Since the early 1980s Rita Patel's Belgrave Baheno Women's Organisation had been organising one-off activities such as minibus trips for Asian women and girls in Leicester. Eventually the group won a grant to buy a terraced house from which to run the activities, and then acquired another one just across the road. However, this split-site situation meant cost efficiencies were difficult to achieve.
Research commissioned from De Montfort University in the early 1990s made it clear, according to Patel, that "the writing was on the wall for grant aid". Besides, she was "tired of the begging-bowl mentality". She wanted her organisation to start earning its own money.
The group also wanted to become more inclusive. "Women were coming to us and saying ‘can't we do the same things for men as well?'" says Patel.
"What we really wanted to do was to change the world. We were inspired by people like Mandela and Ghandi. We wanted to be around for a long time and make a lasting difference."
The initial idea was to buy a small factory and refurbish it, but public meetings soon revealed that only a purpose-built centre would fulfil the community's needs. However, every funder Patel approached rejected her at first.
Her solution was to exploit the networks she had established along the way. "We decided who we were going to hit and for how much," she explains. "We asked who in our networks had already made successful bids with those people, and we asked them who had helped them do it." Patel then approached the successful grant-writers and asked for their help. "We told them: ‘We can't pay you now but we will pay you when we have money.'" Some of these people quickly became valuable "champions" for Patel's cause.
"We told funders about our vision," says Patel. "We explained why it was important, why we had this passion. Plenty of people walked away but if you kiss enough frogs one will turn into a prince sooner or later."
Banking networks put the group in contact with a regional manager prepared to offer them a £700,000 unsecured overdraft. However, despite the fact they were prepared to top rival bids for the land they needed by a full £200,000, Leicester Council was unwilling to sell it to them.
"You'd think it was an easy decision for them to accept £260,000 rather than £60,000," says Patel. "Like hell it was. We learned later that someone from Leicester Council told the Lottery Commission they would ‘never sell that land to those women'."
After 18 months of legal wrangling the council eventually agreed to sell the land to Patel's group, but only on condition that they paid up front, never asked the council for another penny and razed the building if it was not finished within two years. At that point, Patel still didn't have a penny in the bank.
Eventually networks came to the rescue again. "Two businessmen told us: ‘if money is what you need, we can give you that,'" says Patel.
Networks were also instrumental in getting the group an audience with the chairman of the Millennium Commission - to which they had already made several unsuccessful applications. He invited them to bid in a special round for black and women's projects, which resulted in the award of a grant of £7m, conditional on their matching it from other sources.
"They never believed we could do it, but we more than matched it," says Patel. With the help of her champions, she proceeded to "stack up" grants from the Department of Health, the Arts Council, the EU, and the East Midlands Development Agency.
Rigorous construction contracts required 13 lawyers another 15 months to draw up, but the final cost of the building still rose by £600,000 above the initial estimate of £10.3m.
"We could have gone down a number of times," admits Patel. But promises of help fulfilled at crucial moments ensured the three-storey, 60,000-square-foot Peepul Centre was completed last year, complete with gymnasium and spa, restaurant, cyber café, dance studio, children's development centre, training and conferencing facilities, and a 350-seat auditorium.
Most of the creditors have been paid, including the signature architects insisted on by the Arts Council. Patel and several partners have re-mortgaged their houses to raise the working capital needed to get the centre's various businesses off the ground.
"The spa/gym and the restaurant are going to be our main money-spinners," says Patel. "The theatre is also taking off." The money raised will be used to subsidise childcare and lower entrance fees for disadvantaged people.
"The biggest thing going for social entrepreneurs is that we are trying to make a difference in the world," says Patel. "That creates a feelgood factor, which encourages funding."
The Peepul Centre still receives no funding from Leicester Council.