Earlier this month Pricewatch was asked to be on a panel discussing social enterprises at an event in Airfield Estate on the fringes Dublin City. It was a pleasant enough way to pass a sunny Sunday morning.
As well as the well-meaning discussions, there were a handful of stalls selling the wares and promoting the services of various social enterprises including the We Make Good people, which is, in essence, a high-end – but not necessarily high-priced – gift shop which sells wonderful products made by disadvantaged people who have faced struggles that would crush most of us.
There was also a stand for The Homeshare – a service which connects 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.
And there was a stall promoting the benefits of the credit union – amongst the longest standing and most popular social enterprises Ireland has.
There was a make do and mend service and a bike repair stand and more. The panel discussion Pricewatch took part in was chaired by Claire Mac Evilly, the chief executive of Airfield Estate – a social enterprise in its own right.
What struck Pricewatch as we sat on the stage and waited for our turn to speak was what a force for good social enterprises are and how remarkable it is that the broader public know so little about them and their good deeds.
Not only do social enterprises serve their communities and make the world in which we live a better and more equitable place, they also offer an alternative to the multi-national shops and websites where most of us spend much of our money.
The lack of awareness of what social enterprise actually are and what they actually do was highlighted repeatedly throughout the morning with speakers lamenting the fact that not enough people were aware of their existence and how too many of those who did have some awareness of social enterprises were confused as to what they were.
Are they charities? Are they businesses? Do they have value to us as a consumer? Is their value to be found in what they put back into their communities?
Helpfully – or perhaps not so helpfully – the answer to all four of these questions is broadly speaking yes.
While social enterprises are not, perhaps, as well known as they should be they are a force for good in our society. They tend to be charitable in their outlook and are set up and run by people who put considerable energy into developing enterprises not for themselves or for shareholders but to make the world around them a better place and frequently enriching the lives of people who need help.
There are more than 1,000 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.
They can also provide services we need at prices which are competitive or even substantially cheaper than anything that can be found on the private market. A quick visit to the Buy Social website – buysocial.ie will give you a sense of what is on offer.
Sunflower Recycling: ‘People thought we were mad’
Sunflower Recycling is not the longest established social enterprise in Ireland but it is certainly up there with the oldest. It was set up in Dublin’s north inner city in the mid-1990s when our world was a very different place.
The economy was just starting to get boomy, we were Eurovision kingpins and were able to throw away all the rubbish we wanted without so much as a thought for our wallets or our world.
There was no such thing as bin charges, and recycling was still a notion which was largely the preserve of a small and well-heeled cohort who were concerned about the world around them.
Bernie Walsh was concerned about the world around her too although she was anything but well-heeled. She had gone to college as a mature student and was on the cusp of completing a community leadership course and was in search of an idea that would benefit her local community in Dublin’s north inner city.
So along with co-founder Carol Bulger she set up Sunflower Recycling to support her local community in Dublin and to make the area in which she lived nicer.
“People thought we were mad,” she says now as she recalls the reaction she got when she explained that her social enterprise was looking for money to collect recyclable material from businesses and households in the area.
“Bin collections were free and recycling wasn’t really a big deal for most people,” she says. But Sunflower Recycling managed to integrate with a FAS community employment scheme and got some EU funding which “gave us a bit of stability”, she continues.
Sunflower started domestic collection service – which closed when the council started offering a collection service for recyclable waste – and a business collection service, initially in the Temple Bar area of Dublin.
“A couple of larger companies including the ESB gave us their waste and we had a lot of goodness on our side,” she says.
“Our aim was to set up a business that would get employment levels up and help people with their education and their training while highlighting environmental issues. And we sold the idea to businesses by saying you can have a contract from someone else but what you are getting with us is a social impact as well.”
She has been running her social enterprise for nearly 30 years and says that anyone looking to work in the area has to “think not just about the economics – the social element has to be the first . . . you have to be very clear it is a social impact. We are a bit like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. She did everything he did only backwards and in high heels and a social enterprise has to do the same things as a normal businesses only with constraints they don’t have.
“If I went to start a normal company, I could pick and choose staff and pay them whatever rates I wanted to pay them but with a social enterprise, training comes first and we actively seek out people who need that training and who have come through hard times.”
Each year more than 40 people work with Sunflower through community employment schemes and she reckons “a good few hundred” people have benefited from her enterprise.
“We are trying to grow the business because funding opportunities are not the same as they used to be. We deal with the very long-term unemployed and when they leave us it can be hard for them to find a job elsewhere because employers don’t want to take even the smallest of risks. So what we would like to do is grow the business and be able to hold on to the good people we have trained.”
She says there is still a huge level of support for social enterprises such as hers. “They way we sell it to local businesses is that they can go with the big guys or with a local inner city group who is actively trying to help the local community. They can have their paper sorted and graded and their cardboard baled by some large operator on the outskirts of the city or we can do it for them instead.”
Summit for Social Enterprises to raise awareness
At the end of next month a Summit for Social Enterprises takes place in Dublin. It will go under the name SocialiSE and specifically focus on raising awareness and supporting social enterprises, through workshops and discussion on a range of topics from funding and finance, digital promotion, community development and social innovation.
