Secrets of a ‘grassrootsy’ start-up

Could you become a social entrepreneur? Paul O’Hara wants Irish people to launch 100 community projects in 100 days, and will provide the high-tech backup to make it happen

Paul O’Hara, founder of the nonprofit company ChangeX, wants your help. He wants 100 people to launch 100 community projects over the next 100 days via the website showcases proven socially beneficial ideas that you could try in your neighbourhood. Think of Fighting Words, which runs writing workshops for young people; or Grow It Yourself (GIY), which encourages people to produce their own food, or Foodcloud, which distributes what would be wasted food to charitable organisations; or Fáilte Isteach, which links immigrants with older English-language tutors.

The internet has always been good at disseminating cat pictures and outrage, but ChangeX wants to use it to spread ideas like these. “There are all these great ideas around the world,” says O’Hara. “So why can’t they spread more effectively from one area to the next? The idea was to build an online technology platform and put all the world’s proven social ideas on there. So anyone trying to solve a problem in their community – it could be bullying, it could be homelessness, it could be ‘How do I get the community to be more physically active?’ – can come and find a solution.”

Bustling space

ChangeX is based at Dogpatch Labs, in the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin, “a coworking space for scaling technology start-ups”. It’s a bustling hub of beanbags and laptop-enabled creativity. (After I arrive Michael Kelly, the founder of GIY, demonstrates how young entrepreneurs might grow vegetables on their desks.)


And O’Hara, who is 37, is an energising person to be around. He mixes inspiring stories of Brazilian maths teachers bringing solar-powered electricity to rural villages with entrepreneurially savvy talk of “conversion rates” and “seed capital.”

When he was in his mid 20s O’Hara worked in marketing at Cadbury, where he had “a quarter-life crisis”, he says. “There were all these problems, and what was my solution? I was getting more people to eat chocolate bars . . . It felt like a totally meaningless thing to do.”

His crisis peaked during a trip to a Concern feeding centre in Zimbabwe, where the poverty deeply affected him him. “There were all these old women with young kids, and I had assumed that it was because the middle generation were busy working the land,” he says. “Then I learned that, no, the middle generation had been wiped out by HIV. So these grandmothers were the sole responsible people for all these little kids, and there was no way they could provide for them.”

Later O'Hara read How to Change the World, a book about Ashoka, the pioneering social-innovation organisation. "I remember reading it and thinking, These are the people really changing the world in a sustainable way. I want to immerse myself in that world. Social entrepreneurs are the innovation hub of the social sector," O'Hara says. "They are the ones beavering away on new ideas that government would never finance nor come up with."

So O’Hara became Ashoka Europe’s director (a role he left before Christmas). In that time the idea of helping to spread socially beneficial ideas became an obsession.

ChangeX had its origins in an Ashoka initiative called Change Nation. “I started experimenting with importing ideas into Ireland,” O’Hara says. “Ireland was going through such a tough time, and we could see all these ideas around the world that could help. So we brought 50 of the world’s top social entrepreneurs to Ireland with a view to getting 25 or so up and running.

“Change Nation has definitely been a success, but I felt it was quite inefficient. There were so many people involved in making it happen. We didn’t leverage technology at all, really, apart from social media.”


O’Hara could see, he said, that the ideas that were spreading fastest “were well packaged for online distribution”. (He singles out the voluntary computer coding organisation CoderDojo as a good example of this.)

That’s when he began thinking about the idea that became ChangeX. He and his team have been working on it for about a year with funding that has come, in the main, from the tech sector.

Twenty-five social enterprises have already signed up, all of them replicable and, in O’Hara’s word, “grassrootsy”. People interested in starting or contributing to a group in their neighbourhood can go to, choose an initiative that interests them, and click on “learn more”. There they can watch a video, see if there’s a local group they can volunteer with, or download a starter kit with a five-step guide on how to start their own group.

Take the five steps for starting a Men’s Shed, an idea from Australia that brings men together over DIY. They are headlined: Hold an information Evening; Form a Working Group; Visit Other Sheds; Find a Suitable Premises; and Managing, Planning, Registering. Throughout the process the budding social entrepreneur is in communication with a mentor who has established a group in the past.

O’Hara wants people to go to and see if there’s a group they can contribute to or start up. “Part of it is to make it as easy as possible for people to do the right thing. This is about finding something you’re passionate about, and then contributing to your community.”

My community project : Fighting playground bullying
Playworks fosters empathy and learning through playground games and activities.

This programme of specially designed schoolyard games and activities was first developed by the American social entrepreneur Jill Vialet. It has recently begun to be taken up in schools across Ireland, including Castaheany Educate Together National School in Ongar, Dublin.

“I came across Playworks by chance, because a local school was piloting it, and I undertook a summer course on it,” says Paul Knox, who teaches at Castaheany. “It makes play more active and is more inclusive. It reduces conflict and develops skills to organise and initiate games. It also develops resilience, coping and friendship skills.”

Before Playworks, yard time was an ambivalent experience for some children, Knox says.

“There were lots of power imbalances in the yard that led to conflict, and it wasn’t always a positive or enjoyable experience for all the children.”

Since initiating Playworks games – which are entirely optional for the children – Knox has noticed less conflict and more activity in the yard. The games reinforce positive behaviour, he says, “and I’ve noticed that children are practising these more. They’re telling you their friend fell over and they picked them up.”

One of its main benefits, he says, is inclusivity. Older children play with younger children, and it provides activities for children who found it difficult to participate before.

“In other years I was always dealing with tales” after break, he says. “ ‘He pushed me,’ or, ‘I didn’t have anyone to play with.’ This might just be a very self-reliant class, but this year they never come in off the yard with a tale to report.”

My community project : Teaching English to immigrants
Fáilte Isteach is a project that involves older volunteers welcoming immigrants through conversational English classes.

Mary Nally thought of the idea after seeing a young mother struggling to read English on a supermarket package in Summerhill, Co Meath.

“I could see the distress on her face,” Nally says. “I thought to myself, This is another form of isolation. I was working with older people” – with the group Third Age – “and we discussed it and thought that we could teach conversational English and extend the hand of friendship.”

Eight years on, Fáilte Isteach is run in 71 locations by 680 trained volunteers.

Anna Filak, from Poland, can’t find enough good things to say about them. She arrived in Ireland “by accident” with very little English and low confidence.

“My son was in school, and I was even embarrassed to go to ask about anything,” she says.

“I had lovely neighbours, and I couldn’t have conversations with them. I couldn’t go to the bank to do things.”

Then she stumbled upon Fáilte Isteach. She started in the beginners’ class and progressed through.

Several years later her English sounds perfect. She has her own business, a beauty salon in Trim, Co Meath.

“I built it step by step,” Filak says. “That is my achievement. Most of my clients are Irish, so it would have been impossible to do anything if I couldn’t speak English.”

She is hugely grateful to Mary Nally and everyone involved with Fáilte Isteach. “Some of my teachers are my friends,” she says. “We go for a coffee or a meal, and sometimes they come to me for beauty treatments.”

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