Making ends meet…is it worth it?

Last week I wrote about Oblong’s flat management structure and its six core values.  This time I’ll go into some detail about Oblong’s geography, how we fund our work, and how we’re affected by the government’s decisions.  It’s a longer read and some of it sounds a bit technical, but if you’re interested in how a small charity makes it work in a recession – or why it’s not free to use the community centre – this will give you some facts, and my perspective.

Oblong is based in Woodhouse, a traditionally working-class neighbourhood in the inner city of Leeds, very near Leeds University.  The neighbourhood faces deprivation at the same time as having a large, transient student population.  When census information is collected during university term-time, the student population masks the real levels of difficulties that long-term residents experience.  Housing quality and educational attainment are lower here than in Leeds and the UK on average; unemployment and mental illness are higher.  The city council considers ‘community cohesion’ an issue here; the area has a diverse ethnic population in addition to the differential between long-term residents and less-rooted students.  Council-run forums are poorly attended and often dominated by middle-class white people.  Only a small proportion of residents report feeling they have an influence over what goes on in the area.  Statistics like this paint a grim picture…and they leave out people’s real experiences, ideas and cares.  Like every place made grey by statistics, Woodhouse is full of colourful people with incredible knowledge, unique life experience and plenty of their own ideas.

Oblong has been in Woodhouse since 2008, when it began renting a building after moving from nearby.  Last year, after taking over Woodhouse Community Centre, Oblong started conducting its own local surveys to find out what difference the centre makes – and what difference people want it to make.  Knocking on doors this summer, a colleague and I met a wide variety of folks.  Some spoke with a broad Leeds accent whilst others did not speak English.  A few seemed suspicious of us, but others greeted us as faces they knew from coming to the centre – for yoga class, say, or volunteering with the Gardening Collective.  Some people did not know Woodhouse Community Centre was there, while others remembered going there in their childhood.  People offered various ideas for projects and activities they think we should run, like “more stuff for the kids”.  Most were glad to receive our ‘What’s On’ flyer.  We’ve realised, through talking with people, that it will take time to build up the community centre as a hub which truly offers something for everyone…but that is our goal.  We knew it would be a challenge, but we took the centre on to give Oblong stability and longevity; to make sure the building facilities would stay available for local people; and to create a place where people can get involved and enrich their own lives and each other’s.

For about 10 years, almost all Oblong’s funding – for things like rent, bills, staff salaries, and volunteers’ lunch and travel expenses – came from grants.  Oblong continues to fund most of its activity through applying for grants, even though we now manage Woodhouse Community Centre and generate income from letting out rooms.  (More on where that money goes in a moment!)  We also run a course we developed called Head Space.  Head Space helps people learn skills to look after their mental well-being, and it’s now taught around Leeds 15 times a year. This brings in a small amount of surplus income, through commissions, which we can spend on things which aren’t funded by grants – like running costs of the building.  Most grant funding is ‘ring-fenced’ to be spent on specific projects. Our largest grant funds a volunteering programme which supports about 65 people each year to get involved.  Without volunteers, Oblong couldn’t run the community centre or the numerous activities they help provide, like English classes, the food co-op, the cinema, and many others.  We also run Woodhoust Boost, a grant-supported programme to help local small groups – like the ukulele group, or the vegan cookery group – to access space at the centre for free.

Staff are paid to take responsibility for several things.  First and foremost is supporting volunteers.  Staff run induction training, welcoming new volunteers and explaining how we run.  They meet volunteers to talk about how their work is going.  They participate in volunteer collectives, for instance helping set up the Food Co-op’s new website or giving advice to Media and Marketing Collective members about a video they are making.  Staff provide day-to-day support with things like lunch money and computer use, as well as training in particular roles such as coaching reception volunteers on using the phone and the booking system.  Staff also do these things:

  • collect information about volunteers’ progress – so we can report to funders that their money has helped the numbers of people we said it would, in the ways we said it would;
  • apply for grants;
  • plan Oblong’s work and its long-term strategy;
  • manage the budgets for projects and the building;
  • report on Oblong’s finances;
  • publicise the centre and co-ordinate volunteer efforts to do this;
  • make sure the centre complies with health and safety requirements;
  • make sure reception and bookings are covered, or cover when volunteers aren’t available;
  • make sure we have policies in place to deal with any problems;
  • keep up connections and links with other organisations; and
  • manage each other.

