This is a bold new approach for the sector. Social investment has helped to increase our property portfolio and build the sustainability of EVA Women's Aid.
EVA Women’s Aid was established 30 years ago to support women and children that are victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence in Redcar and Cleveland. We provide a full wraparound service including advocacy, counselling, information and guidance to support recovery. We also provide accommodation and currently own three multi-occupancy properties or safe houses.
I have been CEO since July 2013 and when I joined, a large part of my remit was to rethink our funding options and how we could work towards sustainability. EVA Women’s Aid had lost its local authority contract the year before and had been in some financial difficulty.
Our social investment journey began not long after this. In re-examining our strategy, I had identified a real need for accommodation for women over 45 years old. At the time, we had two properties that were largely housing younger women and although we could accommodate older women as well, it was not ideal because they often ended up mothering the younger women and neglecting their own recovery. We did some research, including working with Teesside University, to see what help was out there for older victims of domestic violence and found very little. This was really how the 45+ project was born.
The project was built around providing targeted support and included offering awareness training to professionals, as women over the age of 45 are known to be a group that under-reports sexual abuse and domestic violence. We also decided to buy another property to provide much-needed accommodation for this group.
With no local authority funding available for this project, I had to think outside the box. I spoke to our bank and they suggested approaching Charity Bank to help with purchasing the property. I’d never heard of Charity Bank before but I contacted them and they seemed interested. For me, it was a case of let’s talk and see what they can offer. There was a lot of paperwork and the due diligence process wasn’t easy, but I think it was beneficial for us that they were so rigorous.
Once I had decided that this was the route for us, I took the idea to the Board. I was convinced we could service the loan from the housing benefit we would receive from the residents and be able to show the figures to the Board. I had worked out that even at only 25% occupancy we could both cover the loan repayments and make a profit to put back into the organisation. The Board knew we would have to take a different approach to funding and it was worth taking a risk on me, I can be very convincing. I knew we could do it and that it was the right thing to do. We did take professional advice, as required by the Charity Commission, but by that point, the leg work had been done. We also knew that we would have an asset we could sell if we needed to.
The project ended up being supported with a blended finance model. In addition to the loan from Charity Bank that helped us buy the property, we applied for grant funding from the Lloyds Bank Foundation and the Fresh Ideas Fund. This grant funding was to help us cover the costs of refurbishing the property and making it fit for use.
At one point we were waiting for approval from all three organisations. Each one appeared to be waiting for the other to move first. At this point, I had to step in and just ask one of them to please move first. In the end, they all moved forward together and in 2015, we opened the UK’s first safe house for women over 45 and launched the 45+ project. The property had reached 100% capacity within a week and has been full ever since.
We are now replicating this model and are in the process of working with Charity Bank to buy our fourth property with a view to opening in January 2018. This is really exciting because it will help us address another significant unmet need in the local community. In recent years, we have been receiving more and more referrals for women with complex needs but were unable to accommodate them all in our current properties. Over the last three years, we have had to turn away between 30-50 women with complex needs each year and we knew we had to do something.
This is a bold new approach for the sector. We have proved the service we can offer, we have secured funding and we are increasing our property portfolio. In addition, we are responding to local needs, providing a new service and building the sustainability of EVA Women’s Aid.
Our model has really been to do things differently. I knew when I joined that we would have to be creative. In the current climate, charities have to diversify or specialise or they will die. They need to be run like businesses now, with robust processes and governance. Unless you have a business focus, you are not going to survive in the funding world. Local authority funding pots are getting smaller and harder to win. Not winning the local authority tender in 2012 was the best thing that could have happened to us because it made us stand on our own two feet. We now have nine funding streams, have doubled our staff, will shortly own four properties and we are hugely credible. We fill the cracks in the pavement that the statutory organisations can’t and I am being approached by other organisations all the time asking how we have done it. I am still open to working with the Local Authority because we could work well together but the difference is that I now know we are sustainable without them.
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