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This post reveals a good news story, but to get to it you’ll have to read some background…...

An important issue was raised by a Fellow at the recent governance Q and A. It appears from our annual returns that only a small proportion of our expenditure (less than 30%) goes on charitable activities.  The main technical issue is that the charitable spending figure is, as it were, gross not net. A large chunk of the RSA’s budget is spent raising other money. In particular, the House is run as a commercial enterprise. In the current economic climate, it doesn’t make much of a profit but it means that the costs of being in central London are covered, as are the expenses of maintaining an historic building. If we didn’t invest in the House business we would have to cover accommodation and upkeep from other income.  Also, we spend some money recruiting and providing membership services to Fellows. This too generates the RSA a great deal more than it costs. If the figures are adjusted to exclude money spent to raise other money then the charitable spending proportion rises significantly.

The more substantive issue concerns investment in Fellows’ activities. Indeed this has been the fastest growing area of RSA expenditure in recent years. The money is spent on our team of network managers and also Catalyst, the fund for Fellows’ projects. This is why it is important to emphasise that the purpose of this investment is to enable Fellows themselves to contribute to the RSA’s charitable mission.

Which brings me to the good news. Apart from engaging Fellows the true measure of our investment in Fellows’ projects is whether they make a positive impact. So it was great this week to hear more about one of the most successful Fellow led projects: ‘Changing Chelmsford’.  This was a project started by local Fellows, led by Malcolm Noble, who were concerned about the state of their town centre.  

Changing Chelmsford has now become an umbrella organisation for a number of practical, Fellow-led projects that have the support of Chelmsford Borough Council and Essex County Council as well as a number of other local bodies and organisations (over 80 took part in the process). RSA Fellows are making practical change happen on a local level, and attracting the attention of local politicians as well as leading artists and thinkers. There has also been discussion of the possibility of evolving Changing Chelmsford into a Community Interest Company in 2011.

There is a video documentary of the project here. A recent meeting with the leaders of Essex County Council and Chelmsford Borough Council resulted in excellent feedback and support to grow the project further. They were overwhelmed with the goodwill of over 120 people who participated in the process and the achievements of Fellows to date despite the shoe string budget. And other Fellow-led initiatives are already developing out of Changing Chelmsford. A Transition Town Chelmsford group, led by Leonie Ramondt FRSA, found here http://www.transitionnetwork.org/initiatives/chelmsford. Annabel Brown FRSA won RSA Catalyst funding for her Young Urban Explorers project for local 13 -19 year olds. Poster attached, web here http://www.chelmsfordexplorers.net/ . Two planning proposals (with social purpose) for historic derelict sites have arisen out of this process.

Two RSA Fellows (Janet Sutherland and John Worthington) who are also Academicians with the Academy of Urbanism are raising the profile of Chelmsford as a ‘learning town’ by starting a UniverCities project there. And there is even a bit of stardust; Grayson Perry visited the group last month and has agreed to be an ambassador for the Changing Chelmsford project! A V festival fringe for 2011 is now being planned to bring visitors into Chelmsford town centre before, during and after the festival.

The commitment of Fellows plus the support of the regional network manager at the time (Clare Reilly), who also tapped into wider staff and Fellow networks, has generated a really impressive range of activities which look to be creating enduring civic capacity. This project, like the social entrepreneurs network about which I posted a few weeks ago, and indeed the Fellows’ projects springing up across the UK (and in the international Fellowship), are clearly charitable in its intent and adds a whole new dimension to the RSA’s social impact.

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