A perspective from Margaret Larkin, Programme Manager, Donegal Local Development Company and Restart Communities regional stakeholder

In July of this year Minister Michael Ring launched the National Social Enterprise Policy for Ireland 2019-2022. It is the first Government Policy for Social Enterprise in the history of the State and as such is a defining document which will specifically support the development of social enterprise activity as a vital component of the community and voluntary sector in Ireland.

The Policy marks the start of a new phase in the development of social enterprise in Ireland and has the potential to deliver thousands of new jobs at community level throughout Ireland. It is a new policy for a new era and is warmly welcomed by the community and voluntary sector who have for years been calling for this recognition of the sector and acknowledgement of the challenges within.

Volunteers and community representatives throughout Ireland have worked long and hard for many years to champion social enterprise, to promote the concept and the approach that social enterprises takes to achieving social impact. The community & voluntary sector have for years called for a Government Policy which would support the development of social enterprise and would recognise and acknowledge the social benefit they provide and the gaps in service from statutory bodies which many are addressing across rural & disadvantaged communities throughout Ireland.

What is a Social Enterprise?

Social enterprises are businesses whose core objective is to achieve a social, economic or environmental impact, rather than maximising profit for its owners or shareholders

Like other businesses, social enterprises trade in goods or services on an ongoing basis, but any surpluses they generate are reinvested into social objectives.

It is governed in a fully accountable and transparent manner and is independent of the public sector. If dissolved, it should transfer its assets to another organisation with a similar mission.

These characteristics make social enterprises different from enterprises that operate for private profit. But they also sometimes make it difficult for social enterprises to access the type of supports that are available to other enterprises to improve their business models.

Social enterprises are innovative, entrepreneurial and are increasingly utilising new technologies and creative approaches to address social, societal or environmental challenges.

While the term “social enterprise” is relatively new in Ireland, the country has a long tradition of non-State intervention in community and social life which is consistent with the ethos of social enterprise. Many social enterprises have emerged from the community and voluntary sector and build on the work of that sector in addressing social challenges. Thus, many social enterprises in Ireland are governed by voluntary boards.

While the Policy may have been a long time coming, the hope is that the implementation of it will open new opportunities for social enterprises to contribute to the development of local communities, and to support many of those most vulnerable in society, thus enable social enterprise to reach its full potential.

National Social Enterprise Policy for Ireland Objectives:

The Social Enterprise Policy is focused on three key Objectives:

  1. Building Awareness of Social Enterprise.

    In implementing this policy objective Government will work with social enterprise stakeholders to develop an awareness strategy to raise the profile of social enterprise in Ireland, identify and promote best practice examples of social enterprise and host an annual social enterprise conference.The policy aims to support social enterprise initiation and start-ups through targeted programmes and initiatives, to explore the scope for further inclusion of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship modules in the education and training system and for promoting social enterprise as a viable model for entrepreneurs and social innovators.
  2. Growing and Strengthening Social Enterprise.

    The implementation of this objective focuses on building the capacity of social enterprise, improving business and leadership supports, improving access to finance and funding and improving access to markets. The Government, in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, will also conduct further research and analysis on the operation of social enterprises within existing legal structures and assess the potential value of a distinct legal form for social enterprises.

  3. Achieving Better Policy Alignment.
    To support better policy alignment for social enterprises, the Government will develop a better understanding of the interaction between social enterprises and relevant policy areas across Government and will improve data and how data is collected on social enterprises in Ireland.

    The Policy sets out a series of 26 commitments on the part of Government across these Objectives, for the development of social enterprise over the period 2019 to 2022.

Bringing about change
It is widely anticipated that, through the implementation of this policy, things will change and the supports desperately needed, particularly in rural Ireland, to sustain and develop social enterprise will be delivered.

The culture of volunteerism in Ireland is strong and the supports and services delivered by volunteers is truly remarkable. By developing this Policy Government has now acknowledged the level of commitment from volunteers whilst also highlighting the need for a strategic approach to delivering on the objectives.

It is widely recognised that gaps exist in training, funding and in a cohesive approach to delivery of supports to social enterprise, with governance and compliance as well as business mentoring and development. Development of this National Social Enterprise Policy for Ireland marks the first step in supporting the development of social enterprise activity as a vital component of the community and voluntary sector in Ireland