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Laying the foundations to make a difference in Somerset

In this barn in Shepton Mallet, there’s something pretty special going on! It’s the home of Somerset Community Foundation… a team on a mission to bring people together, to make a genuine difference in our communities.

Whether you’re looking to give money to a Somerset charity, or you’re a local charity, community group or social enterprise looking for support, the Foundation inspires philanthropy across our county… matching local donors (who want to give something back and create a lasting impact) with amazing local charities – and lots more besides. You could say they help to make the magic happen, by facilitating a culture of caring and supporting charities to strengthen communities, tackle disadvantage and transform people’s lives.

If you’ve never heard of Somerset Community Foundation before, or you want to find out a little bit more about how they do all this, you’re in luck! As part of our series of May community blogs, we’ve been chatting to Foundation CEO Justin Sargent to discover more about what drives the team there, as well as what motivates him personally, his proudest moments at the charity so far and some very noisy cows! If that doesn’t get you reading on, we don’t know what will! :) 

Justin’s been in his role for 12 years now and as he tells me,

“that’s quite a long time for a CEO at a medium-sized charity, but we’ve transformed and changed every year and every year there’s been new and fresh challenges. I’m excited for what’s to come”

And we’re not surprised! The Foundation currently manages over 70 funds for individuals, companies, trusts and public bodies who want to help our communities.

These funds support over 250 local charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises with £600-£700k’s worth of funding - but back in 2002 when Justin joined, the situation was very different.

Funding to help Somerset communities used to primarily be given in the form of a central government grant. One of the things Justin was incredibly passionate about was to work with the Somerset community to solve the community’s own issues and as a result, a large chunk of the funds that now help Somerset people who need it most, come from within the county itself. They come from local people who want to make a real difference.

To us, this feels like an awesome accomplishment, but how does it all happen? 

Well, Justin spends a lot of his time meeting existing and potential donors to find out exactly what they’d like to achieve with their giving. The foundation then matches them with the local charity, charities or voluntary organisations where their giving will make the biggest difference. As this idea is completely new to me, I was really interested to find out what types of people donate and as Justin tells me:

“You can’t really categorise to be honest. It might be families, individuals, companies or trusts. It might be people who’ve had success creating wealth, or those who’ve done well in business and really want to give something back to their local community. I meet them, understand their aspirations, the causes close to their hearts and make sure they get as much joy from their giving as possible – as well as making sure the people who receive support feel the same way. I meet with people running charities. I hear their ambitions and it’s then amazing when you put someone who’s running a charity in the same room as someone who wants to donate. They have so much in common in terms of what they want to change here in Somerset and in the world. They might be from completely different backgrounds and have never met before, but the things that come out of these meetings are truly wonderful”.

We couldn’t agree more after reading the many amazing stories that happen as a result of this approach. You can find the stories right here

... from support to help pay for bereavement counselling for local people, to the ‘John and Dorothy Ball Fund’ established by the couple’s daughter when her parents passed away. This fund is now helping to connect people living in isolated communities and will benefit over 2,000 local people over the next three years.  

Justin also tells me that sometimes, it’s not just financial support that comes out of these relationships. One individual we chat about was so passionate about the charity he supports that he decided to mentor the leader of that charity too. Time, dedication and expertise have really helped this small organisation thrive and as Justin knows from his time spent working in Lesotho in Africa (before coming back to his home county of Somerset with his wife), sometimes we don’t fix everything with money alone. As he says:

“There’s something incredibly special and unique about small charities and for me personally, I wanted to continue my charity work back in Somerset at a grass roots level. To help people and to see how rewarding it is for both the donor and the receiver is just brilliant”.  

It’s definitely something to be very proud of and when I ask Justin about his proudest moments at the Foundation so far, two stand out for him (as well as clearly being very proud of the team of five working at the Foundation).

The first is launching and leading the Somerset Flood Relief Fund appeal following the 2013/2014 floods. As Justin tells me:  

“Around £1.5 million came in in a matter of a few weeks and it was an incredible challenge devising the right way to use the money because initially, we didn’t know how many people were affected or where they all were - but I was so proud of the response".

"In the first six months, people were understandably angry, distressed and really needed immediate help. The foundation collected an amazing amount of donations, turning them into funding that genuinely made a difference to over 350 households, as they coped with the financial pressures the flooding caused. Our sole aim was to keep financial hardship to a minimum and rebuild communities by helping with the financial burden of moving out, pumping and drying and emergency repairs, as well as with more medium-term impacts. Many local people said how pleased they were that the support was there and that meant a great deal to us.”

Talking of support, the ‘Surviving Winter’ programme the Foundation has established also supports hundreds of people in Somerset every year and that makes Justin proud too…

“Surviving Winter is a way to help combat fuel poverty in Somerset and it all started because one person said to us “I don’t need my winter fuel payment. Can you give it to someone who really needs it?” and so we created a way for people across the county to donate their winter fuel payments. We redistribute this money to Somerset people who need it most through our charity partners, housing associations, and village agents. Last winter, we made over 390 grants to pensioners to help them through the winter, raising 90k from over 300 donors. In our rural communities there are many stone cottages that simply can’t be insulated. We know there’s massive fuel poverty and we simply had to do better. Surviving Winter has united our communities, giving people dignity and a better quality of life.”

In fact, it did this so effectively that other counties picked up on it and now it’s become a national campaign - all started here, in Somerset.

The difference Surviving Winter makes to people couldn’t be made any clearer though, than when Justin tells me about a letter the Foundation received last winter. It was from a lady who had just been given her grant and was finally going to “put her hot water on and have a shower to celebrate”.   

Campaigns like these inspire hope across our communities and when I ask Justin what his biggest hope for the Somerset Community Foundation is, he tells me that eventually it’s to inspire a culture of philanthropy in Somerset so if you have wealth, giving back becomes the norm. As Justin says,

“I think in cities like Bristol, London, Manchester, the need might seem more obvious. Sometimes, here in Somerset, people’s need can be very hidden but that need really is there and for us, it’s about showing how local activities can make all the difference to people’s lives”.  

As we come to the end of our chat, if you’re a regular reader of our ‘Four Thoughts’ interviews, you’ll know there’s one question I have to ask Justin… “Tell us a secret that no-one else knows” :).  Although there are no skeletons in Justin’s closet, he does tell me how scared of heights he is. So… what does a person who’s scared of heights do? The world’s highest absail that’s what! Yep - Justin absailed down the highest single drop waterfall in Lesotho to raise money for a local orphanage. Money was indeed raised… but the fear of heights definitely wasn’t conquered! :)

At the beginning of this blog I also promised you cows. I know! I know! I haven’t forgotten. Well, the cows come in because (of course) I ask Justin the classic ‘what keeps you awake at night’ question and his answer (of course) is “mooing cows in the field at the back of my house"!  Well, it is Somerset after all :). After a bit of chuckling, he leaves me with this thought:

“I think as long as I feel we’re doing the very best we can for our donors and our communities, I’m happy”.

And we think Justin has it spot on. Doing the best you can for the people around you and the place you live is a very powerful and inspiring thing indeed.


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