This list probably isn’t exhaustive, but it gives a good idea of what staff do for their wages.  Six people work for Oblong as part-time employees. (This does not include my time as an unpaid ‘placement’ on the staff team for the past year, though I was an employee from 2010-2012.) Lots of volunteers’ time, including trustees’, who help ensure Oblong follows the law, goes into running the centre.  Staff often discuss how to prioritise their time in weekly staff meetings – “I’m going to push back the website work so I can finish the finance report this week” – because their limited hours don’t leave any leeway.

Most grant-making organisations fund specific project work – like running a volunteering programme – rather than providing contributions to overall running costs.  This means to meet those costs the community centre must function more like a business, even though it’s not run for profit.  We use income from Woodhouse Community Centre to fund the centre co-ordinator’s part-time role, plus a few hours a week for other non-project duties like communicating with our board of volunteer trustees.  Each revenue grant includes 25% for overheads – e.g. desk space, utilities – and management, through standard charity funding principles called Full Cost Recovery.  Grants can also cover the cost of hiring space for activities.  If we can use space at Woodhouse Community Centre, these costs are ‘recharged’ to the centre – this means the cost of room hire is paid from a project-specific budget into the centre’s income.  In this way our volunteering activities contribute to the income of the centre, which we can then spend to keep the building running.

When Oblong completed Community Asset Transfer and took over running the centre from Leeds City Council, we were granted a 50-year rent-free lease in exchange for refurbishing the building and taking responsibility for maintenance, utilities, and insurance.  (You’d be right to question the word ‘Asset’ – we don’t own the building, we just bear all the costs of it.)  Money is very tight, so we take advantage of charity ‘club’ rates for services wherever we can, and ask for volunteers’ help with things like DIY days.  We tried to make the building as energy-efficient as we could when designing the refurbishment works – to save money as well as energy – though we couldn’t afford solar panels.  To fund refurbishment, we got part-grant, part-loan funding from the Social Investment Business (SIB), who manage the Communitybuilders fund.  (The last Labour government set up this fund, which was later endowed by the Conservatives to the Adventure Capital Fund, who manage the Social Investment Business, who manage the money they loan out to groups like us on behalf of the government…I think. It’s complicated!)

The loan repayments to the Social Investment Business now cost Oblong about £3,300 per month.  At that rate we will be paying the loan for about 10 years.  If we ever stopped paying our loan, SIB would have the right to take over running the building, or get another organisation to run it, but it must remain a community centre.  (They would also have the right to demand the outstanding loan payments immediately as a lump sum, which isn’t nice to think about.)  This year, loan repayments have accounted for nearly half Oblong’s total spending.  If you only count unrestricted spending – that is, money coming in from room lettings or our training courses, not from grants which can only be spent on specific projects – the loan payments equal more than three quarters of it.

The centre has 10 rooms to hire out.  Prices range from about £125 per month – for a 1-person office, for a non-profit community organisation – up to £25 per hour – for the large hall, for a private organisation.  Half the rooms in the building are let as offices, while the other 5 charge by the hour.  There is a discount rate for voluntary and community groups. Private individuals, businesses, government organisations, and political or religious groups pay the full rate.  A few charities have offices in the building.  People use the other rooms for everything from family parties to yoga classes, cookery classes, counselling, Zumba dance, a monthly community clothing exchange, conferences, training days, older people’s activities, a pop-up café, arts & crafts…and loads of other things.  When groups can’t afford to pay for a room for an activity they want to do, we try to help them find funding, either through our own grant-funded Woodhouse Boost programme, or through other local funds.

