How to get your community project off the ground

Coalition cutbacks mean it's vital to get involved, says Rob Griffin

Hastings Pier may have been allowed to fall into disrepair before being virtually destroyed by a devastating fire, but a dedicated group of residents are behind a high profile battle to bring the 142-year-old structure back to life. The Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust (HPWRT) started campaigning when the pier was closed over safety concerns in 2006 and its efforts intensified in the wake of last October's blaze.

Not only has the group applied for grants from organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund to help pay for the multi-million pound restoration project, it is also raising money from the public through a series of events and concerts in the town.

According to spokeswoman Susan McCartney, money is desperately needed to cover the cost of emergency safety work ahead of the completion of a compulsory purchase of the pier in East Sussex from its absentee owners later this year.

"The plan is to create a boardwalk on which we can have some businesses, such as coffee shops, as well as smaller attractions," she explains. "Longer term we intend having a range of leisure, retail, education and entertainment activities."

As well as building a website to raise awareness of its project – www.hpwrt.co.uk – the trust is raising money through innovative schemes such as sponsoring a plank on the new structure and taking part in a "Celebration of Piers" day on 12 March.

"It's a lot of work but we all know that if we stop now then everything will fall by the wayside," she says. "We certainly won't give up and are absolutely certain that Hastings Pier will eventually be restored to its former glory."

The HPWRT is an example of the community groups that have become increasingly commonplace over the last 40 years. It is estimated there are up to 800,000 such organisations operating in Britain, ranging from small projects with focused goals to more ambitious schemes that attempt to dramatically change people's lives.

The fact this sector is so diverse makes it so vibrant, according to Rosie Anderson, head of policy and research at Community Matters. It's all about doing something positive by helping their neighbourhoods in a particular way.

"There will usually be some kind of spur that motives people," she says. "Quite a lot of groups are organised around a building that's under threat or in order to protect a park or open space. They will then develop and become more organised."

Those benefiting from these groups also have a say in how they are run. "It's about a neighbourhood's aspirations and the desire to not only address its own needs but find viable solutions," she adds.

However, while there's clearly an increasing need for community groups, with the Coalition Government being particularly keen to promote the concept through its Big Society vision, the fact is that local authorities have less money to spare.

These contradictory drivers present an interesting dilemma – and not one that's easily solved, according to Kevin Curley, chief executive of NAVCA – the national voice of local support and development organisations in England.

He warns the dramatic cutbacks will result in less community oriented groups, such as transport schemes taking the elderly to hospital and advice centres dealing with people who have debt problems.

The result, he predicts, will be smaller groups being supported by public donations, pro bono work from the private sector and the dedication of volunteers. It will simply be a case of restructuring in order to survive the current environment.

"After 40 years of consistent financial support from different parts of the state we have entered a period where groups will find it more difficult to raise money," he says. "They will no longer be able to get start-up grants from their local council and will have to find other sources, such as payroll giving and legacy donations."

It means that whatever the project or cause, it will be the passion of the group's members that will prove decisive, according to Ms McCartney at HPWRT, which has fought its way through numerous problems over recent years.

"You need a team of people to drive forward any project and their enthusiasm is vital," she says. "We've got volunteers from a lot of different groups but you need to keep the momentum going in order to achieve your goal."

Even setbacks can be turned to your advantage. "In one way the fire we suffered in October has galvanised people even more," she adds. "A lot of people are putting a lot of work into this project and we are determined that it will be successful."

How to set up a community group

Stage one: Do your research

The first question to ask when you're considering setting up a community group is whether someone else has got their first, according to Rosie Anderson at Community Matters. "People are very enthusiastic about setting things up but often similar work is already being carried out," she explains. "You don't want to dissipate the energy in your community for dealing with an issue; you want to work with them and bring everyone together."

Stage two: Put together a plan

The next stage is to be clear about what you want to achieve. "If you can't articulate it really clearly then you'll have trouble down the line," adds Ms Anderson. "You also need to have an idea of what's needed. For some the goal will be the ownership of a building, while others will need equipment with which to provide a service." Remember that setting up an organisation often requires different skill sets to running one so take account of resources, people and premises.

Stage three: Get assistance

Once you have a clear goal in mind you need time to seek expert advice about how to turn the dream into reality. Kevin Curley at NAVCA believes the first port of call should be your local volunteer centre. "There is such an organisation in virtually every part of the country where you can find people with a lot of experience in establishing new charities," he says. "They will be able to help with all the aspects of constitutions, charity registration, how to set about fund-raising in a legal way, and recruiting volunteers."

Stage four: Ensure adequate protection is in place

While there's nothing to stop anyone from mobilising public support for a project, they need to think carefully about what they are doing, points out Tom Traynor, research project manager at the Directory of Social Change.

"They must ensure they aren't taking any risks with their own personal safety – or that of others – and are operating within the law," he explains. "All the bases must be covered otherwise there's a risk of them getting into trouble." For example, somebody wanting to set up a community centre for local young people would need to consider health and safety regulations, as well as insurances and legal issues such as helpers being CRB checked.

Stage five: Apply for grants

Cash may be in short supply from local authorities but there are still some grants available – it's just a case of tracking them down, according to a spokeswoman for Idox Group, which develops and supplies information services to local government. "Use a free funding search like Grantnet.com or j4bcommunity.co.uk to get information on the grants that are applicable to your location and your areas of interest," she says. "Make sure you're applying to the right fund in the first place and don't try and shoehorn your project into a fund it doesn't actually match." You can improve your chances of success by allowing a third party to read your application through to make sure you're not making assumptions about the reader's knowledge. It's also important to make your application as engaging as possible, with a catchy name. Back up the project with figures to demonstrate evidence of need.

Stage six: Get publicity

The key to success is getting your message across, points out Cath Lee, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition. "It is vital that groups put effort into understanding who they need to be aware of their organisation and why," she explains. "They can then use the money and time they have to best effect in targeting their efforts at getting publicity that will be seen by those individuals." In addition they need to be aware of the value of networking and word of mouth. "We have learned that you need to have a story and something valuable to say," she adds. "The Media Trust is a great resource for small groups as it runs the Community Channel and the Newswire service – both great channels for small organisations."

Help Hastings Pier

You can help Hastings Pier by donating to its Emergency fund. The details are:

Bank Name: HSBC
Account Name: Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust
Sort Code:
40-23-18
Account No: 12249871

Visit the website www.hpwrt.co.uk for more information.

Useful contacts

Media Trust: www.mediatrust.org

Community Matters: www.communitymatters.org.uk

Grantnet: www.grantnet.com

Directory of Social Change: www.dsc.org.uk

NAVCA: www.navca.org.uk

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