How you can help fix Ireland

Five social entrepreneurs – people who apply business acumen to social problems – give their views on ways to make Ireland a better place

Society people: Colman Farrell of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, John Evoy of Irish Men’s Sheds, John FitzSimons of Camara Education, Lucy Masterson of Hireland (seated) and Michelle O Donnell Keating of Women for Election. Photograph: David Sleator

Society people: Colman Farrell of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, John Evoy of Irish Men’s Sheds, John FitzSimons of Camara Education, Lucy Masterson of Hireland (seated) and Michelle O Donnell Keating of Women for Election. Photograph: David Sleator

Sat, Mar 15, 2014, 01:00

In a meeting room in the offices of The Irish Times five social entrepreneurs affiliated to Social Entrepreneurs Ireland tweet their location, joke about having Bono’s phone number (none of them actually has Bono’s phone number) and chat about their experiences. Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, which has existed for a decade, has championed and helped to fund the work of 169 social entrepreneurs.

The five here today are Colman Farrell, former chief executive of Suas, an inspirational educational organisation, and cofounder of the School for Social Entrepreneurs; John Evoy, the man behind the Irish Men’s Sheds movement, which aims to bolster the health and wellbeing of isolated men; Michelle O’Donnell Keating, whose Women for Election movement inspires and prepares women for political candidacy; Lucy Masterson, who with Hireland encourages small businesses to create employment; and John FitzSimons of Camara, which uses technology to improve education in disadvantaged communities.

The term “social entrepreneur”, which became popular in the 1990s, describes people who tackle social issues with the innovatory zeal more typically associated with start-ups. With former welfare-state certainties eroding, the boundary between public and private getting increasingly grey, and traditional NGOs coming under increased scrutiny, this could be their era.

So over coffee and buns they tell me how to make Ireland better. They praise the work of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, take no pleasure in the recent travails of traditional charities and frequently refer to initiatives in other countries. As a group they come across as internationally focused optimists, disinclined to bicker and complain, but happy to talk about self-confidence, community and the State’s changing role.


Can individuals change society for the better ? What stop s people?
Evoy: For some reason people have developed a block on believing that they can do things for themselves. I find that a lot, actually. I spend a lot of my time travelling to different towns and villages, and I get huge resistance when I tell people they can do something for themselves. They say, “No, you do it for us.” They feel it’s not their job.
O’Donnell Keating: One of the problems we find with women is that they’re always waiting to be asked to do something: to run for an election or get involved with a campaign. Why not just do it? I think it’s about not recognising their value. There’s this thing people say: “Women don’t vote for women candidates.” They’ve done big studies in the US, in Europe and in Ireland that completely discount that, but that one little sentence can still deflate everyone.
FitzSimons: There’s a huge fear of failure here in Ireland. In the US you can go and start up something and fail five times and no one ever looks at you differently. You fail once here and you’re banished forever.
Farrell: One of the most positive things about working with Suas is working with young people . . . Instead of thinking it’s grand, or blaming someone else, they take on huge personal responsibility. Our summary of what happened in the Celtic Tiger is often “It wasn’t me, it was someone else.” I think we mix up responsibility and blame.


What are Ireland’s biggest problems?
FitzSimons: I believe technology has broken education. The world has changed. You could ask me a Leaving Cert physics question, and without studying for six months I could take out my phone and find the answer in 30 seconds. So you can access knowledge now with an iPhone, but do you know where to go to get it, or how to assess [its validity]? Education needs to change.
Masterson: I believe there’s a lack of entrepreneurship in the country. It’s still left to the elite and those with university degrees . . . Forty per cent of our under-45s in Europe operate in a part-time capacity. If the job for life is gone, how do people create a job for themselves? Kids need to be taught how to run a business and how to take risks.
O’Donnell Keating: There are too many of the same types of people contributing to the decision making . . . It leads to in-thinking. There aren’t enough women running the show. From a political point of view there are mechanisms, politically established through culture or candidate selection, that prevent women taking leadership roles. How does society overcome challenges if those in power have a very a small perspective and outlook?
Farrell: I think everything is changing. If you look at western institutions, healthcare will change; education needs to change; even government is changing. The world changed at the start of the industrial revolution, and I think we’re at another historic juncture where a lot of things will change over a relatively short period.


How do people interact with the S tate to create change?
Evoy: If you have an idea the first question is, which department do you go to? For us it’s a bit of Health, a bit of Social Protection and a bit of Education. So they kick you around like a football. It would be great if there was a Government office that just said, “We’re open to new ideas.”
O’Donnell Keating: You do see more established organisations you wouldn’t consider particularly innovative continually getting finance. If you’re doing something a bit different, a bit novel, it can be harder.
FitzSimons: It’s almost as if you need a different regulatory system for small and medium enterprises and large enterprises . . . I just visited the African School of Excellence in a slum outside Johannesburg – a completely different way of doing education. There’s no ability to try that here.


