Social enterprise a valuable addition at the heart of community

Pricewatch: Rethink Ireland to run a Future is Social campaign in bid to build awareness

Adding the generally positive word “social” to another word is not always, as we all are wearily aware these days, a good thing. Social distancing is as miserable a phrase as we have right now while marrying social and network or social and media is, more often than not, a sure fire way of falling down a rabbit hole into a murky lake of misinformation, conspiracy, bitterness and anger.

One exception is the word Enterprise. Putting the words social and enterprise together is still a good thing.

Although the concept of the social enterprise is not, perhaps, as well known as it should be in this part of the world, it is a force for positive things as are the people who put their energies into developing enterprises not to enrich themselves or their shareholders but to make the world a better place or to enrich the lives of people who need help.

There are hundreds of social enterprises operating in Ireland offering everything from toys to seeds to tin pots and water and even something as simple and as vital as human contact. Many have struggled as a result of the pandemic and all the restrictions it has brought with it.


Social enterprises are professional and experienced businesses that reinvest their profits back into their operations to scale up and provide services to more people

According to research from Rethink Ireland, an organisation established to support social enterprises, the most altruistic of businesses are making a real difference in Ireland across all levels. The 40 social enterprises Rethink Ireland has supported since 2018 alone have provided services to more than 230,000 people, supported in excess of 500 jobs, generated turnover of more than €22.2 million, and mobilised almost 16,000 volunteers in areas including social housing, homecare, environmental services, health services, hospitality, catering and many more.

In the weeks and months ahead Rethink Ireland will be running a Future is Social campaign with a view to building awareness of the power of social enterprises and how they can help post-Covid 19 social and economic recovery in a more inclusive way.

The campaign will be talking about how people can get involved by supporting social, buying social and even creating social enterprises themselves and will offer regional webinars, information and resources about social enterprises, what they can do, and how everyone can get involved. They will also tell stories about the social impact social enterprises around the country are achieving.

Ahead of the campaign getting fully into gear, Pricewatch thought it would be a good idea to share just some of the stories we have been told.

Lucie Cunningham’s social enterprise is so beautifully simple and solves so many problems for so many people at such a low cost, it is a wonder it hadn’t been done in Ireland before she entered the frame. She matches older householders living on their own who may be lonely or vulnerable with younger people who are looking for a place to call home without paying through the nose for it.

The idea is long established in the US and in Europe but it fairly new in this part of the world. “I have a nursing background and was working in a health care setting when I heard an item about it on the radio and it was a light bulb moment for me,” she says.

She had a lot of experience working with older people so knew the limitations of the State funded home care system. She describes it as “fantastic” but points out that it limits the number of hours of State-funded care to just 21 a week.

“That means for 21 hours a day older people are on their own. So, what we do allows two unrelated people to share a home for their mutual benefit. They both have a need and they can both help each other.”

Effectively what happens is the older person, the householder, opens their home to the younger one in exchange for 10 hours of support each week. That support can be simple things like making a cup of tea or running to the shops or even just watching the telly together or having a chat or being a reassuring presence in the home overnight. It involves absolutely no medical interventions.

Cunningham has placed people aged from their early 20s to their 70s in the homes of older people with the late 30s being the average age. Right now there are 25 matches sharing homes. Everyone is matched carefully and Garda vetted over an extended period which includes a trial arrangement. The organisation also monitors all the living arrangements carefully, checking in regularly to make sure both parties are happy.

In the time of coronavirus demand has actually grown with many older people more isolated than they have ever been and, of course, more people struggling to find secure and appropriate rented accommodation.

Because of Cunningham, the Home Share concept is now part of Government policy – Ireland is, she says, “the first and only country where that is the case”. Next year Ireland will host the seventh Homeshare World Congress, largely as a result of her endeavours, presuming , that is, Covid-19 will allow us host anything.

The business model is pretty simple. When householders and the people they share with are first matched each pays a one-off fee of €350 and if the arrangement works out, both parties pay €195 a month, substantially less than the cost of a live-in companion or rent, even in a shared house.

“We are not-for profit and it have never been about making money,” Cunningham says. “It is about improving the lives of people and meeting needs we have in our society.

Just over three years ago, we wandered into a newly opened shop in Smithfield Square in Dublin 7 which had the arresting name We Make Good. It was bright and full of lovely art and candles and bowls and the like. The shop, we were told was a social enterprise and every product on its shelves was there to make

“Ireland a better, more equal place by creating opportunities for disadvantaged people”. It was, in fact, less of a social enterprise as it was a collection of social enterprises and the stock has been made by Traveller groups, ex-prisoners, people with disabilities, refugees and more.

In the three years since we first found We Make Good it got bigger and helped more people. Then the world came to a” standstill in March of last year, and the We Make Good team were at a loss as to what to do. The textile studio which employed three women from Direct Provision had to shut as did its shop on Dublin’s Fade St. A few weeks into the crisis, We Make Good started making one thing everyone wanted. Masks.

“The masks were made from our makers’ homes and they did incredibly well for us,” says co-founder of the most social of enterprises Joan Ellison. “We set it up to allow people buy one and donate one to people in direct provision. The response was really positive and we had five months of full on mask production and our team went from three to 12. It was so good to have plenty of work for them,” Ellison says.

