Freddie Fellowes explains why the Secret Garden Party festival is to adopt a social enterprise model and commit 65% of its profits to being a “force for good”.

Since launching Secret Garden Party (SGP) in 2002 on his family’s 6,000-acre estate in Huntingdonshire, Freddie Fellowes (pictured) has built the event from a party for hundreds into one of the UK’s most established and successful independent festivals. After a five-year hiatus, SGP was relaunched last year with a 30,000 capacity.

Ahead of this year’s event, Fellowes, who is the eldest son of Lord De Ramsey, has decided that SGP should be transformed into a social enterprise. That means at least 65% of the festival’s profits will be channelled into helping in the rehabilitation of at risk and disenfranchised individuals.

“The one thing about having privileges is there are plenty of people without and it seems the right thing to do to enable that privilege to be shared,” he says.

SGP is renowned for being one of the more creative and hedonistic events in the festival calendar, with nudity, wild swimming and other spontaneity encouraged. There have been countless colourful moments along the way but among the most memorable must be the 2013 edition, which saw a pirate ship installed on the Estate’s lake. After the vessel was attacked by a giant octopus, Fellowes decided to blow it up.

“There’s an old phrase; ‘art is the preserve of the privileged’. If they didn’t have rent to pay, everyone would want to be an artist but that’s not everyone’s reality. The festival has changed lives in its informal structure up until this point, the aim now is to carry that forward but with a more formal structure. The focus is to help people who haven’t had that privilege.”

With his father on the cusp of retirement, Fellowes is now living on the estate and has become increasingly aware of the issues impacting local people.

“When I started the Garden Party I lived in London, and we came up to this area just to do the party. My wife are I are permanently here now and that has enabled us to look at the whole community, the rural economies, and realise it can be pretty bleak. It’s not the wonderful cut and thrust of London.

“Garden Party was always something that was conceived of as a force for good and joy. It was an extension of our values. About nine months ago a member of my team said, ‘have you ever thought of formalising that?’ That was like a light bulb going on.

“The festival is run not for profit, it’s run to cover the wages, and create something more than itself. By formalising that, it is more communicable. We started looking at different ways to formalise the company structure as being built for good, and social enterprise seemed the most obvious and sensible choice. It’s been a wonderful sort of lens to start looking at the whole business through, and all our side events.”

While Fellowes is not aware of many other festival operators to take the social enterprise route, he has spoken to Medicine Festival’s Josh and Di Dugdale who also run their event as a social enterprise on their own estate.

“They’ve come at it from an angle that the event is integral part of their estates and weaving it into the fabric of the local area, that’s very much what we’re looking to do,” he says. “What’s rather nice about having made the announcement is that it has become something of a homing beacon: suddenly a lot of people are getting in touch saying, ‘we’d love to hold hands with you and get involved and do something similar’.  All sorts of exciting things are suddenly coming out of the woodwork as a result.”

Asked who and what will benefit from the charitable spending, Fellowes says it’s very early days but the intention is to help support work similar to that being carried out by Bridges For Music in South Africa.

“The Garden Party has been an amazing journey of rehabilitation and integration with arts. All sorts of people and groups have been enabled to go on to become businesses, bands or collectives that would never have happened were it not for the spark that the Garden Party offered. That’s been a real privilege. We’ve been looking at areas where that kind of integration, rehabilitation, and redefinition of people’s perception of what they can do in the world is affected. We have taken real inspiration from Bridges for Music, which set up a music school in the township of Langa in Cape Town. They’ve got another outreach in Johannesburg, and have done amazing work by offering music schools, not just practising music but also teaching the technical side. A lot of what they offer in terms of the teaching and the training are life skills and mindfulness. We’re focusing on people in England who fit that definition of having been disenfranchised, whether that’s through circumstance, movement to this country or just by birth.”

In terms of what is involved in the transition to becoming a social enterprise, Fellowes says it only takes a minor clerical change but the real legwork is making the mission a reality on the ground: “It’s everything from looking at how we can enable apprenticeships and internships on the farm, so that’s converting a farm building to a dormitory, to turning the event business into more of a 12-month-a-year project so that we can integrate that facility of rehabilitation into what we do.”

The next edition of Secret Garden Party will be staged on 20-23 July, with headline acts including Underworld, Róisín Murphy and The Libertines. Fellowes says that despite at least 65% of profits being spent on charitable work, the move to become a social enterprise will not result in a reduced investment in the event’s production and/or content.

“As an event we are always evolving, that’s one of the main integral values for the Garden Party, the frontier always moves and we keep moving with it. Becoming a social enterprise will certainly not mean the production is scaled back, quite the opposite. It will encourage engagement and involvement with artists because if there are issues you are both engaging with then the possibilities are expanded.

“With festival production you always try and get the biggest band for the smallest buck. It will be nice to move into an area where you’re not trying to squeeze your resources but working very closely with artists to create a value exchange that makes sense for all.”

This feature was published in the Summer edition of Access All Areas, which is available to read for free HERE