“You are the Beyoncé of Social Enterprise!"

Posted on
28 May 2019
by Deirdre Finlay, The Wheel's European Programmes Manager

That was just one of the memorable comments and reactions from the audience at The Wheel’s Annual Summit in Croke Park last Thursday 23 May 2019, directed at blushing CEO of the Social Innovation Fund, Deirdre Mortell, panellist on a breakout session on social enterprise.

While the Spice Girls sound checked on the transformed pitch outside, The Wheel’s members channeled their own lively energy into getting what they really, really want (sorry!) during an interactive parallel session – a better understanding of what social enterprise is and what it is not!

After the opening plenary, over 60 delegates marched upstairs and crammed into a breakout room to tackle this heady topic. Fueled by conference coffee, curiosity and real life experience, the session was moderated by Grainne Kelliher of Airfield Estate and included panel members Aoibheann O’Brien, Food Cloud Hubs, Andrew Forde, Department of Rural and Community Development and Beyonce, sorry I mean Deirdre Mortell, CEO of Ireland’s Social Innovation Fund. 

Entitled Social Enterprise – A New Way of Thinking, the session aimed to discuss social enterprise in real life, unpicking the reality of start-up and growth. Grainne opened by welcoming everyone and throwing in her own personal experience of running Airfield Estate as ‘not-just-profit’ and stating that social enterprise, although hot right now, still creates confusion.  She invited each speaker to offer their insights.

Food Cloud Hubs - Identity Crisis

Aoibheann O'Brien told her story of establishing Food Cloud Hubs, now a major social enterprise that connects food businesses with charities in Ireland, distributing surplus food through an online smartphone app and website. Aoibheann founded Food Cloud to solve a problem: 1 in 10 people in Ireland experience food poverty yet 1 million tonnes of food is thrown out by businesses every year. She connected the two and through passion, professionalism and careful financial planning, she has made the organisation a success.

Yet defining Food Cloud from the outset was a challenge: “We had a problem at the beginning to define what we are. If you set up as a charity, you have no equity and become an employer instantly. Then you need a board of directors who can get rid of you.” The organisation has decided to register as a charity in order to avail of certain types of grants but retains its status as a social enterprise predominantly.

Slick Business vs. Comfy Charity

Aoibheann spoke of the competing demands of image, impact and finance: “We face a challenge of balancing financial sustainability and impact. In order to make money, we charge the charities a small fee. Last year we decided to reduce that fee and our impact went through the roof, but our revenue suffered,” she said. Tension exists between behaving like a business and having social outcomes.

 “As a social enterprise we have to be like the private sector in professionalism, branding and efficiency.  However, our funders expect us to be low cost and ‘grassrootsy’. We cannot be both! The food industry partners want the volunteer led, low cost, emotive stuff and yet expect a very high standard in the food delivery.”

Attracting and Retaining Talent

We know that young people wish to work for organisations and companies that care. Is finding good people a challenge for a social enterprise like Food Cloud Hubs? Aoibheann doesn’t think that attracting people to the business poses difficulty, but keeping them is another story: “Recruitment has never been a problem. Graduates want to work for something with social purpose but we cannot match the salaries of the private sector, so retention is a problem.”

Social Innovation Fund Ireland – Backing Solutions to Critical Social Issues

Next, Deirdre Mortell, CEO at Social Innovation Fund Ireland, gave an overview of the goals, impact and mechanics of the fund.  Created by the government to fill the gap on funding innovation in the non-profit sector, the Social Innovation Fund provides growth capital and support to the best social enterprises and innovations in Ireland, helping scale up and create impact.

“The skills required to start a business are not necessarily the same as those needed to scale one!”, she said. To address this, the fund has a Social Enterprise Development Fund, among others, which works off a performance based model, providing €50,000 in funding to awardees. €15,000 is granted up front followed by two more tranches, granted only based on performance. Mentorship and support is also provided to the social entrepreneur, coaching them through start-up and growth.

According to Deirdre, oppportunities present for social enterprise in Ireland and if supported, they can create jobs: “There is optimism among leaders in the social enterprise space – 74% of them plan to recruit more staff in the next 12 months.” A positive picture for our audience who lapped up the success stories and stats.

And the challenges? The structure and targets of Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs) and Enterprise Ireland were discussed. According to the panel, the enterprise offices at local level are lacking in awareness and understanding of social enterprise.  Deirdre bluntly addressed this: “A front line objective of ours is to support social enterprises to grow and to get local authorities to wake up.”

National Social Enterprise Policy – Development and Implementation

Andrew Forde, Principal Officer at the Department of Rural and Community Development, was next up to give an update on the key findings of the consultation on Ireland’s new social enterprise policy, which has just closed. One hundred and thirteen substantive submissions to the policy were received, according to Andrew. “I read every one!”, he said.

“Social enterprise is a priority of the government. It recognises this as an area with profound potential for social impact. Scale and prevalence has been mapped out. Approximately 1400 social enterprises were identified in 2013 – it’s probably much more.”

So what is different this time? Many would argue that there has never been a systematic approach by the government, despite some investment. Andrew stated: “The challenges that social enterprises face are the same as business. Capacity building will be a focus.  We need to get the LEOs on board for policy coherence.”

In response to Aoibheann’s challenge around deciding on one's identity i.e. business versus charity, Andrew said: “There is a very strong argument that we should develop a distinct legal status for social enterprise. This is coming out strongly.  We need to ensure that we balance the 'social' and with the 'enterprise'.”

Beyoncé is in the House!

Audience members at the session included grantees of the Social Innovation Fund. First up to shout their praise for the programme and to express the realities of social enterprise development in Ireland was Tammy Darcy from the Shona Project.

“Deirdre Mortell is the Beyoncé of Social Enterprise!", declared Tammy. "The Social Innovation Fund is transformative. It is not rare for us to have the door closed on us by local enterprise boards and the private sector see us as ‘fluffy’. The policy needs to be acted on immediately. When will this be done at local level in particular?”

Andrew responded that it is early days and the framework will be created soon and implemented.  The awareness needs to be raised and the message shared. The policy will sit alongside a suite of other policies and there will be a symbiotic relationship with the community and voluntary policy, for example. "We envisage partnerships with various institutions and will develop a framework to assess the impact of social enterprise”, he said.

Further discussion took place on the difficulty of getting funding and the fact that Ireland is behind in the social enterprise space, compared to other countries. As the session came to an end, the Spice Girls continued to rehearse their moves in the background and The Wheel members dispersed for lunch.  Deirdre Mortell dusted down her smart casual attire and possibly contemplated a more stagey outfit for her next speaking slot, if the Beyoncé title is to stick!

Our Social Enterprise Network – Continue the Conversation

If you missed this session on social enterprise at The Wheel's Summit 2019 but have a keen interest in the area, consider joining our established member network for organisations with a Social Enterprise approach. True to our purpose of enabling our members to learn, collaborate and share through member-networks and ‘communities of interest’, we will be convening this group later this year and again in 2020.

Opportunities will include events, training and development opportunities, in addition to learning and information sharing, the network will also be a link for member into national and European policy making systems and processes.

Interested in joining the network? Click on the link below. Further information on the Social Innovation Fund is available on www.socialinnovation.ie

Please register here.