Fifty years of friendship and finance – meet Ella Smyth

In our series chatting with people who have been part of the ICOF story over the last fifty tears, today we speak to Ella Smyth, Funding and Partnerships Manager for the Co-op Foundation, the foundation of the Co-op Group.

“I started work with the Foundation in 2017 and in my first year at the Foundation, we were looking to set up a loan fund to support community businesses. We had no experience of lending as we’d just done grant making in the past. We looked for someone who could be our advisor on that fund, who could help us with the due diligence and advise us on how to set it up using their knowledge of what was going on in the market. We wanted to understand where we could best fit in, to complement what was going on and offer something useful to the organisations out there with the money that we had. We had an initial chat with ICOF, who then bid for the tender to be our advisory partner and were successful. We ran our first pilot at the end of 2017, and then the fund ran up until 2020.

Working with ICOF was interesting for me because I was new to funding in general. I was trying to get my head around grant making and then loans were something totally new. I learned so much about what the world of social lending is about from working with the ICOF team, about lending to cooperatives but also to charities and other social enterprises. Through 2018 and 2019, in particular, when the fund was really in its full flow, Tim was my main contact, we travelled the length and breadth of the nation together going to visit all of the organisations we invested in – we ended up funding close to 50. We were on the road a lot, and on the sea and in the air! We visited the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and went right down to the bottom of Cornwall, as well as Northern Ireland. We met some really amazing organisations, some that were quite a bit quirky, a bit off the wall, some that were just absolutely rock solid and knew exactly what they were doing.

I come from a community development background so it was easy for me to see how they were doing in terms of their community engagement and that kind of thing. But I was less confident about the business side. Luckily Tim always knew exactly what he was talking about with the business and finances, and through that process, I learned so much from him in terms of what to look for in their financial projections, etc… It was so helpful to learn from Tim and the team to get that insight into what a viable project looked like, what was kind of okay and what felt risky. We were okay with taking some risks, but we just needed to know what the risks were.

One of my favourite organisations that we visited was Iona Village Hall. We had to take various trains, planes and automobiles to get there including multiple ferries to and from the island of Mull. We went into this incredible 90 year old village hall, which didn’t have any heating but had been serving the people of Iona through the winters for the previous 90 years. It was definitely time for a new one! We were able to go ahead and give them some funding. We definitely saw a wide range of places – cities, towns and villages in the middle of nowhere. I don’t think there were any that we visited that we then didn’t go ahead and fund, if they wanted the funding – a few that we offered to managed without us.

Working with the ICOF team helped us to pick up things at an earlier stage which weren’t going to be appropriate for us, so they didn’t get to the stage of board approval with no chance, and we didn’t want to waste the applicant organisations time either.  The fact that we did those visits meant we built up a good relationship with those organisations, and since then, many are still in touch with us now. Many are still in repayment and I think we’ve got that trusting relationship because of that the way that we’ve worked with them initially. With ICOF, we really engaged with them to get their business plan up to scratch, we gave them lots and lots of feedback, which they always appreciated, and then went and did the in person visit. So now if they have any issues, they come and tell us. It’s not like we suddenly wait until they haven’t repaid, then we uncover a can of worms – a good relationship means we can have a  honest conversation with them.

We’ve carried on working together since the fund closed in 2020, just not as intensely. ICOF now look after our direct debit loan repayment collections and are there for ad hoc expert advice and support with our portfolio. We didn’t have the set up to do the collections and loan management in the Foundation and as ICOF do we use their back office service, they continue to look after that element of the portfolio  for us. Anne does all the collections, sends it through to our financial people, and keeps it all up to date so we know exactly where we are. So working with ICOF back office function has been so helpful, to always have that live view of what’s going on. We can always ask Anne for an update and she will always know what’s happening. It’s great to know that’s all organised.

They also provide ongoing monitoring of the portfolio, and help us out if organisations want to take repayment holidays or they’re having issues – ICOF have a look to see if we can shuffle around their repayment plan and they help us to understand what’s going on with their bigger finances.

Overall the relationship with ICOF has been, and continues to be, really positive. Those human relationships are so important because lending and funding can feel quite impersonal sometimes. We have a really nice partnership there.

Happy birthday ICOF – you are the jewel in the co-operative crown! A lovely, lovely team and I wish you a wonderful birthday and all the best for the next 50 years.”