A £1million community fund which provides small, unsecured loans to social enterprises and charities has committed £850K to 36 groups in Northern Ireland in just 18 months.

Beneficiaries of the fund have been drawn from right across Northern Ireland with loans ranging from £1,000 to £25,000. Organisations supported include Step by Step which runs the One Eighty restaurant in Portadown to provide hospitality training for young people with learning difficulties.
Since opening in 2011 the award-winning restaurant has provided training to dozens of young people, while offering a comprehensive value-for-money menu to the public.  The Building Better Futures fund provided its support at a time when the business could not realistically have secured mainstream support.
The backers of the Building Better Futures fund, a unique collaboration between three local charities (Belfast Charitable Society, Building Change Trust and the Ulster Community Investment Trust UCIT), believe the success of the fund points to a clear gap in the Northern Ireland loan market.
Nigel Hampton, Director, Step by Step, said:
“Without the support of the Building Better Futures fund, One Eighty was facing closure after the loss of a major funder.   75% of our trainees move on to sustainable employment and the remainder take up other training provision or alternative day opportunities.  This is a vital service for young people and it would have been disastrous for them if the restaurant had closed.
“The restaurant is very popular, serving 300 paying customers every week. The loan has been instrumental in helping restructure accumulated historic debt into manageable repayments and aiding cash flow.  It has also allowed us to focus on improving income generation and returning the charity to a surplus position.”
Paula Reynolds, CEO, Belfast Charitable Society, which has been tackling disadvantage since 1752, said:
“Interest in the Building Better Futures fund has exceeded all our expectations and points to a gap in the loan market for smaller, unsecured facilities.
“The groups assisted by the fund deliver vital social benefits for local communities, but also provide significant relief to public services which would otherwise need to intervene more regularly to help those who require support.”
One Eighty trainee, Ben, added:
“During my three years at the restaurant I’ve learned barista skills, how to prepare and serve food, as well as health and safety essentials.  Through the course I’ve also secured a work placement and studied English and Maths.
“I now have hospitality skills and employment opportunities which just wouldn’t have been available if it wasn’t for the support of One Eighty’s brilliant staff.”
The fund has also provided £25,000 to create a role-play based centre in Derry-Londonderry, the first of its kind in Northern Ireland.  Operated by ‘Kidz Playtime’, the centre’s profits will help subsidise counselling services for local children and young people.
Building Better Futures provides funds for a wide range of purposes including buildings and repairs, equipment purchase, energy efficiency and addressing shortfalls in larger grant assisted projects.
The fund is managed by the Ulster Community Investment Trust (UCIT) which operates a number of funds that have supported over 400 charities and community organisations with loan commitments totalling £80million since 2001.  The third partner in the Fund, Building Change Trust, was established by the Big Lottery Fund with a National Lottery grant of £10million with a vision to support a strong, independent and innovative Third Sector.