Gorgie City Farm: a phoenix from the ashes

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In spring 2016, Gorgie City Farm was on the brink of collapse but against the odds raised £100,000 in just six weeks and transformed into a thriving social firm

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30th October 2017 by Susan Smith 0 Comments

“It’s a phoenix from the ashes kind of story” says Sarah Campbell, fundraising and development manager at Gorgie City Farm.

“It means so much to so many people, I’m just delighted we’ve been successful and learned so much.”

Sarah is with outgoing chief executive Josiah Lockhart and board member Kirsty Connell-Skinner presenting to a room full of their peers on how Gorgie City Farm raised £100,000 in six weeks through a crowdfunding campaign in 2016.

The tale of how this community venture with an income under £500,000 transformed itself from death's door to be one of the city’s most thriving social enterprises is fast becoming the stuff of legend in the third sector.

“I’ve got a lot of fundraising experience,” says Kirsty whose CV includes Strathclyde University, the Royal Botanic Gardens and Onekind. “But I’ve never raised £100,000 in six weeks. I didn’t think it was possible.”

Kirsty had not long joined the board of Gorgie City Farm in the spring of 2016 when Lockhart, himself only just through the door, informed the board the organisation would struggle to make payroll that month. 

They were in a predicament stemming partly from bad luck but also from bad planning.

“We had taken our eye off the ball with trusts,” Kirsty says frankly. “We had achieved our three-year council grant, that had been the focus for us that winter and we were very fortunate to get one of the largest Edinburgh charity grants.

“But, several long-standing trust relationships had come to an end and we found ourselves in the position where the council had said yes but everyone else had said no.”

The trustees were faced with a stark choice: close or raise a lot of money very quickly.

It wasn’t an easy decision; risk averse Kirsty says several staff and board members sat through a series of very uncomfortable meetings with funders, including the council, when they had to confess to how bad things had become.

“Shutting down the charity was the safest move, but given its reserves, given the skills of the board and staff team, and given our contacts with funders, we decided to take a risk and do an emergency appeal,” she says.

So the board sat down and did the sums and worked out exactly how much was needed to keep the farm running for three months, a period which would buy them time to approach new funders and get a sustainable funding plan in place.

“It was £100,000,” she says. “We didn’t just pluck a number out of thin air. That’s what we needed.”

What Gorgie means to Graham

Gorgie City Farm: a phoenix from the ashes

Graham was referred to the farm while he was in recovery from a stroke, it was thought that the social aspect of volunteering would aid his recovery and be a stepping stone back into work.

He was placed in the large animals team as he had some experience in this area, and his excellent sense of humour provides a welcome distraction when doing the hard labour of mucking out.

Having previously been a support worker, Graham has been able to use his skills to help out other volunteers, this is something he really gets a kick out of. He says the team approach has also been of benefit to his career progression as team work is often a skill which arises in his job interviews.  

In addition to the large animal work he is now attending the Farm’s Fork to Fork cookery sessions, where volunteers collect produce from the garden then cook and eat together. This has inspired him to get him into cooking again and he really enjoys the social side of preparing food and eating together. 

This activity has also provided him with further experience in leadership/teaching role as he is quite confident cooking compared to most other participants.  

In just a day and a half the Save Gorgie Farm campaign was conceived and launched. There wasn’t time to mull over what to call it or the details of how to run it; it had to be simple, one-off and audacious.

This is the point that the board stepped back and put their faith in the staff team. “The board doesn’t know the farm like the staff and visitors do,” explains Kirsty. “For the campaign to be nimble, flexible and clever, we had to trust the staff to get on with it because despite all the talents on the board, we didn’t have the skills and knowledge of the staff team.” Josiah Lockhart (pictured above) was one of the founders of the successful Grassmarket Community Project and an experienced social entrepreneur by the time he came to Gorgie. 

“We didn’t follow the traditional rules of crowdfunding," he explains. "When it comes to crowdfunding there’s no one size fits all. However, generally speaking it is extremely difficult to raise more than £10,000.”

