“Without a loan, we might have closed”

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Strength & Learning Through Horses (SLTH) offers equine therapy and education in London. The charity was due to be evicted in January 2023 so desperately needed to find a new home. Rosie Bensley, the CEO & Education Programme Director of SLTH, tells us more…

Why did you need a loan?

We were based at a very small stables on an informal lease. We’d outgrown the site, and the landlord had said we needed to leave. It was all looking quite dire. Barnet Council had been trying to find us a permanent site for quite a while, and they finally found one in January 2022.

It’s an old stable yard, but it was completely dilapidated. It had been treated like a tip – every single building was filled to the brim with household waste, from fridges to discarded bags of rubbish. Every building was falling down; there was no electricity; there was no water; all the fencing was unsafe. So, the site needed a huge amount of investment.

We had to be out of our old yard by January 2023, which gave us a year to get the new site ready. The cost just to get it safe and usable came to £390,000, which is an awful amount of money to raise in one year for a small charity.

How much did you need to borrow from Charity Bank to do the work?

We've got a £250,000 loan agreement in principal but have only needed to take £70,000 so far. We wanted to see how much we could raise before we drew anything down. We were well underway with construction work, when we realised that we weren't going to meet our fundraising target. And so we got back in touch with Charity Bank, who released the funds so that we could complete the work.

We’ve now finished phase one – clearing the site and making it safe. But there’s still a lot to do. Phase two is likely to cost another £400,000 to £600,000, so we may need to borrow more. It's reassuring to have that agreement in our back pocket.

Are you leasing the site or have you bought it?

We're on a 25-year lease with the council on a fairly nominal rent, but with the agreement that we’ll restore the stables and bring them back up to standard as an equine therapy centre for the community.

Have you been able to get any grants towards the work?

We’ve had a fair amount of grant success. I know that the offer of the loan has given the funders confidence to invest, because they can see that the project isn't going to run out of money and fail.

The big funders of the project were Barnet Council and Ascot Racecourse, and we also got grants from a huge number of other trusts. One piece of funding was a direct result of Charity Bank. They put us in touch with Reach, who gave us £9,500. That covered the cost of the work required to get the loan, such as creating a business plan. It also went towards the architects’ plans and things like that.

When did you move to the new site?

We finished the work in the first week of January, moved in the second week, and opened to young people in the third week. We didn't have to shut our doors to young people at all, so they could keep on getting the support that they needed.

Why did you choose Charity Bank for your loan?

We didn't really have any other options. We tried getting in touch with quite a few people; Charity Bank was the only one that was genuinely helpful. Carolyn Sims came down to meet with us. She completely bought into what we offer and was really positive. Everyone we've dealt with at Charity Bank has basically said, “Yes, how can we help you?” With the other organisations we spoke to, it was a case of “Computer says no.”

Do you think it helped that Charity Bank specialises in the charity sector? Did the other banks just not understand your organisation?

I think it was partly that Charity Bank is used to charities but also partly just that it has a very good team with nice people and the right ethos. Charity Bank isn’t just out to make money. We did try another organisation that works with charities, but they were not at all helpful.

What would you have done if you hadn't been able to get a loan?

We probably would have had to close the doors to some young people or close completely for several months until we found the money. We might have had to let staff go. Without a safe site with an arena, we wouldn’t have been able to operate between autumn and early spring, so we'd have been forced to shut for that period or run a very limited service.

Hundreds of young people would have gone without help. In some cases, our support is literally life saving as some of these young people are in complete crisis and we’re the only service that they engage with.

All of the young people we support are struggling with their mental health in some way. And they're all either excluded from education or at risk of exclusion. A significant amount have experienced trauma or neglect or other difficult experiences, and many have learning difficulties or other challenges.

How did you find the process of applying for the loan?

It was really easy. If we couldn't figure something out, Danny Wilson-Dodd would give us a call and talk us through it. He gave us templates and did a lot of the work for us. I’d 100% recommend Charity Bank.

Were there any challenges to the process you weren't expecting?

The main challenge was trying to get all of the trustees’ information at the very end, but it wasn’t a major problem.

Did you have any concerns about taking out a loan?

There were concerns, particularly from the trustees. But again, because Danny was so accessible and talked us through everything, he allayed all of our concerns. He also joined a meeting with three of the trustees, who then reported back to the board and gave their reassurances.

What’s next for Strength & Learning Through Horses?

We're giving ourselves six weeks or so just to catch our breath, and then we'll start on the fundraising drive and planning application for the next phase. The hope is that we’ll be able to start the build sometime in 2024.

Once all the work is completed, are you aiming to increase the number of young people you support?

Yes. At the moment, we see around 400 young people a year. The plan is to increase capacity to around 1,000 young people a year. We’re also looking to partner with other providers to offer outdoor learning opportunities, which would expand our provision even further.

If you need a loan for your charity, please call Charity Bank on 01732 441919.

About Charity Bank

Charity Bank is the loans and savings bank owned by and committed to supporting the social sector. Since 2002, we have used our savers’ money to make more than 1,100 loans totalling over £400m to housing, education, social care, community and other social purpose organisations.

Find out more about us here.

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