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How to grow a healthy community

We are working with Santander to support charities that want to become more enterprising. Here’s the story of how one £10,000 grant is helping a horticulture project in South London to flourish

It’s a fine early spring day in south London. Rory Harding has spent the morning inspecting the seedbeds at Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses. There are neat trays of pak choi and runner beans to admire, and signs of new growth everywhere. Rory is the new site supervisor at this community horticulture project, and today is his first day at work.

“Spring is really coming along now, so this is a perfect time of the year to get going,” he says, after his first tour around the site’s maze of vegetable beds, cold frames, sensory gardens, sheds and greenhouses. “It’s good to see what’s coming up where, and what work needs to be done. I’m very excited to get starting.”

His boss, project director Paul Roper, is excited too. “We’re incredibly pleased and very surprised to get someone of Rory’s quality,” he says. “He’s got great experience and a really nice mix of skills.” But it’s not just the fact that he’s added such a promising new member to his small team of part-time staff and volunteers; recruiting a paid site supervisor is a huge step forward for the charity, he says.

A growing project

The Brockwell Park project has always had a simple aim: “We want to give horticulture and volunteer opportunities to local people, especially those who are ‘green deprived’,” explains Paul. In a densely populated part of London, the park offers a wonderfully green and leafy space for people to relax, exercise and take in the fresh air.

But the greenhouses located in the centre of the park provide something different: whether it's the chance to work in the outdoors, grow some food, learn about nature, pick up new skills, or just make friends and be sociable.

It’s an enterprising way to reinvent a once-private asset for community benefit. The greenhouses and vegetable gardens were originally built to produce plants and vegetables for Brockwell Hall, the large house whose private gardens these once were. As long ago as 1892, the London County Council bought the site and made Brockwell Hall’s grounds a public park. But it wasn’t until 1998 that the greenhouses were ‘released from service’ and took on a new charitable life designed as a local resource to improve the lives of the local community.

From strength to strength

After a few false starts, the greenhouse charity established a new board in 2011 and has since gone from strength to strength. Its education programme reached 3,600 school children in 2014, compared to 2,600 the year before. The number of volunteers who work in the greenhouses has grown rapidly to 120, of whom 30 work on the site regularly. “We also have general members of the public who come in and look around – there are maybe 500 of them a year,” says Paul.

A regular stall at the nearby Herne Hill Farmers Market has helped to generate interest, and money. This and other enterprising activities, like horticultural workshops for adults, bring in around 20% of the project’s income. Paul believes there is great potential for that income, and the charitable activities it funds, to grow.

That’s why a £10,000 grant under the 2014 Santander Social Enterprise Development Awards was so welcome, he explains. “When I heard we’d won the money, I let out a sigh of relief,” Paul says – not because the project was in financial difficulty; rather that he was so keen to build on its success.

The award is funding Rory’s post, which will take some of the pressure off the core team of existing part-time staff: director Paul, an education officer, and a community gardener. “With Rory here, we can increase our opening hours and our other staff can focus on their roles more.” That will put the project in a stronger position to develop its income streams, including taking on contracts to look after other areas of the park and gardens.

Supporting enterprise

“Helping small projects like this to develop their enterprise activities in a sustainable way is exactly what our SEDA scheme is all about”, says Sheralee Morris, senior CSR manager at Santander. “We want to support growing social enterprises and enterprising charities that work for the direct benefit of their community, by funding ideas that strengthen their trading revenues, so they are less reliant on grant funders in future.”

The scheme makes grants across the UK of £5,000 to £10,000 to support capital costs, project costs or salaries – if the salaries relate to enterprising work that can be sustained. Nationally, five community foundations administer grants. The London Community Foundation runs the scheme across London, the South East, the East Midlands, and the South West.

Registered charities and community groups can apply for SEDA funding if they deliver at least one of three social outcomes: improving social inclusion, supporting disadvantaged people through skills, training and employment, or creating a greener environment.

Time to flourish

Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses has enough activities going on to cover all three of these goals, as Rory was about to discover. He started his job three days before the hectic Easter weekend, when visitors and volunteers were due to visit the greenhouses in droves, to enjoy the end of winter and spring’s arrival.

There would be an adult workshop on the benefits of garden insects on Saturday, and a huge Easter egg hunt for local children on Sunday. “I think as the new site supervisor, it will be a baptism of fire,” Rory says. “They tell me that last year it was chaos, but the good kind of chaos.” It sounds like the newly planted pak choi and runner beans are not the only things set to flourish under Rory’s supervision.

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