How Streetbank persuaded the commission to change its mind on registration

The online platform that allows people to help their neighbours had a tough time convincing the regulator of its charitable purpose. Sam Burne James reports

Most successful applications to the Charity Commission for charitable status are approved within weeks of submission, but more difficult cases can take longer. If the eventual answer is no, the charity is left with the difficult choice of whether and how it can afford to try again.

One such case is Streetbank, an online platform that allows people to give away or lend goods and volunteer to help their neighbours. Sam Stephens, its founder, came up with the idea in 2009 when he felt unable to ask a neighbour if he could borrow a pair of hedge-cutters.

The idea took off, and Streetbank applied to the commission for registration as a charity in March 2011. "The commission said we'd have a decision in another three weeks, then a month," he says. "It was frustrating. After about four months, we got a no."

Stephanie Biden, a partner at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, says this was partly because Stephens's neighbourhood in Fulham, west London, was affluent. "The commission didn't seem to recognise that sharing with your neighbour and reducing waste had an environmental aspect," says Biden. She says the commission was also worried that people might use Streetbank to make money; it has now been clarified that this is not allowed.

Streetbank became a community interest company in 2012. It received a grant of £45,000 from the innovation support charity Nesta, but found it hard to get funding from foundations because it wasn't a charity. "Nine times out of 10, you'd get to the end of the form and find you had to be a charity," Stephens says.

One of those foundations that declined to provide funding decided instead to contribute to legal fees for a new application. Biden, who prepared this second application, says: "The commission's initial response to the new application was to point out there had been a previous application and it could not see what had changed. That was a little frustrating."

Nonetheless, on 5 December, Streetbank was entered onto the register of charities. "We persuaded the commission that there was inherent public benefit in encouraging people to be good neighbours and providing a facility that enabled people to help their neighbours, and that it was not necessary for the recipient of volunteered services to be in need," Biden says.

Streetbank will be launched in more deprived areas this year, according to Stephens.

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