On the 27th October, we hosted a Community Shares Practitioner Meet-up in the Scottish Highlands, a hotbed for community-led enterprise and innovative share offers focussed on sustainability, active travel and eco-tourism.
Our supportive network of community shares practitioners meet online every six weeks to discuss interesting offers, technical guidance, innovations and best practice.
While the online meet-ups are always beneficial and a great way to stay up to date with the latest shares developments, our face-to-face study visits are also a great opportunity to get to know each other better – and this particular meet-up meant we could see what's happening north of the border.
So last month, we joined up with the Community Shares Scotland team to arrange a full day exploring the Scottish Highlands. This blog offers a snapshot of our day!
Social Investment Pioneers
The day kicked off at Ekopia Social Investments Ltd (ESIL), a co-operative based in Findhorn, Moray which raises funds to support local community social enterprises. Founded in 2001, they are part of the Ecovillage associated with the Findhorn Foundation which was founded over 50 years ago to provide educational and spiritual learning opportunities rooted in community.
Alex Walker, Chair of Ekopia gave a presentation on the community benefit society which now has over 300 members and manages assets of around £2.1 million. The group raises capital which is then reinvested in innovative and pioneering ventures. The money invested benefits the wider community and its ecology and through this investment Ekopia can support the development of organic food production, renewable energy and affordable housing in their area.
Ekopia’s activities are wide ranging which Alex did an admirable job of detailing. Ekopia:
- Runs three social enterprise buildings which include affordable office and studio spaces
- Provides funding for social enterprises and community groups in the form of business loans and investment
- Runs a consultancy and advice service for local businesses and organisations as well as for other communities.
- They even have their own currency! Eko is the UK’s oldest local currency scheme which has a turnover of around £100,000 per annum since its launch in 2002.
Following on from Alex’s presentation (and a quick homemade cake & coffee break!), Chief Operating Officer Fasil Bogale Acma provided a tour of the Findhorn Ecovillage. It's a place which is constantly evolving and is the largest single intentional community in the UK which aims to demonstrate how low-carbon, place-based approaches can enable communities to thrive. It features more than 100 ecologically benign buildings, supplies energy from four wind turbines and boasts a biological Living Machine waste water treatment system amongst many other sustainability measures. As part of our tour, we visited the Universal Hall, a unique and impressive building built by “literally thousands of people” in Fasil’s words who were visiting the Village between 1974 to 1984 and which now houses the Phoenix café social enterprise and hosts a wide variety of performances and shows. Next stop was the Findhorn Hive which provides offices, spaces for food production, facilities such as hot-desking, and access to social networks and peer support for social enterprises to develop their businesses.
Affordable eco-friendly housing provision is another key area of Ekopia’s investment portfolio, and we were able to see the latest project at North Whins in the village where new build one- and two-bedroom houses are in development. The purchase price for these units will be reduced from market value by approximately 40% and all units are designed to a high eco specification. In total over eighty ecological homes have been constructed in Findhorn so far with plans for more.
Other highlights of the tour included a visit to the Ecovillage singing circle, the communal hot tub (which divided the opinions of our practitioners!) and lunch in the Moray Art Centre.
The breadth and scope of Ekopia’s work meant we could easily have spent a full day exploring the site and the many social enterprises who call it home, however after lunch we headed south to the busy tourist spot, Drumnadrochit to hear from the Loch Ness Hub and Glengarry Community Woodlands.
Loch Ness Hub
When Visit Scotland consolidation led to the closure of the local tourist information centre in 2018, the local development trust spotted an opportunity. Glen Urquhart Rural Community Association (GURCA) hatched plans to take ownership of the site.
Following a successful asset transfer, the trust recognised the need to be enterprising. It managed to take ownership of a successful baggage transfer service, with hikers on nearby walking trails paying to have their luggage portered between stops.
Working with Community Shares Scotland, GURCA became the first organisation to register a community benefit society using the DTAS ‘Hybrid’ model rules. The governing documents of the new society, Loch Ness Hub, created a formal link between it – and the trust. GURCA would take ownership of a Community Anchor Share in the Society, affording it certain powers.
Chair, Gordon Finlay gave us a tour of the site followed by a presentation about their community share offer which launched in September 2020 after the first Covid lockdown. The campaign saw the group raise £110,000 in shares from 336 members, the maximum they had set out to achieve.
After a successful first three years of trading, Gordon detailed their plan to bolster their income generation by running private hire transfers and revealed that they are set to pay their first lot of interest to shareholders.
The Hub is now a thriving active travel and tourist information hub employing seven local people. They provide electric bike hire; electric charge points; waste disposal for campervans and caravans; in addition to a shop selling local crafts and souvenirs and everything visitors need to know about the area.
Glengarry Community Woodlands
As well as the Loch Ness Hub team, we were also joined by Tom Cooper, Development Officer for Glengarry Community Woodlands (GCW) who rounded off the day with a presentation on their share offer.
GCW was established in 2016 when the community came together to purchase their local community forest. Their vision was to sustainably manage the land and associated assets for the benefit of the community.
Tom took us through their journey. He detailed how community consultations regarding the woodland showed residents were looking for it to deliver a range of benefits and, if possible, tackle some of the salient challenges faced by the community around affordable housing and employment. To develop this, the group undertook research and compiled a detailed feasibility study which identified that an eco-tourism enterprise within the community woodland would be the best way to achieve the financial stability they needed. It was decided that off-grid, bespoke cabins would be built as tourist accommodation using timber from larch trees in the community forest.
Following support from the Community Shares Scotland team, their share offer launched in November 2022 on the ethical, online investment platform Ethex and ran for six weeks. Tom discussed how during this time, the Glengarry board did lots of face-to-face engagement with the community through meet-ups. Coupled with the wider investment on Ethex, they were able to reach their target of £279,000 from 176 members, a significant majority of which came from the local community.
The group have commenced with the build of their eco cabins with a provisional launch date of the accommodation set for Spring 2024. So perhaps an idea for our next practitioner visit?
The Importance of targeted Community Engagement
A salient theme which emerged from both the Loch Ness Hub and Glengarry (and it won’t be of any surprise) was just how important their engagement processes were with their community to raise the investment needed.
The Hub launched their share offer amidst the uncertainty of the Covid pandemic and so had to think of ways to engage people where they felt safe, but also enthused and able to participate. By capitalising on a famous local celebrity – the Loch Ness monster – the group were able to create a fun and interactive totaliser which kept the share offer fresh in everyone’s mind, garnered local press support and plenty of social media friendly material which enabled them to reach their target in a short space of time in a difficult climate.
For Glengarry, they had to take a more intensive and focused approach for their sparsely populated community which has an older demographic and often limited access to the internet. Instead of a big launch event they held one to one meetings with locals and piggybacked on a Halloween event run by another local charity to garner interest. Interestingly, Tom revealed that although the group had launched their offer on the Ethex platform, the majority of investors came from their local area, highlighting the strength of their local engagement work and providing food for thought for practitioners on whether investment platforms are always the right approach for groups.
From Ekopia forging their unique social investment path many years previously, to the approaches taken by Loch Ness Hub and Glengarry, our trip highlighted the ingenuity and determination of groups to meet their community's needs.