The campaign was designed to raise £100,000 in six months, with some of that expected to come from grant applications. 

Instead of approaching a few big donors, which is generally the approach of crowdfunding campaigns, the Save Gorgie City Farm campaign attempted to mobilse a community of small donors instead. The team knew the community cared about Gorgie City Farm, but they were blown away with just how much.

The campaign JustGiving page is still public and is a fabulous show case of the community sentiment. 

"I'm a Gorgie girl with fond memories of many happy times spent when Jessica, Hannah and Louise were growing up. Good Luck with the fundraising,” said one supporter who donated £20.

Another young boy’s promise to stay silent for a full day led him to smash his £100 target and raise £415.

And one wee girl raised funds cycling along Portobello beach without her stabilisers for the first time.

“In the end we only had five donations over £1,000, the vast majority of donations were small,” says Josiah. “We let the community do the crowdfunding. It was driven by the community and the message was Save Your Farm.”

The campaign wasn’t just social media driven either. The team knew not all their supporters were social media users, so Josiah took advantage of good contacts in the local media to get a media campaign running alongside.

The Edinburgh Evening News ran 14 stories and four front page articles over the following few months – its editor understood the campaign was capturing the hearts of local people.

The amazing buy-in from the community was unexpected but apparent right from day one: “I knew it was going to be a success when the morning after we launched, I woke up and we’d raised £13,000 overnight,” say Josiah. “It was the marker that said we can do this.”

At the time of the launch of the campaign Sarah Campbell (pictured left) was community engagement manager at Gorgie City Farm, where she’d worked for eight years in a number of roles.

However, she was quickly drafted into a new fundraising role and was able to take the lead on the campaign. She explains how the funds were used not just to plug a gap but transform the organisation.

"In 2015/16 we we're 75% grant funded, in 2017/18 at most we will be 42% grant funded,” she says. "The strategy is to have it down to 30% by the end of the 18/19 financial year.”

One of the benefits of the campaign was that it educated the public about what Gorgie City Farm actually does. It’s not just a visitor attraction, although it has now doubled its visitors to 200,000 visitors a year, it is also a working farm selling lamb, pork, eggs, vegetables and manure.

It was the social benefit, however, that wasn’t widely understood before the campaign. Gorgie City Farm is a key assisted volunteering provider for adults with barriers to employment, disabilities or health problems, and young people struggling with issues such as school attendance and disruptive behaviour (see box),

This became a focus of some the local news coverage, and Sarah says the impact has been incredible.

“People were reading the articles and had a much better idea of what we do – they were able to understand the bigger picture of what we do.

“Now our elevator pitch isn’t required as much as it’s much more recognised.”

Since the campaign, the organisation has developed a professional fundraising strategy. As well as Sarah's new role, it employed a corporate fundraiser from some of the funds raised and after she recouped her salary, the money was reinvested in a business development manager.

The farm has capitalised on the public good will by creating Friends of the Farm regular supporters and encouraging contactless donations at the site.

A simple handwritten sign now also highlights that it costs £3 per visitor to run the farm.

“We’re a lot savvier now. The charity didn’t have a database and no major gifts strategy at the time,” says Sarah. “The crowdfunding campaign was supported by three corporates and no major donors – now we have individuals who have become major donors.”

Much of the money was spent on refurbishing the education building, including the board room and office. This has enabled the farm to ramp up its social business side, including birthday parties, school trips and corporate challenges. It has also reopened its popular café on Friday afternoons and weekends.

The campaign was a huge success all round for the farm. Opened in 1982 to serve its community, they returned the favour by rallying around in its moment of crisis and as it seeks a new chief executive to replace Josiah who is now moving onto social enterprise support body First Port, its future looks secure.

“It was amazing how much people felt ownership for Gorgie City Farm,” says Campbell. “Supporters were saying we must save our farm. And they did.”