If there is one thing that we are learning as the Woa! Rhino project evolves, it’s the value of a smile. We are, literally, putting smiles on people’s faces wherever we go – and it’s not just us saying it. Our resident rhino keeper, Dave Beesley of B-Line, has made this same statement at a number of our personal appearances.

Our rhinos, and potentially your rhinos, will enlighten someone’s life sometime in the next 15 months. Already over a short time period we can look back and remember the fans at the Kassam Stadium, the tourists at The Museum of Natural History, the children of John Blandy School. All smiling.

More recently I spoke to members of the public at Oxford Castle and guests at the 5th Birthday bash. All understood that the project concept has far more depth than a fibreglass animal sculpture. At a simple level, we had some children ride on the back of the large sculptures currently residing in one of the market squares – cue creative play and role playing. At a deeper level, I debated with a member of the public the merits of removing all rhino horn and elephant tusk and replacing them with fibreglass prostheses to deter poaching until such time as it becomes a marginalised activity – cue intellectual debate.

What shone through was an inspired legacy effect. Many remembered similar projects in other locations and smiled. The Bears in Germany, the cows in the US, the Elephants in London. What surprised me was that, without exception, they all remembered the sponsoring companies as well. This project is intended to have a tangible legacy – charitable, educational, experience and profile. What is emerging is that it is starting to generate an emotional one as well.

Whatever the scenario, our rhinos are a stimulus to a spontaneous action, thought or emotion. I sat down with a primary school teacher in the afternoon and we planned how to work with her class of 30 six and seven year olds. She kept smiling. She remembered her trip to Africa last year. She considered her input as an art graduate. If the teacher is that enthusiastic I cannot wait to meet the children.

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Generally speaking, when a new retail business decides to make its home in your town it is a cause for celebration. Towns all over the country are concerned about the increasing numbers of vacant commercial units. Finding a winning formula to filling these with commercial tenants is the “holy grail”.

In recent years, everything from inward investment packs to temporary community uses and arts venues have been introduced in an effort to reduce vacancies. You would be forgiven for thinking that running a retail business is not high up on the list of aspirations. Surprisingly however, the retail sector accounts for one of the highest percentages of new business start-ups.

When your vacancy rate is relatively low you can afford to reserve judgement. Strictly speaking, unless a new retail business requires a change of use, through the planning process, to enable it to take on a commercial unit in the town centre, there is little that can be done centrally to influence whether or not it arrives in town. Few town centres have any significant grant schemes so most financial incentives must be negotiated with a prospective landlord. The rest is about flagging up commercial opportunity and a potential gap in the market.

So what should be the approach when a new business directly challenges an established independent outlet?

An impartial observer would suggest that market forces will out and that the market will decide. Customer loyalty will be tested. There will be an initial period of curiosity and then on-going success will depend on several factors that include price, customer-service and product range.

This observer would also suggest that if both businesses survive they will be stronger for the competition. In addition, the competition might actually increase the collective spend on that type of good rather than split an existing market share into smaller parcels.

Henley now has two specialist sweet shops, Little Nellie’s in Friday Street and the recent addition of Mr Simms in Reading Road. Both are independent businesses, the latter with a franchised name and brand.

The confectionery market is buoyant. As a context here are some of the statistics…

o The confectionery market in the UK is now worth approximately £5.5bn (Mintel)
o In 2009 the average household spent £52.20 per week on food and non-alcoholic drink purchases. Of this, £2.20 was spent on chocolate and confectionery (ONS)
o In an article in the Daily Mail in June 2010 it was stated that the annual spending on confectionery for children in the UK was £372 (Datamonitor)

Having spoken to both recently, it is clear that there is a lot at stake. We would suggest that you investigate both and make a judgement for yourself. Whatever your sweet fetish might be, it can be satisfied by one or both. Sugar-free sweets, party bags, chocolate, sour or liquorice – its all there, and if you are old enough will remind you of old favourites.

I remember, when I was little, being allowed to choose a bag of sweets as a weekend treat when my father bought the papers and trying to eek it out for as long as possible. It is so much more exciting going to a dedicated sweet shop than a supermarket, even for the smell. Just don’t tell the children!

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For many, the potential for grant funding is seen as a blessing. For some, the chance of grant funding comes at a considerable emotional cost.

That is not to say that grant funding cannot benefit considerably a whole host of organisations, aspirations and heartfelt ambitions. Indeed it can, enriching the lives of many people along the way. But just how expensive can it be to secure a grant and is this value commensurate with the value of the final grant award?

Many grant regimes should carry a health warning. “Please be aware that the contents of this application form may damage your well-being. Stamina and patience are not included and may be purchased separately.”

The majority of grant regimes are as much tests of stamina, patience and willpower as they are of project expertise. How many potential applicants would be prepared to commit themselves for up to twelve months of negotiation, form filling, partnership building and fund finding? How many potential applicants will then commit to a further twelve months of contract obligations and up to five or ten years of asset liability?

Grant regimes do vary in complexity and duration but it is not unusual to face more than one application round. These can often be accompanied by varying levels of assessment, prior to your application being placed before a decision-making panel.

