Beeston’s Blog for November 2023: in which Philanthropy Advisor and author Emma Beeston interviews a leading creator of successful community projects in Crediton, Devon, Rosemary Stephenson

We regularly feature blogs by the Philanthropy Advisor and author, Emma Beeston (of the Emma Beeston Consultancy) and Sarah Taragon and Stephen Woollett of Clarity CIC.

Emma is currently conducting a series of interviews with charity leaders across the South West region. Her first interview, which we published in October, was with Fiona Mahoney, the Chief Executive of Reminiscence Learning, a Wellington, Somerset-based charity that specialises in dementia care.

Emma’s second interview is with Rosemary Stephenson, who has been been at the forefront of community activity in the Devon market town of Crediton for many years. Rosemary has been instrumental in ensuring the continued success of the Crediton Flags Project, Crediton Arts Centre and much more. Rosemary has chaired the Crediton Town Team and founded the Crediton Heart Project, formed in 2018 with a bold ambition to build a new community hub for the Crediton area.

If you have any views or comments on the issues covered in Emma’s interview with Emma, please let us know by emailing info@grin.coop and we’ll pass them on to Emma.

Rosemary Stephenson is the Chair of the Crediton Heart Project, leading a range of initiatives to increase opportunities in the area from running a community website to developing  a new community hub. Rosemary worked as a journalist in London before moving to Devon where her need to keep busy led to her creating an unpaid career for herself dedicated to her new community. She has considerable experience in the sector as an administrator, Trustee, School Governor, and fundraiser. In this interview, Rosemary sheds light on the challenges of seeking funds for smaller voluntary groups and why you need to think about succession even when you love what you do.

Emma: What is it like seeking funds for smaller voluntary groups?

Rosemary: It is easier if you are a registered charity as you have many more funds to choose from. If you are an unincorporated non-profit, then it is more of a scrabble, you are always more restricted, and you have to jump through more hoops. I understand that funders prefer to give to a charity as that structure suggests they are more reliable and professional. But they are missing out on supporting projects that only need small sums of money to achieve a lot.  

Emma: What is your secret for raising funds?

Rosemary: The secret is looking at the funder’s criteria and the kinds of things they fund. By understanding who they are and what they are interested in you can ensure you don’t waste time fitting a square peg into a round hole. Funding is a bit of a game. You pick out of your project what you think will appeal to them and sell the elements that fit their criteria. I don’t wish to sound cynical, but you need to be skilled in telling them what they want to hear. With some other funders, such as the county, district and town councils, then it is important to build relationships and keep them informed about your work.

Emma: What do you think about current funding practice?

Rosemary: I have had success with the Lottery. Their criteria are broad enough to fit a range of projects, they make relatively quick decisions, and their reporting is not too onerous. You feel that they are on your side. It is also really helpful when funders have people available to discuss your idea. It saves a lot of time if you can talk through your project and find out whether or not it is likely to be funded before you complete a time-consuming application.

I have three top frustrations:

1.      Funders like new projects. When we started the Crediton Flag Project in 2013, it was a great success. We rented a shop on the high street, employed two artists, ran flag making workshops for the community for three months, and decorated the town. By the third year, no one was interested in funding it apart from the town council and we had to charge people to take part. I can tell a funder that it is wonderful and increases social cohesion, but I cannot pretend it is new.

2.      Too much reporting. We received a £5,000 grant to run arts and crafts workshops for families. Just 2 months in, we were asked to fill in all these long forms about how it’s going. It’s fine to report back at the end but when you are still working to make things happen then it is unnecessary and annoying.

3.      Funders don’t get back to you. You spend time on an application and are told they will decide in May. May comes and you hear nothing, so you ask and are told the meeting did not happen. Then the meeting happens, and they still don’t tell you the outcome and you just hear incidentally that your project has not been funded. That has happened with several funders – you apply and don’t hear anything.

Emma: What keeps you going?

Rosemary: There is an issue with succession – where people like me keep going because there’s no one to take over. For example, every village hall is being run by a group of volunteers. Often, they have been doing it for twenty years. Every so often they say they need new people, and no one comes forward and so the same people keep going on and on.

I have been doing this work for so long that I cannot see an exit strategy. I worry that if I stop then everything will stop. But no one is indispensable, and I don’t think it is healthy for the same people to keep going. After a while you become stale, and it is good to have different people. By staying in your role you let others off the hook and so you need to state your intention to stop and actively seek new people out.

The reason I keep going is that I find it really satisfying when I create something from nothing. Something that would not happen without getting the funding and bringing the right people together. Crediton is quite an ordinary town, but it is an amazing community and I have seen it become even more vibrant and a more exciting place to live.