Make it Sustainable is a vibrant community charity set up to safeguard The Old Print Works, a Grade II-listed industrial site in South Birmingham, and preserve its heritage. It provides affordable studios, co-working and event space for local artists and arts organisations, designer makers and community enterprises. In addition to being a platform for local creative talent and part of the city’s cultural infrastructure, Make it Sustainable also runs community classes and volunteer-led skills share sessions focused on improving the well-being of local residents and teaching them skills that are both creative and practical, helping to build a more resilient and sustainable community.
Since it was established in 2010, the charity has brought The Old Print Works back to use, thanks to the volunteer support of trustees, local residents, artist tenants (known as unit partners), and others. Turning the Old Print Works into a viable social enterprise, however, has proven to be a long road for Make it Sustainable. Incremental improvements to counteract the building’s old age consumed ongoing profits and put the organisation in a precarious situation, having on occasion resorted to short-term borrowing from trustees to fill the gaps in its balance sheet. At the same time, lack of certainty that it could continue leasing the building in the long-term made it harder to plan strategically and limited the charity's ability to make the most of commercial opportunities.
Similarly to other studio providers, Make it Sustainable came to the conclusion that a self-sustaining business model is underpinned by the need to own its premises. Being in control of its physical assets will not only generate immediate cost savings but will also enable the organisation to apply for grant funding to undertake large-scale structural works needed to ensure the long-term preservation of the Old Print Works and improve its revenue generating capacity.
The charity approached Arts Impact Fund for a loan of £300,000 that would allow it to purchase the freehold for The Old Print Works and make further improvements to the facilities and fabric of the building to make it more appealing to prospective tenants. In particular, the majority of our investment will be used as a deposit to unlock mortgage finance, which would otherwise have been out of reach for the organisation as it has not been in a position to build up financial reserves.
In the course of due diligence, our team scrutinised Make it Sustainable’s governance and financial management. Like many small charities, it relied on implicit knowledge and informal structures for its day-to-day activity. Being guided through a collaborative due diligence process helped the organisation enhance the structure and capacity of its Board, with several new trustees joining to provide skills and experience in finance and project management as well to increase the representation of tenants and their involvement in the charity’s management. The organisation also made a leap forward in the standard of its internal protocols, streamlining operations and taking a more strategic approach to policy development.
Alongside these business developments, Make it Sustainable will collaborate with its unit partners on creating a joint approach to social impact measurement. This will enable the organisation to move beyond anecdotal evidence of its impact and establish a baseline of its past performance against which to track progress. The Arts Impact Fund team will monitor how this process is maintained and developed in the future. In addition, Make it Sustainable will report on activities to foster wider engagement among local residents, especially those more at risk of social exclusion and isolation, such as children and women from minority ethnic backgrounds. For instance, both the charity’s recently expanded textile class/open workshop provision, and the growing success of Sundragon pottery, one of The Old Print Works unit partners, aim to bring people together and empower participants to achieve greater control over the fabric of their lives.
Throughout, the Arts Impact Fund has been impressed by the responsiveness of Make it Sustainable’s management team and applauds their entrepreneurial spirit and continued commitment to the charity’s success. We are keen to support a project firmly grounded in an ethos of community development and cooperation, reflected in all aspects of the charity’s work – from the intensive support and engagement of local volunteers to its commitment to diversity and inclusivity in serving a community of acute needs.
Make it Sustainable is an example of a valuable heritage and community asset using social investment to take control of its finances and turn its fortunes around. We hope this will encourage other arts organisations facing hardship to think entrepreneurially and feel more confident that social investment can be an appropriate and affordable tool to help them optimise or transform their business models, become more resilient and find sustainable ways of bringing positive change to their communities of interest.
Image credit: Adam Jarvis (http://www.