As the crisis has dragged on, We Make Good has also benefited from a desire among many Irish people to spend their money closer to home. “There was such a big push by people to shop local and that was such a bonus for us, but more important that, it was so positive for all our makers,” Ellison continues.

“When people buy from us not only are they giving someone a gift, they are also giving our makers the gift of jobs and opportunities. It has been great over the last year to see so many people on social media talking about buying local and sharing pictures and videos of the products we have. There are so many brilliant Irish makers and designers but what we have is an added back story, people know that by buying our products they are making a difference in someone’s life.”

She says the business is preparing to ramp back up with dozens of new products coming on stream in the weeks ahead. A new We Make Good textile factory on Mountjoy Square is in the pipeline while the shop on Fade St will have a new textile screen printing business in the basement.

“Obviously to keep going as a business we need people to buy from us but what is more important than that is the difference it makes to the people who make the products, from the women who have come from Direct Provision to those who have a lived experience of our criminal justice system.”

GIY becomes a teenager this year. It was set up in 2008 by growing novice Mick Kelly who has watched as his sometimes Quixotic plan to help of the world to live healthier, happier and more sustainable lives by growing some of their own food has kept, well, growing. He says that this year the GIY movement will inspire hundreds of thousands of people “to grow, cook and eat some of their own food at home, school, work and in the community”.

He admits that when he started out he was a bit clueless. “There was nothing by way of supports and I made a balls of it a few times” he says. But he kept at it. Then three years ago he had a notion. “If we could create products to help people grow their own food, it would have a twin impact of providing us with income but also supporting people who want to be more sustainable. What we want to do is help people who are growing food for the first time.”

From the germ of an idea grew a range of easy to use grow boxes. “Everything we sell is made with sustainable materials and there are no plastics along with the kits we have online guides and what we are trying to do is help people at the start of their journey and inviting them to join a tribe, our community is getting bigger all the time.”

He says coronavirus has had a huge impact on the movement.

“We have research showing that there were quarter of a million new growers in Irish homes last year and this year we will aim to support up to half a million people, it is a bit like a funnel for us an some of those people will buy our kits. We start with the basics, peas, carrots, beans, salad leave and herbs. We try and avoid things that are a bit more complex because it can be very disheartening if you fail.

“People were looking for things to do during the lockdowns , particularly with their kids. Growing also helps people to reconnect with nature and there was a slight undercurrent of food security although I think that dissipated when people realised supermarkets were not going to run out of food. But baking and growing are connected in that they give people a sense of control at a time when they otherwise feel powerless.”

He says the GIY movement it is not about being entirely self-sufficient.

“Even I am not 100 per cent self sufficient though I am a bit if a nutcase about it. But I think that if you grow 5 or 10 per cent of you food that would be amazing and I also have research that shows that people who grow their own food, even just a little of it, make different choices when they are shopping The chose more plant-based options and they buy more locally and they buy more organic food and that, I think is really exciting.”

Frustrated by a lack of available supports for her own children, founder Karen Leigh started out with a dream to make early intervention services such as speech and language therapy and occupational therapy affordable and accessible for children with additional needs.

Sensational Kids was born. She says over the last 13 years it has positively affected the lives of more than 6,000 children and saved their families more than €1.5 million in therapy fees. Last year alone 1,500 children benefited from the enterprise.

“The reason we exist it to provide support to children,” she says. “There are more than 70,000 children on waiting lists for services including occupational and speech therapy and sometimes people can be waiting for three or four years so we wanted to come up with a solution to the problem.”

She was adamant she would not profit in any way.

“We have charitable status but are very different from a charity and we don’t get State funding. We apply a full business model to what we do and all our profit goes back into our services which means the only people who profit are the children. I don’t make money from it, our board our volunteers and we have no shareholders.”

She says the online shop generates revenue but stresses that it is “not your traditional charity shop or even your traditional toy shop. People tend to love the toys because they are back to basic old fashion ones where the child has to play rather than the toy. There are also a lot of toys for children with additional needs, a lot of sensory toys jigsaws shape sorters and puppets.”

One of her best-selling products last year was sidewalk chalk as people moved back to more traditional play. That wasn’t the only Covid-19 impact.

“We didn’t have schools to buy from us so that was a negative but we had more parents buying online and when people buy social they are making a difference to the life of a child and there is a real feel good factor when they buy from us.”

“Let’s end plastic waste,” this site says. The enterprise was set up in 2017 and started with a tap map, a map of places around the country where people could get water refills rather than buying single use plastic bottles of water. There are now more than 1,500 locations on the tap map and more locations and more services are being added all the time.

“We just want to highlight the simple and cost effective ways people can avoid single use plastic bottles,” says Refill Ireland project co-ordinator Jennifer Taylor.

“In most areas we have good quality drinking water that is freely available but for so many years people have been sold something that they don’t need that generates a huge amount of unnecessary waste. What we are offering is something that is waste free and better for your pocket.

“The site sells reusable bottles and water dispensers but is not for profit. It also organises zero waste events – or at least it does when we are allowed host events. In 2019 it was involved in the Cork City Marathon and over five hours managed to stop 4,500 water bottles being used and then ending up in landfill or in the sea.”

With a bit more support it could do a whole lot more than that.