Factors affecting the sustainability of food projects
Reconciling different agendas
Many factors interact as individuals and organisations attempt to reconcile different responsibilities, objectives and agendas. The way in which these issues are handled affects the sustainability of the project, either fostering good working relationships between all those involved, or alienating individuals and organisations. Local food projects work best when all involved, professionals and local people, feel that their concerns are being addressed.
Secure funding is a critical factor in determining whether a project is sustainable. Local food projects tend to need two types of funding: money to help them set up and funding to cover running costs. Both are equally important but many projects find funding for running costs very difficult to obtain. As a result, projects have constantly to reinvent themselves so that they qualify again for set-up funding. Some projects are trapped in this cycle; this is not only time-consuming but hinders the natural development of the project. This is where generating increasing levels of income through trading may help some community food projects break from this cycle of funding dependence.
An important factor for the sustainability of projects is the genuine involvement of local people as active participants and equal partners whose concerns and experience are intrinsic to the project's success. The level of community support determines whether a project becomes established, how quickly and successfully it consolidates, and how it responds and adapts to meet changing needs. It is therefore important that involving local communities starts at the planning stage, when decisions are being made about what type of project is required.
Professionals can play a number of different roles in food projects, all of which require trust and good working relationships with local people and other professionals. In order to establish good rapport professionals need time, resources and authority to invest in a project. Flexibility is critical in the way professionals interpret their own and others' roles and in the activities they and the projects undertake.
A project has to be seen as plausible in terms of ideas and activities, structure and organisation, by all those who come in contact with it. Without such credibility it will lack support and fail to obtain financial support.
Where project ownership is exclusive, those in control are less likely to respond positively to the needs and ideas of the wider group. This can have a long-term impact on project sustainability.
In most projects, one or more dynamic individuals are crucial because they generate enthusiasm and support. In some instances this is enough to compensate for the absence of other factors. These individuals can either be professionals or community members.
To maintain interest and support, projects have to be responsive to the changing agendas and needs of users, volunteers and professionals. This means ensuring that the activities provided address local needs, and that all those involved with the project - volunteers and professionals - have the skills they require.
Networking or building partnerships
Projects that build links with different organisations are more likely to be sustainable. They support and learn from each other, and are able to exploit others' agendas, for example, for new funding opportunities.
Critical factors for a successful social enterprise
Many of the success criteria for social enterprise identified in the Plunkett Foundation's publication 'Organisational structures for Rural Social Enterprise' are also factors affecting the sustainability and success of community food projects, including;
- Shared commitment
- People centred
- Clarity of objectives
- Effective governance
- Flexibility and responsiveness
- Consistency of purpose
- Maintaining membership
- Entrepreneurial and innovative
There are many hurdles to moving from a grant based community food project to becoming a successful social enterprise which is able to generate at least some of its income through trading. However it seems clear that there are key features for success in common between community food projects and social enterprises. This websites aims to help you explore the potential for your project to engage with social enterprise and build on your successful.
Social enterprise not for you?
Social enterprise is not possible for some for practical reasons, and ideologically or politically unpalatable for others and if that's the case for you and your project you might want to look at the Food Poverty Network and see how it can support your project.
If you would like to explore social enterprise a little further try our 'social enterprise for you' questionnaire to see if your project / organisation is headed in the right direction, or if you want to know who and what can help, go to the Social enterprise - want to know more section.
Much of the information on these pages is based on three publications;
Food projects and how they work by Pauline McGlone, Barbara Dobson, Elizabeth Dowler and Michael Nelson, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation publication (March 1999)
Making Links: a toolkit for local food projects, Webster, J, a Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming publication (2000)
Organisational structures for Rural Social Enterprises, Plunkett Foundation publication