Co-operatives UK is a Community Ownership Fund (COF) delivery partner and John Dawson, Head of Market Development in our Community Shares Unit, spoke to a community benefit society (CBS) about their successful application to the COF. So if you’re thinking of applying, read on for some useful tips and advice…
The Community Ownership Fund is a £150m grant programme to help communities acquire valued assets deemed at risk.
The goal of this CBS was to provide a local shop for their community. It’s in the bottom 2% of communities nationally for the index for access to housing and services – and this was a factor in their application being successful.
They had already extensively networked, prepared and planned for the project, which meant that when it came to the filling in the application, they found it fairly straightforward – the form didn’t ask any questions they had not already thought about.
The biggest challenge was meeting the word count targets for each question, so most of their time filling in the application was spent on carefully crafting their responses. (Watch this useful webinar on how to write a strong COF application.)
They also worked with an advisor from Plunkett Foundation – a charity supporting rural communities across the UK to tackle local issues through community business – who provided some useful feedback. And they scored their application critically against the COF criteria for each section as a final check.
Having previously applied for grants, they had experience in what funders are looking for – and always ask for feedback on their grant applications even when they’re successful. Social outcomes were an area they improved as a result of doing this.
They stressed that other groups should not make COF their first application as it’s important to show you have already raised some funds locally.
It’s important to develop local connections as there’s a question on these on the COF application. What strengthened this application was that, from the start of the project, the organisation regularly briefed their parish, district, county councils and local MP.
They went to every parish council meeting to update them. They met with the district and county councillors and National Park Authority to understand how what they intended aligned with local strategies and plans.
Then, they asked for letters in support of their application, which contained meaningful comments about their plans, as the councillors and officials knew in some detail what they were doing and how it fitted with their own objectives.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who run the fund, fed back that their ‘evidence-based’ business case was well thought-out and demonstrated that providing and running the shop would be well managed.
The CBS had spent a lot of time on this, using their team’s business expertise to think through all aspects of the business and pulling in information from lots of other sources including:
What the community wants – this information was garnered from surveys, meetings and volunteering in the existing village shop for two years. This gave them credibility as they got to know customers, their habits and their reasons for using the shop, as well as the shortcomings and strengths of that business.
The Plunkett Foundation’s Facebook group and meetings at other shops. This gave them ideas for best practice, how they might grow the business and what new revenue streams and opportunities they could exploit, some of which came out of their SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analyses facilitated by their Plunkett advisor.
Indices of deprivation and NOMIS data about their community to understand their demographic and its issues. This, coupled with local knowledge, clarified the social outcomes they could achieve.
Downloading and analysing other shops’ financials to create benchmarks gave their financial forecasts a realistic basis.
COF also liked the obvious community engagement with surveys, product trials, volunteering in the shop and the high number of local volunteers involved (44 and counting). The clear local support evidenced by their share offer helped too – and they kept COF informed about its progress after applying.