Do not be fooled into thinking that the documents that you submit will land on the boardroom table. Most are merely information gathering tools that will inform a succinct report by an external assessor. Do not underestimate the analytical mind of the assessor. These people are experienced in evaluation and will make you squirm – even if you have done your homework.

Many believe that composing grant applications is straightforward enough that it can be done alongside a full-time occupation. Others believe that success with an “Expression of Interest” indicates that they will receive substantial support from an advisor that will, in turn, lead to a successful full application.

Think again. While applications are supposed to be straight-forward, they often are highly demanding in terms of information and material evidence. This is not project management on the back of an envelope at the kitchen table, once the kids have gone to bed. Equally, it is not rocket science so you can work it through. It just might take you longer and involve more mental breakdowns than it would for a professional and you will still need to meet strict deadlines. Six months to submit a full application sounds forever, but when you are chasing letters of support at the last minute, only those with small children or a blackberry (or both) can hear you scream at two o’clock in the morning!

Capability aside, can you justify the time out of your current commitments. Running a business or initiative is already a full-time occupation. Dairy cows need milking, festivals need planning and team members need managing. Oh, and that advisor that you are promised, to support you with a full application, has allocated you two days worth of time. They will be great and worth their weight in gold, but two days is two days, and it feels of little consequence spread over six months.

There are many individuals out there who stated confidently that they would submit their applications sans support. There are probably a high percentage of grant regimes still waiting expectantly for them as they float, trapped in the ether, failing to secure the right levels of stamina and patience.

Let’s go back to commensurate value.

Most grant regimes do not provide any funding retrospectively. Neither do they allow a payment to a professional fund finder to come from any subsequent award. This often provides a number of organisations with a moral dilemma. For many, hiring the services of a trusted professional to decipher the forms, translate information into “grant-speak” and to play devil’s advocate would be money well-spent. However, a decision to follow this road often challenges a common mindset. Many forget that their own time has an intrinsic value. Self-submission will also incur a cost for the organisation.

Many organisations and entities that chase grant funding see an award as “charitable support”, which it can be. However, grant regimes will always seek to back winners. This means those with longevity and those who are likely to find the means to support themselves in the future. This can mean commercial success – even if it is within the structure of a not-for-profit.

Securing the services of a grant professional is simply an investment and often one with a good return. Forget day rates, think return on investment.

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It is indisputable. We have swapped the notion of space for that of place. It seems to have crept up on us and is now well and truly embedded in our psyche.

Gone are the days where we were preoccupied with maximising limited space (space planning), ordering space (feng-sui) and creating new space where it ought not to be. Remember estate agents selling increasingly smaller houses and marketing shipping containers as bijou residences? This obsession even penetrated human behaviours. We gave each other space, we got spaced out.

Now, it seems, we have completed this bold move towards something altogether more personal. We are encouraged to champion local ownership, local affinity and community spirit. We are encouraged to be less anonymous, to embrace collective action and to have a new empathy with our neighbours. To quote a well-known phrase, “a place for everything and everything in its place”.

Industry, as you would expect, has followed suit. There is now a very good Place Management Institute. The lottery programme for youth venues is called Myplace. In fact, many of us were what you would consider “place-shapers” long before it became a mainstream activity. Those of us who grew up involved with the town centre management industry have always worked hard to build customer loyalty, create destinations and develop a reputation or brand built upon a place name.

But what defines a “place-shaper” and do we have a role in the “Big Society”?

Future Communities.net says;

“’Place-shaping’ is now widely understood to describe the ways in which local players collectively use their influence, powers, creativity and abilities to create attractive, prosperous and safe communities, places where people want to live, work and do business.”

It’s a splendidly ambiguous brief. At About the Place, we define ourselves as place-shapers with a deliberate penchant for those activities that will often fall outside of the public sector core spectrum. We love to challenge the norm and to look at new ways of delivering traditional activities – albeit with a keen eye on creating a project legacy and sustainable actions.

We could probably be seen to be a flag-waver for the notion of “Big Society”. We often work with local partnerships to increase their capacity to deliver benefits that are not solely reliant on public funds. We encourage self-sufficiency. We suggest a more commercial outlook.

Successful business people often leave their commercial instincts at the door when they drive volunteer initiatives. We agree that you are not in the business of making a commercial profit. However, you are in the business of running a sustainable partnership. You must be able to deliver benefits to members that do not rely solely on annual subscriptions.

Our project work is probably typical of the “Big Society”. We allow local aspirations to take shape. We inject some inspiration and innovation where it is needed. We anchor this to commercial reality, local stakeholder agendas and the desire for a legacy. We let local people hold on tight to their vision whilst we take on the burden of project management principles that include outputs and outcomes, milestones and SMART targets.

Our portfolio of work has included work with business partnerships, charitable trusts, community groups, businesses, schools, disenfranchised young people and prisoners. Sometimes our work includes a combination of several of these together. This is wider society but presumably also the “Big Society” in different guises.