How would you like to work with the S tate?
Farrell: In the US each individual state is actually a crucible for experimentation . . . [In the same way] social enterprises can provide models for new approaches that may grow to replace existing ones . . . It’s about government being flexible and open, and where the lines between what’s provided by the state and what’s provided by third parties can shift.
O’Donnell Keating: People are the State. We find a lot of people feel disenfranchised from “the political”. I was recently with a group where a big proportion of the people were nonvoters, because they felt it was a waste of time. There was a lot of cynicism: “Even if I do vote what good is it actually going to do?” There needs to be a claiming back of politics by the people in the community, a recognition that it’s not their Government, it’s our Government. But we end up with a layer of people who make decisions for everybody else and a huge number of people who don’t know how to interact with that.
Evoy: What I’d personally like to see is more of a participatory democracy, not just an electoral democracy where we vote every four years. In parts of France they have town-hall meetings, at which the community debates an issue and the mayor is like a facilitator in the conversation. The State needs to be reformed so people’s ideas can be integrated at every level on an ongoing basis, rather than every four years, or by a big lobbying process, or by arranging a meeting with the Minister by calling in your father’s friend who was in the local cumann, because that’s just ridiculous . . . I think there’s a [lack of connection] between what the power elite think needs to be done and what guys or women on the street want to happen.
FitzSimons: I think it’s really important there’s a space for people to take social action outside the State. There’s a risk that people can sit back and say, “But the Department of Education should be doing that.” This afternoon in Chapelizod there are 20 volunteers refurbishing computers, for no reason other than they think students deserve better. I think it’s important we get away from “It’s the State’s job to do that, so I’m not going to touch it.”


How politicised are you? Does social enterprise tip into activism?
Evoy: The Men’s Sheds movement learned an awful lot from the women’s community-education movement in the 1970s and 1980s, how groups of women came together around kitchen tables. So men come together and it’s about personal development, and when they have confidence they might feel they can tackle issues locally and then on a regional or national level. The Men’s Sheds movement is definitely political in terms of the impact it can have.
Masterson: Hireland stays absolutely outside politics, and that was deliberate from the beginning. I did have a one-to-one with Enda Kenny a few weeks ago, after I doorstepped him at an event and he arranged for me to meet him. But aside from that the only politicians who got in contact – who emailed, phoned, or tweeted – were from Sinn Féin. I thought that was interesting.
FitzSimons: At Camara we need to be careful on the political side. We have very close alignment with ministries of education in different countries. The significant operational risk for us is with changes of government, particularly in African countries, so we need to stay outside politics.
O’Donnell Keating: We’re trying to inspire and equip women to take that next step in their political journey. It’s totally cross-party . . . Maybe this is Pollyannaish, but I’d like to see a more collaborative approach to politics, one that didn’t involve shouting each other down and point-scoring.
Farrell: A lot of people in not-for-profits say we work with all parties and none. But I sometimes wonder if the sector should politicise more. There is a concern about funding in the sector. Maybe the not-for-profit sector should go on strike.


Are you optimistic?
Masterson: We spend far too much time going on about politicians, but I’m overwhelmed by the grassroots goodwill in communities around the country. That meitheal is there in Irish people. People are brilliant. Even the smallest little thing can be part of a bigger picture.
FitzSimons: On a personal level it’s motivating to walk into the office every day with 10 interns and 20 volunteers. There’s a nun who spent 40 years in Nigeria and comes in every day to refurbish computers. I’m surrounded by inspirational people.
Evoy: With the Men’s Sheds we were initially trying to counteract social isolation, but I think we’ve stumbled on a new discussion about real, positive, intergenerational change. If young people see that when older guys have time on their hands, they use it to benefit their community . . . they’ll grow up thinking that’s what people do when they have time on their hands.
Farrell: Lots of people in our communities are doing good stuff. And 100 people doing something small is worth more than one person working full time.


Y our advice for people who want to make a change in society?
FitzSimons: The Nike answer. Just do it.
O’Donnell Keating: Don’t complain about things and then go home and watch EastE nders . If it affects you it affects someone else, so get a group together, talk about it and then see what you can do.
Evoy: Everyone has some personal connection to the issue they’re involved with . . . You make the next phone call. Arrange the next meeting. The next thing you know, you’ll be in the middle of something thinking, What have I started?
Farrell: Just start it. Think of the smallest thing you could do: a letter, a phone call, something that makes you think, Well, I could definitely do that. There’s no point worrying about the big stuff. Just choose what to do next: the next word you say, the next action you take or don’t take.
Masterson: George Boyle [another social entrepreneur, involved with the Fumbally Exchange] always says, “You can’t eat an elephant in one sitting.” It’s a whole lot of little bites.
O’Donnell Keating: It isn’t just about being Hillary Clinton. It’s also about the person making sure there are adequate provisions for the library services or that the local playground isn’t a heap of rust. Yes, geopolitical issues are important, but when you talk to major political figures, [you find] they often started with the rusty playground.

Social Entrepreneurs Ireland is taking applications for its next round of awards from Wednesday ; socialentrepreneurs.ie

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