Somerset Social Enterprise Fund in 2015 we wanted to see if there was a role and demand for a social investment programme aimed at community-led activity, alongside our grants, and whether Somerset Community Foundation was the right organisation to deliver such a fund.
We believed that such an approach, in the right circumstances could be beneficial for local organisations as well as enabling us to recycle funds and use them more than once. We also felt our local knowledge and footprint would help us reach potential applicants more readily than social investors further afield.
We were very fortunate to find Somerset County Council were a willing funding partner for this bold pilot. They have been joined latterly by the Access Foundation Growth Fund which is backed by the National Lottery Community Fund and Big Society Capital.
In the following six years we have learned a lot, and we are still learning. However, to date, we have loaned over £650,000 which has been blended with more than £275,000 of grants to over twenty organisations.
Undoubtedly, the scheme is achieving what we hoped it would: it is helping organisations become more resilient and robust, and it is helping many of them extend their impact in sustainable ways.
In doing so, over £250,000 has already been repaid and is available for us to use again.
Five of our investees have, in fact repaid in full, the latest being the Oake District Community Shop (pictured) which has a really important role in providing services to the village and surrounding communities, most critically during the lockdowns. Our congratulations to them for everything they have achieved.
We are very grateful to all of the organisations that are part of this programme for taking the bold step to apply for this funding, and to everyone on our Social Investment Committee, contributing their time and experience to help us make the right investments at the right time.
Above all, the successes we have enjoyed so far are born out of the very constructive partnership between Somerset Community Foundation, Somerset County Council and the Access Foundation. By sharing the same goals we have found the flexibility and adaptability we have needed to make this fund work.
Social enterprises: the sector for all our futures
Social enterprises that have received investment from our Somerset Social Enterprise Fund reveal a wider story about the course of the coronavirus pandemic.
On the one hand, the community-owned shops and pubs that we have supported in Roadwater (pictured), Oake, and latterly Stoke St Gregory, and the food box scheme organised by Root Connections in the Mendips, have provided invaluable services to their communities. By stepping up and taking ownership of their local services when they were under threat, these communities have ensured that vital support and social contact has been possible at a time when it has never been needed more, and we are proud to have been part of their story.
However, the other side of the coin can be seen in the organisations that we have invested in that rely on other forms of retail or give people access to arts and culture.
The arts organisations we have invested in have important social roles in their respective communities, but they rely on bringing people together, often in large numbers. For the past twelve months (March 2020 – March 2021) they have not been able to function in their normal ways, and while many have found ways to bring the arts to people in their own homes, it has been very difficult to generate any income.
The arts will have a vitally important role to play in our lives as we increasingly return to normal. We are lucky, in Somerset, to have such a vibrant arts and culture sector.
With the support of the Access Foundation’s Growth Fund, funded by the Big Lottery Community Fund and Somerset County Council, we are pleased to have been able to provide almost £40,000 of financial support to help a number of our investees. This, and our willingness to suspend repayments for the hardest hit investees – which has saved them over £35,000 since March 2020 – is helping them move towards a brighter future. In fact one social enterprise told us that our support has made the difference between “sinking or swimming” while another used our grant to provide services to hundreds of young people in a local town, services that would normally be subsidised by their trading profits.
As we rebuild our communities and our economy, social enterprise will have an increasingly important role to play in Somerset. As the leading local social investor for our county, we know how important it is to do what we can to help nurture and grow the sector for all our futures.