We love the challenge of an off-the-wall idea that can harness the enthusiasm of an organisation, a locality or a group of hard-to-reach individuals. We love a challenge, full stop. A recent blog suggested that smell could be the new public art for defining places. Maybe this is our next project…

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Picture the scene…

Your heart is pounding. It’s here – your decision letter. You get that familiar feeling, similar to when you received your exam results when you were younger – only this time the decision contained within it could have wider repercussions. Apart from the fact that you are now a grown up, your decision letter could be the determining factor in whether your project lives or dies, and with it the aspirations of many people.

You open your letter and see the first line “Congratulations! I am pleased to inform you…” You don’t need to read any more. A year of hard work (sometimes more, sometimes less) rewarded with the faith and trust of a grant-making body. Happy days!

The euphoria that often accompanies notification of a grant award (depending on the size of the award being made) can be short-lived. Once you read the rest of your letter, and take time to digest the consequences of it, you wil realise that you will be expected to enter into a delivery contract. And expectations are high.

Probably the remainder of your letter will outline the expectations upon you. The first of those will be “pre-award” conditions. These will be a pre-requisite for a formal offer. Until that time you cannot even promote the fact that you have been successful in your application. Therefore, file away that press release for later. Oh, and the clock is ticking (again!). You will normally have about six months to fulfill these conditions before the offer could be withdrawn. Grant bodies have targets to meet as well.

Do not panic. These conditions usually highlight those tasks that you will need to undertake in order to move your project forward. The tasks will be those that could not realistically be achieved when you were still an aspiration. This could include confirmation of how you will actually achieve x,y and z, in reality and formal ascent from others, rather than an in-principal letter of support.

This is also a good time to sanity-check your proposal and to re-engage those partners who had committed to providing you with the world. During the last few months of waiting for a decision, the context for you project might have changed. People move on. You might have found a better way of achieving your aims. You might want to integrate a new idea into your proposals.

Start as you mean to go on. Set up your delivery structure with an in-built flexibility. However thorough you have been, there will always be one or two curve-balls that appear mid-way through your project with which you will need to deal. This could be anything from an underestimation of cost to a change in workable timescales, meaning that deadlines (project milestones) could be missed. Be prepared to search, beg, steal and borrow to make up unforeseen funding shortfalls. Find out if parts of your project can be sponsored commercially, without detriment to either the grant funding body or the ethos of your initiative.

A common oversight is the failure to account for PR properly. Your grant body will expect to get credit and publicity for the project. It might be a key factor in generating interest and participation from your target audience. If it is not your area of expertise it can be time-consuming and frustrating. If you hire an expert, you will need to pay them. Where does this appear in your budget?

A second oversight is usually photographic evidence. This has a PR application but also a “before-and-after” benefit. Will erratic use of your “flip-cam” suffice or do you need to use someone who knows about light, photo composition and compressing the size of an image for use on websites. Budget heading anyone?

Start as you mean to go on (repeat like a mantra). Decide how you are going to collect information on the progress of your project. This is aside from your income and expenditure. Collect and cost your match-funding. In-kind donations, free advertorial, products sold at cost. It all adds up and it all has a value. Keep a record of volunteer hours. Most grant bodies will use similar formula for professional and manual volunteer time so that you can translate these into financial contributions.

Start as you mean to go on. Many “purchases” are going to need to be tendered, although thresholds of value may vary. This will include both consultancy expertise and capital purchases. Salaried positions will need to be advertised. This takes time. Set up a tender process for your project at the start that you can apply as, and when, needed. Think about structuring each distinctive element of your project through a “formal brief”. This will help both the tender process and your ability to demonstrate to your fund provider that you have a clear management mechanism for your project.

Start as you mean to go on. Do you have a clear decision-making structure in mind? Is this a Board, a management team or picking straws? Tender submissions will need to be evaluated and maybe short-listed for interview. Recruitment for salaried posts will be the same. What collective expertise is available? Does this need to be supplemented now that you have a grant award in place (albeit still in principal at this stage)? Who has financial expertise or has this been budgeted for, alongside the preparation of annual accounts and maybe an external audit?

Brilliant. You are all set. As you know your project inside out, you can get to work creating a project plan that will sit alongside your business plan. Define your monthly tasks, who is responsible for each and what is the desired outcome. Again, this will help considerably with the increasing number of grant regimes that are “outcome focussed” i.e. need to see a change as a result of their investment. It will also help you to oversee the project strategically as well as operationally.

Finally, there is the conundrum of VAT. Reasonably straightforward in terms of guidance about what you can and cannot claim back. Not so easy when the rate keeps changing. This is great for your contingency budget if the rate comes down between your project submission and the end of your project. Not so good recently if you submitted back when the rate was 15% and your project continues past the increase to 20% next year. “Contingency” and “Inflation” are your BFFs in terms of budget headings. Just make sure that you accommodate changes to VAT within these, as well as price rises and unforeseen costs.

Picture the scene…

Digging the first hole, laying the first brick, teaching your first class, watching the first smile or glimmer of self-esteem from someone who deserves better in life. Of course it is all worth it. Crack on, it is not rocket science, it just takes a bit of foresight and a lot of hard work.

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