Social enterprise: ‘Having the vision is the easy part’

Setting up a social enterprise is a rewarding, potentially life-changing but challenging process, writes the founder of the Grow It Yourself movement

Michael Kelly of the Grow It Yourself GIY movement which assists people and communities to grow their own food. ‘For me GIY is a cross between a job and hobby’

Michael Kelly of the Grow It Yourself GIY movement which assists people and communities to grow their own food. ‘For me GIY is a cross between a job and hobby’

 

The ChangeX social enterprise project wants Irish people to launch 100 new community projects in 100 days. Changex. org contains an online toolkit for setting up local enterprises: from Street Feasts to Men’s Sheds. Here, the founder of the Grow It Yourself movement shares his experience of social enterprise

GIY stands for Grow It Yourself, and it’s community of people who grow and eat their own food as a path to a healthier, happier life.

The idea came about 10 years ago when I was in a supermarket and noticed the garlic I was about to throw into my trolley came from China. It blew my mind that something so small and cheap had travelled all that way. So I started growing my own garlic, and it went from there.

I set up the first GIY group in 2008, because I was crap at growing my own stuff and I wanted to network with other growers. There were gardening groups in Waterford but they were into horticulture, not growing food. I needed a different focus.

I put an ad in the local paper and 100 people showed up to the first meeting in Waterford library. So it was a local knowledge exchange, no more than that initially, and certainly there was no grand plan.

Then two or three other groups set up in Co Waterford, with my help, and when it spread farther into the south east, a light went off in my head. I saw this was a movement waiting to happen.

I had been a sales person in the IT sector and had also worked as a journalist, so I could communicate an idea in words or print. We started to seek sponsorship on a small scale from the likes of AIB and Woodies, to fund events. AIB are still actively involved, supporting our community garden fund, which we dispense to small community food-growing projects.

I got a grant in autumn 2009 from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, of about €5,000, and that exposed me to the idea of social enterprise. It occurred to me that there was a way to do this, that didn’t involve either being a pure charity or a pure business. A year later we were registered as both.

By 2010 it had become a full-time job.

I got another grant from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland in 2011, and a big support from Ashoka, a network of Social Entrepreneurs, and latterly I’ve worked with Changex as well.

This year we will support 65,000 people in schools, homes, at work and in the community, in growing their own food. We have nine staff, full and part-time.

From early on I had an ambition and vision, and was passionate about the potential for food growing to change people’s lives. But having the vision is the easy part. The harder task was putting the resources and funding in place to make that vision a reality- being the CEO, hiring staff, and keeping an eye on the bottom line. Those things didn’t come as naturally to me as being the idea man, or the communicator. In the early stages I don’t think I appreciated how much hard work it would take to make that a reality.

Going from a voluntary organisation to something more ambitions is a tough transition. You lose some people along the way who feel they are not being brought along on that journey or who see it as unfair that they are not being paid while others are. I’m not sure we managed that very well. If I was doing it again, I’d be able to do that part better.

This is my life’s work. Every waking moment and some of the non-waking ones are spent on the movement and that means sacrifices in your personal life: they affect your finances, your family and your health. I know some of my peers in the social enterprise space have had their own health issues. I’ve learned now to switch off, but again I wish I had managed that better at the time.

A social enterprise falls somewhere between a charity and a business. We need income and I don’t think profit should be a dirty word - we should be all about profit, because it’s those profits that fund the mission. Impact and income are two sides of the one coin.

We get some grant funding, but we don’t want to rely on grants. So we have a shop; we go into companies and help employees to grow their own food, and we charge companies for that. We have sponsored campaigns: with AIB, innocent, Cully & Sully, Renault. And we have members who pay an annual subscription.

We are getting to the point where GIY is properly funded and resourced. At the moment we are not quite able to pay market rates, either to me as CEO or to those who work for me.

Like most social enterprises, we are incredibly lean. We don’t waste any time or money on things that don’t further the overall mission – everyone is focused on getting the work done and that’s very motivating.

For me GIY is a cross between a job and hobby, and I consider myself really lucky to work at something that I love and am passionate about.

In conversation with Conor Goodman

If you you would like to start a GIY group visit www.changex.org/giy or www.giyinternational.org. See also: www.changex.org/100

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