Julie Samuel is development manager of the Ecology Centre. The Ecology Centre was set up to provide direct experience of the environment, to contribute towards quality of life and to encourage responsible citizenship.
What does the Ecology Centre do?
The Ecology Centre is a unique provider of environmental education. We work with a whole range of people through the services that we provide but we’re primarily about helping people as opposed to just about carrying out environmental activities. The centre has been established for 11 years now. It’s a company limited by guarantee, it’s a charity but we also have an enterprise arm that was set up in the last couple of years. We currently have 11 members of staff working for us and in between 20 and 30 volunteers that contribute to the organisation on a regular basis.
How does the Ecology Centre involve volunteers?
Our volunteers are primarily from the local community, I’d say a five to ten mile radius of the centre and they’re a very wide mix of people: we have people with learning disabilities, people with mental health problems, retired people, students, people who have maybe just moved to the area, young people on work experience. And what’s unique about our volunteer team is, it is such a wide variety of people but they have the interests of the Ecology Centre in common. And what I think is so important about our volunteer team and works so well is that there’s people that don’t normally come across each other in society and the relationships that are built through their involvement together at the centre is just fantastic.
How is the Ecology Centre funded?
We’re funded by anybody and everybody who will give us money basically but I think that we get some core funding from Scottish Natural Heritage who contribute towards our education programme but we also have funding for different projects that operate within the organisation. And my job is very much about juggling the grant funding with the revenue streams that we generate ourselves. Because we’re a social enterprise 25 to 50 per cent of our income is generated by our revenue which is money that can be used how we would like to use it, on things we need to spend it on. And then our grant funding is usually much more restricted in what we’re able to spend that on. We’ve also had a local couple donate a substantial amount of money to the organisation over the past four years which has been a huge benefit to our organisation because it’s enabled us to develop in ways that we needed to develop and it’s enabled us to bring in more staff. Previous to that period of time there were two or three of us that worked at the organisation, now there are 11, so that’s made a significant difference, it’s really helped us build the capacity of the organisation. But we’ve noticed over the past few years that grant funding is harder and harder to come by, with the current economic downturn it’s going to get even worse, so being able to generate our own income is very, very important and that’s why we set up our trading company, three years ago now so that we could have our own streams of income that we were in control of.
How does The Ecology Centre run as a social enterprise?
Our enterprise company, it provides several services. It advises schools on developing their school grounds, and then we have our workshop where we can design and create outdoor, natural, wooden products that are bespoke, of a high quality that can then go into the grounds, that the children, teachers, parents can use to facilitate learning and play outside. And because we’ve got the experience of working with children, we’ve got the experience of working with schools, we know what they’re looking for, we know what works in the outdoor environment, so we’re using that experience to develop these products. But we’re not just working with schools, we’re working with housing associations, landscape architects, developers and we’re creating a variety of products, some that outside contractors design, some that we design ourselves that are installed within different projects.
Why have you applied for the Bank of Scotland Social Enterprise Loan?
We decided to apply for the Bank of Scotland loan because we thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to fund a renewable energy project that in the long term sustain The Ecology Centre as well as our partner organisations that we’re working with through the project. The loan would be used to create, install the renewable energy project that would then run for a period of 20 years, and it would provide a substantial income to both The Ecology Centre, to our partners Kingdom Housing Association, but it would also provide a community fund, that could fund projects within the local area. Also, not only are we asking the Bank of Scotland for the £5 million loan, but we’d also be establishing a local community bond, so that local individuals could buy into the project, they could buy shares in it, which would then give them a 10 per cent return over the 20 year period of the project, they would get their money back at the end of it but they’d also get an income from it as well. So it would be a very strong community project, it would be unique in the way it was funded. There hasn’t been a renewable energy project like that run anywhere else in the world, as far as we’re aware. And it would generate a lot of benefits for both organisations involved and the local community.