In this blog post Chief Executive, Darren Ryan, takes a look at some of the lessons learned after a decade of operation for Social Entrepreneurs Ireland.
Social Entrepreneurs Ireland is now ten years old and last year we celebrated the progress we’ve made in Ireland over that time and the incredible impact that the social entrepreneurs have had throughout the country.
Looking back over the ten years, it is really striking how the core purpose of SEI as an organisation has stayed broadly similar. From day one, the big question we asked ourselves was “How can we help the best social entrepreneurs to succeed?”
That’s still our core driver, but over time the structure of our programmes has changed quite substantially. This isn’t a surprise. Back in 2004 we were breaking new ground; most people in Ireland had never heard of a social entrepreneur, so figuring out how best to support them took some trial and error.
And so the early years served as a great learning experience for us, and every year we continue to make additional improvements in order to further increase the impact of the social entrepreneurs that we support. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:
1. The social entrepreneur is critical in early stage organisation
This is hardly a surprising insight from an organisation called Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, but over the years our initial hunch that great impact could be achieved by backing exceptional individuals has been proven time and time again.
This is a pretty standard approach in the commercial sector, with investors taking as much interest in the individual as the idea. However, it is relatively rare in the charity sector. In most funding applications, little time is spent reviewing the skills of the person leading the organisation and their capacity to deliver. This is something that needs to change in Ireland if we are going to get serious about solving our biggest social problems.
2. The social entrepreneur isn’t enough
While we were right to back the entrepreneurs behind an idea, we learned over the years that our support needed to have a broader focus than just working with one individual.
The scale of the problems they are trying to tackle means that they won’t be able to do it alone, and so we now work with them to build and develop a strong team who can support them. In some cases we help them to develop succession plans to ensure the long term future of the organisation. We’ve learned the truth in the old saying that ‘Lone wolves only succeed in the movies’.
3. From day one, we need to be thinking about our exit
Our model provides social entrepreneurs with an injection of funding and support at critical stages of their organisations to help them to increase their capacity, grow their impact and bring their organisations to the next level. And while we were always explicit about the fact that our support has a very clear end date (either one year or two years), we didn’t always prepare our Awardees enough for life without SEI.
We now start talking to our Awardees about our exit on day one of the support programme, supporting them to build the right connections, increase their focus on revenue generation and bringing on additional support. The last thing we want is for them to be propped up by us for two years and then fall off a cliff.
The evidence is that this approach is working. In 2014, for every €1 that we invested in a social entrepreneur, they raised an additional €4.64. This is hugely encouraging for us.
4. It’s not (just) about the money
When we started as an organisation we were fixing one part of the problem that social entrepreneurs face: lack of risk capital in the philanthropic world. We began by taking chances on early stage ideas that had huge potential but needed somebody to take a chance on them.
While this is still a critical part of our model, we quickly realised that the non-financial support we were providing to the Awardees was being valued more than the financial support itself. The Awardees were coming for the money of course, but they quickly realised that the key value of the SEI programme was the additional supports that we provided. These included everything from business planning, goal setting, governance support, coaching, mentoring and linking them in with an incredible network of other social entrepreneurs and our network of supporters.
Over the years we have invested further in this element of our programme to help the social entrepreneurs to build really well run organisations and increase their capacity to deliver in a sustainable and effective manner.
5. Failure is really hard
As an organisation that supports early stage organisations and takes a risk on projects before other funders will, failure is a key part of our business model. From day one we explicitly stated that we expected a certain percentage of our Awardees to fail. And in fact if we aren’t seeing a high enough failure rate, it means we aren’t taking enough risk.
Despite this openness to failure, when organisations fail it is still really, really hard. It still feels like failure, and you still question yourself and your decisions. All we can do is learn from these challenges and support the social entrepreneur through a very difficult time. And we work hard to ensure that it doesn’t affect our openness to taking that next big risk.
6. The best ideas have no guarantee of success
We are not solving our social problems quickly enough. And the sad fact is that there are many great potential solutions to some of our biggest problems that just haven’t scaled sufficiently. At SEI we’ve seen literally thousands of ideas presented to us, and have supported 179 of them over the last 10 years. Some of these have been absolutely fantastic ideas that are proven to be better approaches to what is currently provided.
Change is really hard. Even with a great social entrepreneur, with all of the support from SEI and our network, some of the best ideas can still struggle to gain traction. This is deeply frustrating for us as an organisation.
But it points to the fact that we must do more to increase the likelihood of the best ideas succeeding. While working with the social entrepreneurs was a critical first step, we need to take the learnings from the past 10 years to change the system in which they are operating, to make the system more open to new ideas, to increase funding to early stage projects and to increase the focus on impact as the key driver of what programmes are implemented.
7. When social entrepreneurs succeed, they succeed big
We’ve learned that failure is hard, and that not all great ideas are guaranteed to succeed. But what keeps us going is seeing the incredible success stories that have come through the SEI Awards Programme. Some of the organisations that we supported are now nationally successful, driving
From the Irish Men’s Sheds, which now has over 6,000 men attending Sheds every week throughout the entire country, Pieta House which has become a leading national organisation, Grow It Yourself Ireland (GIY) which has become
Coder Dojo which is now active in 50 countries around the world,
Soar, Irish Community Rapid Response, Camara.
So when we receive applications from early stage social entrepreneurs. We know that they are just at the start of a journey that could impact lives all over Ireland. And that’s an incredible thing to be a part of.
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