Last week was a big week for social enterprise in Ireland, although you might not have noticed. Minister Ann Phelan has been appointed as the Minister with responsibility for social enterprise, and that’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because social enterprise has lacked a political home for more than a year, with the post vacated by Minister Sean Sherlock during the 2014 government reshuffle. Without effective political leadership, the social enterprise sector has no voice, and that’s why Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI) and our colleagues on the Social Enterprise Task Force (SETF) made the reappointment of a Minister our top priority in recent months.
So as I write this I’ve been wondering how best to emphasise the importance of political leadership for this sector, and it reminded me of a recent question I was asked – how many social enterprises are there in Ireland, and is that number growing? Pretty simple question right? Well…not so much.
The short answer is that we do not know. The most concrete figure is 1,400, a figure that is pulled from the 2013 Forfás report on social enterprise in Ireland, but that number is actually from 2009. Why the uncertainty? Ireland currently doesn’t measure social enterprise activity as part of its Central Statistics Office (CSO) surveys, and so the data available is sporadic at best.
Here at SEI, we have a few indicators that I would point to that would at least suggest that number is on the rise. The first is our own selection process – between 2007 and 2009 we were averaging around 140 applications to our support programme – in the three year period preceding this year’s process, we were averaging more than 200 applications a year. While some of this might be put down to our own improved brand, it seems clear to us that there is more activity at the start-up level, not to mention an increase in the quality of early-stage projects emerging.
The second indicator I would look at is the number of registered charities applying for support from SEI – this has dropped significantly in the last 5 years, with CHY status organisations now accounting for only 28% of our total applicants. Similarly, we’ve seen big increases in the number of registered companies applying to us, which would indicate that more organisations are identifying revenue generating opportunities at the start, rather than being entirely reliant on CHY dependent grant funding.
Lastly, I’d look at international examples. We know that Ireland lags well behind the rest of the world in terms of activity. In the UK for example, the British Department of Business, Innovation and Skills has shown through their annual 2014 Small Business Survey that social enterprises account for around 5% of all British SMEs. With 1,400 social enterprises, Ireland would clock in at around 0.74%. While I’m not suggesting that we’re at the same level as the UK, I am suggesting that coming from such a low base, it’s likely that we have grown that number a bit in the last 5 years, or at least can certainly expect to in the next 5 with the right supports and reforms in place.
All of this points to a stark problem for the sector though – lack of useable data – and policy decisions without information is a dangerous space to be in. That’s why social enterprise needs a political leader to drive through simple improvements like this, and that’s why SEI and the SETF is pushing for the inclusion of social enterprise measurements in CSO business surveys – helping us to answer those simple questions before we try and tackle the big stuff!
So we look forward to working with the Minister and helping her to identify the opportunities that lie ahead. We want to build a better environment for Irish social enterprises, and that’s going to take the efforts of governmental and non-governmental organisations alike. It’s also going to need social entrepreneurs to engage with our political representatives, and in particular with our Minister. So, if you’re still with me, I have one favour to ask. Why not wish our new Minister good luck, and that you’re looking forward to seeing what she can do for you, your organisation, and the sector in 2015 – let’s take action, make a difference, and start a conversation – it’s what this sector does best.
Wish our new Minister good luck at firstname.lastname@example.org
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