The event is being organised by the Irish Local Development Network (ILDN). “Social enterprises do incredible work in Irish communities, providing much needed services while also creating employment in the local area,” says the chief executive of the ILDN, Joe Saunders.
The summit “celebrates social enterprise and encourages more development in this sector by raising awareness of the model.”
In Ireland more than 30,000 people work in over 1,400 social enterprises. Many will be attending to talk to those interested in establishing similar enterprises in their region. Organisations such as Galway’s An Mheitheal Rothar (Bike Shop), Dublin’s ACE Enterprise Park & WALK and the nationwide Paint Reuse Network are among the case studies that will be discussing their blueprints for success in their sectors.
For more information, see ildn.ie or register at https://socialise_summit_2022.eventbrite.ie
Eight other social enterprises worth looking at
The Great Care Co-op is a carer-owned cooperative led by skilled migrant women and promises a "holistic approach" to the care of their clients who are predominantly over 65 years of age. The aim is to help people stay "connected to their community and prevent loneliness, isolation and poor health".
The care is task-focused so carers map out what the client likes to do, and identify their goals for living a healthier life, for example getting their nails or hair done, dancing/exercising in the mornings, chatting, assisting with administration, or using their laptops/mobiles. The aim of the social enterprise is a preventative approach to providing support to people who want to live well and independently.
Learn more at thegreatcarecoop.ie/
Park Hiit promotes the importance of resistance and strength training with no equipment or weights required. The brain child of Brian Crooke from Dublin 7, the business provides free weekly weekend workouts to all ages and supports this by making a profit from corporate programmes in workplaces.
Similar to Park Run, the workouts are not just about exercise. They are an opportunity for people to meet and chat afterwards over a bowl of porridge and a coffee. The business is hoping to grow by attracting corporate partners.
By building more revenue, Park Hiit can serve more locations in Dublin. Currently, there are six park locations run by six volunteers – Stoneybatter, Phoenix Park, Ashtown, Poppintree, St Anne’s and Rockfield.
Crooke worked in the corporate world as a management consultant prior to setting up his own wellness business and Park Hiit. He is trained in sports nutrition and personal training.
Learn more at facebook.com/groups/parkHIIT/
Connections Art Centre was set up by Miriam Spollen and provides accessible arts, lifestyle, and training programmes where the wider disability community can learn, grow and connect through the arts.
Since launching in April 2021 the Connections Art Centre has supported over 500 members of the wider disability community. All programmes are designed and led based on the needs of the participants and hosted by experienced facilitators.
Its mission is to assist people with disabilities to overcome barriers encountered every day that lead to them being devalued and excluded from their local communities. They provide inclusive, safe, accessible programmes that reduce the sense of isolation and loneliness and ensure that the disability community is valued, included, and empowered to gain meaningful employment at a level that is appropriate to their skill set. They run a number of programmes including art, yoga, music, drama, and smartphone photography at their Rathgar venue as well as a TY programme, a mentoring programme, and in January, they issued a national call for artists with intellectual disabilities, with over 60 applications.
Learn more at connectionsartscentre.ie/
The Dublin Food Co-op is community-led and based in Kilmainham, Dublin 8, offering ethically sourced foods at the most affordable prices. The community has a voice in how it runs. Members contribute by working a small number of hours and in return, they get better prices. All profits are reinvested.
Learn more at dublinfood.coop/
Furniture revamp : There are all manner of examples around the country of social enterprises working together to revamp old furniture. They find it, get donations of unwanted furniture, give employment and purpose to local people in the community to get crafty and then sell it on. So less waste, more contemporary and beautiful furniture at a fraction of the cost, and the money is doing good in the community.
Paint Reuse Network: This relatively new network in Ireland takes excess paint from builders, contractors, waste amenity areas, and re-colours it for use in your home at a fraction of the price. Local people are working in this social enterprise which again gives back to the community through cheaper prices, and saves highly toxic materials going to landfill. It's win-win.
Learn more at paintreuse.network/
Pocket Forests: What about that patch of uncared for garden? Enlist the help of Pocket Forests, who are recycling materials to support biodiversity. Your boring lawn can be transformed into a little forest of native trees, with workshops on composting and recycled forks, spades and plants, all going to good use. Our colleague in The Irish Times Catherine Cleary is one of the founders, so you may know about this wonderful initiative already.
Learn more at pocketforests.ie
Bike shops: Numerous social enterprises are taking in bikes from donations, recycling centres and people with crocked machines. The bike shops transform these bikes, restoring, refitting and making them as good as news. They also give workshops on bike maintenance, and again you save money while also providing employment and purpose to local people in the community. An Mheitheal Rothar in Galway and FrontLines are just two – the latter gives former inmates, people with addiction issues and former homeless people a place to go and feel valued. They are trained and find purpose, friendship and hope through this employment which again is provided for and by the community.
Learn more at bikeworkshops.ie, frontlinebikes.com