Case Stories

How to Scale Up Your Work as a Small Nonprofit

| Updated November 29, 2017

Consider developing partnerships and diversifying your income

Steadily increasing your impact can feel like an elusive goal, but London-based charity The Bike Project proves that starting small doesn’t stop you from scaling up your work and supporting more service users.

Every year 13,500 asylum seekers arrive in London: they face a range of challenges, from financial difficulties to struggles to integrate into the community. Claiming asylum and then permanent residency in the U.K. can take several years and during this time refugees are forbidden to do paid work, receiving an allowance of just £36 per week. Refugees find it hard to make ends meet, especially with London's high transport costs.

The Bike Project refurbishes unwanted bikes — more than 27,000 bicycles are abandoned across the capital every year — and donates these to refugees and asylum seekers to travel across London (the bikes are given to the charity by the police, local councils, property companies and individuals).

Between 2013 and 2017, the charity donated over 2,400 bikes to refugees and asylum seekers. The organization currently donates about 85 bikes a month, an increase of 10 percent a month from 2016. Furthermore, a bike saves each refugee at least £20 a week in transport costs which works out at £1,040 every year. The charity aims to donate around 3,200 bikes over the next three years leading up to 2020 (a 33 percent increase on the number of bikes donated since the charity was founded), which would save refugees over £3.2 million a year.

The Bike Project’s marketing manager, Anna Chapman, explains that the main purpose of the bike is to get refugees from A to B, but that owning a bike also offers psychological, health and physical benefits.

The bikes help asylum seekers to:

  • Travel to and from important appointments (including trips to the Home Office) — many asylum seekers are housed on the outskirts of London
  • Connect with their local community (many refugees also volunteer at The Bike Project’s centre in South East London helping with bike maintenance)
  • Stay healthy and happy
  • Manage their finances — before being referred to The Bike Project, many asylum seekers spend hours walking to and from appointments to avoid paying for bus and train fares

Every Thursday the charity opens its doors to asylum seekers and refugees who come along to collect their free bike. Each person is given a helmet, lock and high visibility jacket. Basic safety information is also given out as well as tips on how to look after a bike.

Using partnerships to build awareness

Chapman says that the plight of refugees has been a “real talking point in the U.K. in the last few years,” with an increasing number of charities being set up to support them. The Bike Project has formed links with over 40 charities — including the Refugee Council, Freedom from Torture and the British Red Cross — to amplify its voice and promote its service to a larger audience.

“We’re part of a network of partners which is often how people find out about us,” explains Chapman. “When refugees first arrive in the UK they visit charities and housing services, and while they’re there a staff member or another refugee may mention The Bike Project to them. Cross referral is really important.”

Although The Bike Project’s work is focused on London, occasionally one of the partner organisations will house refugees in accommodation outside the capital, for example Milton Keynes. The charity will then deliver children’s bikes outside of London ready for families arriving in the area. Subject to funding, the organisation hopes to grow this area of work because as Chapman explains “anything you can do to make these children feel welcome after what they have been through, is worth doing.”

Innovation and creativity is key to fundraising

The Bike Project is largely funded by foundations and grants. To win new funding bids, Chapman says it’s important to be innovative. “Our mission is consistent,” she explains, “but new angles or creative ways to support our beneficiaries can occasionally help us to attract new funding.”

The charity launched a new women-only cycling project in Poplar, East London, in 2015 as it noticed that not many women were registering to receive a bike. Chapman says many women asylum seekers have either never cycled or haven’t been on a bike since they were children, as it wasn’t accepted in their culture.

She adds: “We teach women how to ride a bike in a female-only environment over the course of 9-12 weeks. When they first come to us many of them have low confidence. In some cases, they may have experienced awful atrocities, sexual violence or trafficking, so it’s critical that we provide them with a nurturing and protective environment. Over time we see real progression.”

The organisation received funding from the Tampon Tax Fund in early 2017 to continue running the project for the next three years, and enabling it to open a second women’s only space in Croydon, Surrey. The aim is to reach 80 female refugees across both locations each year.

Funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery, the Bike Project has also recently launched a new scheme called Bike Buddies, to recruit, train and match volunteer befrienders to asylum seekers. The project encourages people to go on cycling trips together, building friendships, reducing isolation and improving wellbeing. The charity hopes to match 48 sets of volunteers and refugees together in the first 12 months of running the project.

Fundraising through an online shop

The charity's online bike shop, established in 2015, has helped reduce reliance on grants. About 30 percent of The Bike Project’s income now comes from this trading arm.

Chapman says: “We have some amazing bikes donated to us, and if we can sell them at a reasonable margin, refurbished to a high standard by our professional mechanics, this helps to fund the charity in a more sustainable way.”

There aren’t many websites where people can buy bikes refurbished to a high standard, especially given the nature of buying on ebay or Gumtree, adds Chapman. The Bike Project guarantees a high quality and takes customer service seriously, promising to take a bike back if there are any problems.

Chapman says the charity’s bikes suit cost-conscious buyers (they cost on average £200-£250, compared to £500 or more for a new bike). “People in big cities don’t always want a brand new bike as they are worried about having it stolen. Having the proceeds go to a good cause seals the deal for many ethical consumers.”

The Bike Project receives the majority of its bikes from local councils and housing organisations, and a substantial number from members of the public. To encourage more people to donate bikes, the charity has created a network of hubs at churches, synagogues and community centres, where individuals can leave unwanted bikes. The charity’s website features a map with pinpoints, showing you where your local hub is and the opening hours.

“We can’t justify travelling around London to pick up individual bikes because of the costs and the small staff team, and we appreciate it’s difficult for Londoners to travel to our office to drop off their bikes. Having hubs where we can collect 10 bikes at a time is a lot more cost effective.”

The Bike Project was highly commended for the Small Charity, Big Achiever category at the Third Sector Excellence Awards 2017.

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