It’s hugely important to Oblong that the centre be available and accessible to local people.  That’s why we took the building on in the first place!  Before we did, it was hard to book, often empty, and not very attractive – we know because we rented the basement from the city council for a year before beginning Asset Transfer.  We realised, in principle, what we were signing up for when we took responsibility for the place, and we did it because Oblong’s aim is to help create flourishing communities where people can make the most of their lives and talents.  Oblong can’t do that for people, or to people, and we don’t want to – but we do want create a space where we can do it together.

With this goal in mind, to take on the centre we had to create a business plan which looked very different from any funder’s grant budget we’d ever done.  It had to include a 5-year forecast, projections of rental income increases, a marketing plan, and a raft of other predictions.  We used market research, as well as our conscience, to set our prices.  During the process of seeking investment for the building’s refurbishment, there were some communications problems.  We told investors that not only would we be unable to use project-specific grant funding to make loan payments, but we couldn’t even be sure that we would get it!  Still, they insisted on 5-year income projections, so we provided them based on our previous success rates.

While Oblong was in the early stages of securing this investment, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power in the UK.  Community Asset Transfer was lauded by the incoming government as a great policy, which the Conservatives would keep as part of their Big Society – an agenda to give communities more responsibility, and control, over local facilities.  At the same time, the coalition’s financial austerity meant across-the-board cuts to public services and government-funded charities.  Professionals in the charity and voluntary sector spoke loud and clear:  the actions don’t match the rhetoric.  How can community groups be ‘empowered’ by running things for themselves, without access to the resources they would need to run things?  But the spending cuts began in 2010 and deepened over time.  Though Oblong did not directly lose funding, we did find that competition for funding from grant bodies increased steeply.  Funding from the city council, itself making drastic cutbacks, was even harder to get.  Just like in the ‘80s under Margaret Thatcher, funding criteria got stricter and stricter – to help grant-makers somehow choose from overwhelming numbers of applicants – and more and more closely aligned to government priorities – to protect funding bodies’ own access to funds.  In this way, even non-government activities must follow state policies more closely.  Oblong had to re-apply repeatedly for grants we counted on, tweak the emphasis of our proposed projects, and ask for less money to increase our chances of success.

Our 5-year projections went out the window, and before we’d even completed our refurbishment project we became a case for ‘special monitoring’ by our SIB investors.  This meant increased scrutiny into the capabilities of our trustees and the efficacy of our management, as well as visits from business support advisors and mandatory monthly in-depth finance reporting.  Though these measures were designed to help us, they demanded a huge amount of our already-stretched time and resources.  And if we allowed it, this support would threaten to de-rail our unique, values-based way of doing things – the very thing which makes us a great organisation to run a community centre.  One of Oblong’s trustees said to me, on the train London for a gruelling examination by SIB’s board, as we heard ourselves ringing the office to send a copy of the most up-to-date spreadsheet, “Oh, shit…we’re a business now!”

The following 3 years have proved a struggle, but a productive one:  we’ve had to significantly increase our focus on income-generating activities, but at the same time we’ve developed new ways to keep our values central to our work.  We’ve strengthened our processes in many ways, and the potential threats to our values have perhaps made us more conscious of them and determined to practice them.  My research with Oblong has been a process of constantly questioning our work, feeling both wary and inspired as we discuss ways forward.  I think this process of responding to challenge, re-evaluating and re-affirming our work will carry on – I certainly hope so!

In my next post I’ll tell you – as briefly as I can! – about my own relationship to Oblong: I’ll start to explore the complexities of doing ethically and scientifically sound research with colleagues, friends, and neighbours.


1 thought on “Making ends meet…is it worth it?

  1. Mohamed Elgizouli

    Thanks a lot Stella for the deep insight in Oblong relations with Leeds city council, the central government, donors and the status of Woodhouse community centre in an era of austerity measures. it is like walking on a rope with extreme diligence!.



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