Ruth Knagg | Big Society Capital

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Ruth Knagg

Ruth's story:

The Andrews Charitable Trust (ACT) is ingrained with an ethos of mixing business with philanthropy.  Cecil Jackson Cole, who founded the Trust, was the first person to suggest the concept of a charity operating a permanent, staffed shop - for Oxfam in 1949.  ACT derives all its income from the profits of the Andrews estate agency business. The trust is the major shareholder of the business and trustees of the charitable trust always include a number of members of staff from a senior level of the Andrews estate agency team.  A solid principle of doing good with the fruits of good business is therefore maintained.

Despite this pioneering background, it was only in 2014 that ACT made its first foray into social investment as a departure from traditional grant funding.  And this wasn’t because of a conscious decision on the part of trustees to do so but, rather, because a specific request had come forwards from a consultancy called EpVen who wanted to launch a business with significant social impact and who needed investment at the start-up phase whilst they fully tested their pilot.

The business idea, called Inspira Farms, proposed to bring agricultural processing close to farmers’ own gates which creates work in rural communities and increases the price farmers can ask for their produce. There were two initial planned pilot units: first a pre-fab container in which green vegetable crops would be sorted, trimmed, packaged, chilled and stored to Food Standards levels; the second a milk chiller that also has capacity to pasteurise. The second unit more than doubles dairy farmers’ incomes since they are able to sell output from two milking sessions each day as well as gaining the benefits of supplying pasteurised and chilled milk.

ACT trustees debated at length not only whether to support the initiative but, if so, what was the most appropriate vehicle of support.  Feeling that, in common with many other ACT grantees, there was a high level of risk at this early stage, we finally chose to award a returnable grant.  Funding was given over two years with an agreement to trigger re-payments once Inspira Farms profit reached an agreed amount. This was forecast to be reached three years down the line.

Our social investment was to be used to free up the key personnel from having to chase consultancy fees in order that they could focus on their new business proposition. It would pay their salaries in other words.

Alongside the monetary support, the ACT model is to offer one of its own board members to offer time and advice in person pro bono. To date, this has generally meant an ACT trustee also takes up a trusteeship in the beneficiary charity. In the case of Inspira Farms, the Board is a very different structure but, nonetheless I, as an ACT trustee, took up a role as an Adviser to the team.  Coming as I do from a background of working and volunteering in the charity sector for almost three decades, this has meant a steep learning curve for me too!