Gus Alston: The joy and pain of funding environmental projects

At Stonegrove Community Trust (SCT) we recently had some very exciting news. We now have the final sum of funding of £39,000 to give our roof’s solar panel installation the go-ahead. It’s an outstanding achievement for the local community and for our small charity, as we will become more economically and environmentally efficient. We are on our way to net zero as planned by the end of 2024.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing. There were many bumps in the road and at times, the sun did not shine upon us. The fact that the funds took 3 and a half years to raise shows that fundraising for environmental projects is not easy to secure! We’ve found this process to be far more difficult than any other fundraising we’ve been involved in.

We have had one crisis after another in the UK over the last 3 and half years with COVID-19, the cost-of-living crisis, and the Russia-Ukraine war. So, it is understandable why funders have been reluctant to back a project like this. We have found that funders are more often attracted to shorter-term projects, where the results are more immediate.

Contrary to that well-intended short-term view, our solar panel installation will not only lead the way in environmental sustainability but will also make our entire organisation, and all our services and activities, more financially sustainable for, at least, the next 30 years. As an organisation, we have always believed that we shouldn’t only focus on the current crises but also look at opportunities to build strong foundations for the future of our community.

Here at SCT, we manage our fabulous centre, OneStonegrove. We’re a resident-led charity that works closely with our community to empower them to achieve positive things in their estate and beyond. We facilitate after-school clubs, gardening clubs, mother and baby groups, elderly exercise groups, a choir, even a Bollywood dance class, and much more. Our vision is, ‘to be recognised and valued by local residents as the heart of Stonegrove, providing secure, buzzing, informative, and fun spaces for all to enjoy whilst breaking down barriers of social and community integration, effectively reducing social isolation and promoting wellbeing.’

It was so important to us that we got this funding for two reasons. Firstly, it will give us financial independence and more protection against the permacrisis we’re currently experiencing. We will have more funds available to run resident-led initiatives due to us selling electricity back to the grid. Secondly, we are showing the local population what can be done through grit and determination. We hope that everyone will be inspired by our installation and follow suit.

Our solar panels aren’t going to save the world, unfortunately but what we hope this will do, is inform and educate people on the benefits more sustainable energy for both the community and the planet. There is some more work to do before the installation, but our aim is to have working solar panels by the end of 2023. Our solar panels will generate more electricity than we use, and in doing so will save us the cost of paying for it elsewhere.

The cost-of-living crisis affects all our local community. We have been very proactive in providing help with food banks, clothing for refugees, and many more initiatives. We were involved in Barnet’s Warm Spaces initiative, where we offered the centre as a place anyone could come to and stay warm during the last winter. Now we will have the funds available to do this all again, and that makes us so proud.

The total cost of the solar panel project is £108,575, which is larger than any other capital project we have secured to date. I must give out a huge thanks to our funders, The City Bridge Trust, the Greater London Authority, and Barnet Council. Without them, none of this would be possible. They have believed in our dreams and aspirations to deliver this project.

We know that unfortunately, a lot of charities have been impacted by cuts to funding but no reduction in need by the crises of late, and this hurts us all. The charity sector is crucial when a crisis hits, as we are often the quickest to respond.

Historically, a pandemic is expected every 100 years, but does anyone really believe that to be the case anymore? A study by the Global Health Institute in 2021 stated that there is a 38% chance that we could experience another similar pandemic to COVID-19 in our lifetime. That is why we felt we needed to act so that we would be in a more stable starting position for the next time, should it occur.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have had discussions with peers in the third sector about how we could get this kind of environmental-focused funding. The understandable reality is that the amount of funding available for environmental projects is small when compared to other areas, such as health, poverty and welfare. Most environmental funds go towards resident-led projects – think of gardening clubs or food waste reduction. Renewable technologies and retrofits into existing infrastructure don’t have the same priority from funders as those other smaller projects.

We are always led to believe that there is more funding on the horizon, such as the government’s announcement in August this year, the new Community Energy Fund of a ‘£10 million funding pot to empower local people to develop energy projects to benefit their local areas.’ But let’s be clear that this is £10 million across the UK; to put that in context, this would pay for less than 100 projects like ours.

We applied to many general capital funders who have larger budgets, but were rejected by them as they won’t prioritise this. That isn't to say there aren’t funders willing to pay for projects like ours. This project was only made possible by donors who can see the longer-term benefit that investment in these environmental projects bring.

I feel that charities and social community leaders should have a greater responsibility in championing these initiatives. In a previous job I was unsuccessful in getting solar panels funded, so I felt compelled to make it happen this time for the good of the community.

As charities, we need to inspire and be storytellers. People are talking about solar and renewable energy, and it is something that can benefit our community in so many ways. We hope that others locally will follow our strong lead on this, including local home-owners.

We want to show the current and next generation that projects like this can be done, and we can make improvements in people's lives. We know that our solar panel installation will do that. We hope this also filters back to the charitable and private foundations so that we can plan to be better prepared for the future, as well as through any immediate crises.

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