‘Food, ideas and fun’

A new way of funding community projects and charities is spreading across our cities – and there's food involved

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Last Easter, Pennie Raven was ill, forced to stay home rather than go out for a meal with her sister. Frustrated, she was channel hopping when she stumbled upon a report on Soup, an American community fundraising craze transforming Detroit and other US cities. “I was gripped,” she says.

After her initial shock that something like Soup didn’t exist already in Sheffield, she decided to set one up herself. “I became inspired by the difference it could make. I thought this was perfect and this could happen in Sheffield,” says Raven.

Nine months on and three successful events later, Soup has raised over £1,700 for projects in the city. The latest, the Suit Works, a social enterprise that provides suits for unemployed and vulnerable men to help them get into work, walked away with £615.

The concept of Soup is simple. People pay a small fee – around £5-10 – to enter a small venue in their community. Inside, they hear short pitches from local charities or organisations explaining how the money raised on the door could benefit a specific project they’d like to deliver. After the pitches, attendees are served a bowl of fresh soup, discuss with each other what they’ve just heard and vote for the project they’d like to be given funding. The one with the most votes gets all the cash. The idea originated in Chicago, but rose to real prominence in Detroit, where it began in 2010 and has now raised over £70,000 for community projects and ideas.

Attendees are served a bowl of soup and vote for the project they’d like to fund

When Raven first decided to set up Sheffield Soup, just a few branches were operating in the UK. Since then, they have proliferated across the country. Popular events run in cities such as Newcastle and Leeds. Hull has just hosted its first, as has Manchester. There too, organiser Rachel Kelly saw an article about Soup and was staggered that her native city did not have its own, so immediately got it up and running with a close friend.

Kelly is clear about why it’s needed. “There’s now crowd funding and so many big established charities capture the attention and imagination of people because they have got larger budgets to promote themselves and to participate, and they get on television and have a lot more airtime. But actually there are lots of people with good ideas and people who have been touched by things personally and going off and setting up charities or projects themselves.

“They need support in terms of profile but also vital funds to kickstart things or to fund smaller projects. That was the appeal and we thought we could help smaller organisations and charities that perhaps don’t get the support they need.”

Rebecca Barnard, one of the York Soup organisers, agrees. She says pitches don’t even need to come from existing organisations. “It could be someone who has a great idea that benefits the community and often if you’ve got an idea like that you went to the bank and said can I have 200 quid or whatever, they’d say no and laugh you out the door.”

Soup winners have proven to be diverse. In York, its inaugural victor was a mentoring charity for young people, before it handed the coveted Soup spoon over to a sports club working with athletes with disabilities. The £700 windfall enabled it to buy a new racing wheelchair. Sheffield winners have included Under The Stars, a nightclub for people with learning disabilities, and the Real Junk Food Project, which provides meals using only surplus and discarded food.

But Barnard says that it’s also beneficial to the groups that don’t win the money, as they are able to promote themselves and their work. At York Soup, giant flipcharts are erected for each pitch, allowing attendees to post ideas about how they could progress or even volunteer their time to help. “There’s literally nothing negative that comes out of any event. Everyone that comes always has a great time and just thinks it’s a fantastic project,” says Barnard.

Micro Investors attentively listen to pitches
Micro Investors attentively listen to pitches

Organisers say its flexibility is also key to its appeal. The Detroit Soup website hosts a toolkit for people interested in starting their own Soup branch in their community. Its ethos – open, collaborative and democratic – is encouraged to be adopted by all. Amy Kaherl, one of the Detroit founders, is available for a Skype call to pass on advice about how to set up a Soup. But the type of project that is invited to pitch, and obviously those that win the money, are dependent on the wishes of local people. “Each place has its own problems and aspirations. It should be by the people for the people,” says Raven.

Kaherl says Soup’s appeal is multi-faceted. “I think it’s all the little things and connections that happen at Soup. The power is given back to people, it removes barriers to entry, it allows for conversation and healthy debate, it removes the third wall of the internet, it acts as a communal hub, there is good food to eat, and there is something that you as an individual can contribute to folks around the table.”

York hosted its third Soup event in December, with the £750 pot awarded to the Joseph Trust, a small charity working with young offenders and vulnerable young people to fund a food growing project. Seventy-five people gathered at the Spurriergate Centre to hear pitches from projects including a breastfeeding support group and a gift appeal for those who would have nothing on Xmas Day.

As well as bringing the local community together, Soup is making a real difference in a time of austerity. Many of the groups pitching said they had been affected by funding cuts, either directly or indirectly.

“York, although outwardly wealthy, there is so much public need within it. I think something like York Soup will really highlight that to people,” says Meghanne Cameron from Christmas In Need.

Kate Subritzky, Christmas In Need founder, says: “I think there’s a slightly blinkered effect. People don’t want to know that there are people on our doorstep who are really suffering. I think York Soup has responded to that and is making a platform for charities to be heard.”

Dan Beech, manager of the Joseph Trust, says for him it was largely about raising his organisation’s profile in York. He says Soup was important as it highlighted the increasingly crucial role that charities play.

“Something like £750 does make a difference to small charities. But also I think charities themselves do need to feel a bit more appreciated. They are generally put upon and generally under-appreciated and taken for granted. A lot is just expected of charities.

“It’s good that York Soup exists to show that lots of small charities are in fact appreciated.”

Soups are now also working down to smaller neighbourhoods. Raven plans to franchise Sheffield Soup out into the different areas of the city, each with its own needs. Each Soup organiser stresses they want their event to become bigger and an established part of the fabric of where they live.

Kaherl believes Soup is spreading across the UK, just as it took off in Detroit, because people actually want to have a say in improving their community. “It draws people together through food, ideas, and fun.”

Photos: DoraDC 

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