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Change the world and make money: how to start a charity business

No matter their size, charities, and volunteer groups all have two aims. One is to change the world in some way – be it big or small – and the other is to reduce their dependence on grants.

While funding bodies may like to put money into exciting projects, it’s the relatively mundane things – paying the gas bill or the rent – the so-called “core funding” that most organizations have sleepless nights about. But one method of raising cash much may not have considered is starting a business venture.

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Charity shops: what’s in store?

Getting started

According to Hayley Trowbridge, executive director of Wehearttech CIC, a social enterprise in Liverpool that uses technology for social good, organizations looking to build a business may already have some tools they need right under their nose, including the use of existing premises, experienced staff and volunteers willing to lend their expertise, and the support of the community.

Trowbridge said: “From skill-sharing to tapping into volunteering and social remit schemes within workplaces, hiring out our own equipment and space, and selling our expertise as consultancy packages, the sector is really beginning to think and work in ways outside of the box.”

Nick Walsh runs a not-for-profit community interest company Nickel Support in Surrey, which helps adults with learning disabilities into the world of work. It has developed a range of side ventures that help service users develop their business skills and raise much-needed funds.

“It was quite clear to us from the outset that we did not want to rely solely on core block funding because we did not feel it is a sustainable business model,” said Walsh.

Among Nickel’s business ventures is furniture recycling, where service users recondition unwanted items and sell them in a shop and on eBay. It has proven so popular that the organization is in talks with the local council to expand it, hoping it could become entirely self-sufficient in the next three years.

Nickel also has a café that runs once a week and stages events for other local people with learning disabilities. All of its ventures are run and managed by a board of people with learning disabilities.

The public prefers charity shops to eBay and Gumtree, study shows

Walsh added: “The reason these enterprises were chosen is that they lent themselves well to the experience and skill set our staff team to have.

“They all require creative thinking and allow the staff to be a part of the shaping of the enterprise.”

Be creative

Ciaran Shanahan, development manager and company secretary of the Halton Autistic Family Support Group (HAFS) in Cheshire, claims smaller organizations can miss out on national charities in the quest for grant funding, forcing them to get creative.

It also helps to raise awareness of autism in the wider community and gives members valuable work experience. To this end, HAFS opened a charity shop in Runcorn in 2013 where donated items are sold to raise cash. He said: “The shop opened after a major refit and cleaned up, decorating and re-carpeting exercise that took three months.

“This was all done by our members and funded by ourselves.”

Even if they don’t have their own premises or expertise in-house, exploring partnership working is also something groups can consider.

Health Action Local Engagement is a healthy living project based in Shipley, West Yorkshire. Formed in 2003, last year it set up a community café to raise funds after losing £194,000 – two-thirds of its annual budget – after failing to win a council tender.

It was able to open the café in a local GP practice. Helen Parsons, community connector co-ordinator at the charity, showed how crucial it was to have relationships with other organizations.

She said: “I think partnerships are key. I think as well the natural link between Hale as a healthy living project and the setting of the cafe within a health center which helps raise our profile, promoting links with other health care groups.”

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