Trust a Mole to Help
About 15 years ago a review was carried out of the way the Surrey based Countryside Management Projects worked, this concluded that they would benefit from having separate charities set up to run alongside them.
The Projects are local authority funded partnerships carrying out a wide range of practical countryside tasks with help from volunteers. The first Surrey Project to be established was the Lower Mole Project set up in 1983 with support from the Countryside Commission. It has grown over its first 30 years to a thriving team with about 30 regular volunteers, completing around 8000 volunteer hours per year, with task days up to 4 days per week for a wide variety of landowners, led by a small staff team (2.9FTE).
The review even back then predicted that funding from local authorities couldn’t be relied upon forever and that a separate charity would enable fundraising from sources not accessible to local authorities, allow a membership to be established and provide the opportunity for by-products of the work to be sold to raise funds (firewood, charcoal, beanpoles etc).
The first stage was to ask the regular volunteers what they thought of this; thankfully they were enthusiastic and soon a small team had been established to oversee the setting up firstly of a company and then secondly its registration as a charity. The decision to set up a company hinged on the limited liability this entitled its directors to, as the directors were mostly volunteers who would have been put off if they felt they could be held liable for large sums of money. This team became the first directors of the company ‘Lower Mole Countryside Trust’. That was the easy bit; an application was then made to the Charity Commission to be registered as a charity. Initially they decided that we had too many Objects so an Emergency General Meeting was held and these were pared down and an application made again. This time it was successful with registration achieved in February 2003. One of the criteria set by the Charity Commission was that the Trust should be able to support more than just the Lower Mole Project, so it was important to us from the start that we would be able to give funds we had raised to any organisation fulfilling our Objects.
There are now eight trustees, all of whom, apart from myself, are volunteers. There has been a steady turnover of trustees, but the majority of them have come from the regular volunteers who carry out the practical tasks. They meet every two months and apart from the regular items they are required to cover, they make decisions on any grant applications received, discuss progress on work they have funded and any profile raising activity they have planned.
The Lower Mole Project, recently rebranded to the Lower Mole Partnership (following another review!), and other organisations can access funds from the Trust in two ways; either by making an application on the official form for grants of up to £500 or by presenting a written case for larger scale support, which the Trust can then decide to help raise funds for from other grant sources. It is important to make sure that the way money is spent is transparent and that VAT is included/paid when it should be!
To date the Trust has agreed to about 60 applications made on the form to 13 different groups. These have included funding for training volunteers, purchasing equipment and carrying out practical work to benefit wildlife or improve public access. 25 larger grants have also been given or projects supported following written requests which have required the Trust to apply for funds from other sources to supplement the funding they are able to give themselves. The Trust has raised over £190,000 so far and to date spent or allocated 85% of this to benefit the local countryside. Funds raised need to be spent and not accumulated, as most funders will not give grants if the receiving charity has too much in reserve.
The recent review referred to above resulted in the Trust being given a more significant role in the Partnership. The Surrey Countryside Partnerships, made up of the Lower Mole Partnership, Downlands Partnership and Surrey Heathland Partnership, now have a Surrey Countryside Partnerships Board with an independent chairman, a representative from each of the funding partners, plus the two supporting Trusts, Lower Mole and Downlands.
The Downlands Trust was created as a charitable trust in 2008 and is similar to the Lower Mole Countryside Trust, but was set up as part of the 9-year legacy from a Heritage Lottery Fund scheme, Old Surrey Downs Project (OSD) - restoring our beautiful chalk grassland. The OSD Project ran for 6 years and was managed by the Downlands Project (now Downlands Partnership) and officially ended in December 2012. However one of the key Objects of this Trust is to support the raising of funds for ongoing chalk grassland management work in the Downlands Partnership area.
There is some pressure for both Trusts to raise extensive funding and offer core support for the Partnerships; however the trustees are very reluctant to do this as they do not regard the core funding of staff as fulfilling the charities’ Objects or that it is appropriate for their charitable money to replace that provided by local authorities. As the Trusts are not keen to fund staff the Partnerships have to be careful to apply for funds for work that they actually have time to do with the existing staff and volunteer resource.
The set up of our Trusts is a bit different to the usual ‘Friends of’ Group, as the trustees and members do not do any practical activity in the name of the Trust; all the practical conservation work is still done under the umbrella of the local authority funded partnership. The trustees administer grants to and from the Trust and attend events to represent and publicise the charity and to fundraise for it. The Trust has given grants to several more traditional ‘Friends of’ groups in the area, in particular to pay for tools and training.
One of the options originally investigated back in the early 2000s was whether the whole project should cease to be hosted by a local authority and become a free standing charity, and that is the route that some other organisations similar to us went down and it is still a possibility for the future, particularly with local authorities purse strings stretched to bursting point.
However charities are under pressure too and although this area of north Surrey in theory has a wealthy population of potential donors, the importance of maintaining its wildlife rich chalk downlands, pasture woodlands and river corridors in an area where countryside is becoming increasingly fragmented, does not have a high enough profile.
Now that local authorities have a biodiversity duty there is potentially an opportunity for a partnership like ours to successfully continue into the future, as involving local people through volunteering for their local countryside is a cost effective way for local authorities to care for their land and also gives other landowners, particularly charities, the opportunity to employ our team of highly skilled volunteers led by trained staff at a competitive rate.
There are challenging times ahead, but also exciting opportunities to help establish more local support through ‘Friends of Groups’ and to gain corporate support, both of which will help to make nature conservation sustainable into the future.
For more information about the Surrey Countryside Partnership visit
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Helen Cocker, Operations Manager
Surrey Countryside Partnerships team