Having “The Last Word” on Matt Cooper yesterday were the newest Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Elevator Awardees, Arlene Naughten of Sugru Therapy and Wayne Dignam of Care Leavers’ Network. Arlene and Wayne will officially receive their award next Tuesday night in the Mansion House, where we will reveal all six Elevator Awardees, alongside the three new Impact Awardees.
Speaking about the power of social entrepreneurship, Matt Cooper interviewed Arlene and Wayne on “The Last Word” ahead of the Awards Ceremony, to get an insight into the life-changing work their organisations do.
Sugru provide vital therapy services for children, parents and families to develop children from early childhood age to adulthood. Arlene and Lorraine of Sugru, offer individual counselling sessions, workshops and summer camps to help create stronger and healthier children and families across Ireland.
The Care Leavers’ Network, founded by Wayne Dignam, provides a support system for people who exit the Irish care system. The organisation has supported over 950 care leavers during their transition into society after leaving the Irish care system. Currently expanding their operations, Care Leavers’ Network are planning to significantly scale their organisation with the help of the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Elevator Programme.
In conversation with Matt Cooper, Wayne highlights the aim of the Care Leavers’ Network “is about us making a difference and stepping forward to improve the outcome for care leavers and children in Ireland”.
The Elevator Awardees will receive financial, organisational and developmental support from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland over the next 12 months, to elevate their organisations to the next stage. Check out the Elevator Awardee interview with Matt Cooper on Today FM.
As part of our Generation 2014 series, Adam Harris of AsIAm shares his experience with SEI as an Elevator Awardee for the last year. Changing Ireland and reducing the stigma for people on the Autism spectrum, AsIAm has ambitious goals and clear objectives to achieve their mission.
Sitting down to write this almost feels surreal. It is very hard to believe that nearly 1 year has passed since AsIAm was selected as an Elevator Awardee for 2014. If times flies when you are having fun, I think it flies twice as fast when you are working hard, and that is probably why we literally did not feel the year go by. Where we are now is totally unrecognisable from where we were last year, and so much of this is to do with the support, counsel and credibility, which Social Entrepreneurs Ireland has brought to our work.
This time last year we were a newly launched organisation, with a strong mission and vision for what Ireland should be like for people with Autism, but still trying to work out what our role was and how we could play a focused part in bringing this about. We had no staff, no office and the reach of our organisation remained very small. Our only funding, and indeed prospect of funding, was table quizzes and race nights.
Fast forward 12 months and I am now the full-time CEO for an organisation which also has a part-time community manager. We are based in DogPatch Labs, a hub for tech startups in Ireland and we have a clear sense of what we can do to make this country more inclusive of people with Autism. We have a growing team of volunteers and supporters committed to making that vision a reality.
How did this happen? Well, lots of different opportunities, approaches and planning helped us develop to this point but a common thread that seems to run through them all is SEI.
On winning a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Award, I received coverage on national radio and online publications like “The Journal”, which resulted in an invitation to the “The Saturday Night Show”, which brought unprecedented interest and support to our work. This vehicle for change has enabled us to develop a network and a reach much greater than before.
As a very young CEO and Social Entrepreneur, fundraising has been a challenge for a range of reasons – perceptions play a part, and so does experience and confidence. However, SEI levelled the playing field to some degree for AsIAm. Other funders and grant-making organisations were no longer being asked to make an independent, in depth assessment and be the first to back a new concept – rather they could take a measured risk in supporting us, knowing that a very credible organisation had already assessed our potential. This led to us being able to significantly increase funding to the organisation. We are still small and still have to work very hard to access funding. However, there is no doubt we would struggle full stop if it were not for SEI boosting our reputation and giving me the skills to apply for grants and have conversations with potential funders.
As a Social Entrepreneur working in the area of Autism, I am very much emotionally invested in the issue. As a young person with Aspergers Syndrome, it makes me angry to see the challenges people with the condition are facing – 50% bullied while still in school, 80% unemployment and a significantly higher rate of self-harm – all challenges which are not necessarily a part of an Autism diagnosis, but are often brought on by the attitudes of society towards people with the condition. I am determined to change this and I passionately believe we can, by empowering the community with a dedicated, online information service and engaging the public at the same time. I believe similar approaches have helped advance many other issues in Ireland in the past but I feel we have ignored the societal piece and that this is what we must now focus on.
However, all that said, when you are emotionally involved in an issue it is easy to want to change the world overnight or to attempt to solve every single issue. Indeed, I would even say this is normal for many social entrepreneurs. However, it led me at times to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. Autism is such a large field you need to pick an area of focus and work to change that. We are the only organisation working for a societal understanding of Autism, and this is where we must focus.
In reflection, I would never have been able to get to this point of focus and determination without the fantastic counsel of SEI and my mentor, Eamonn. In 12 months we have come from a point of well-intentioned campaigning to a more focused, professional organisation which will soon produce its first 3 year strategy – a strategy I hope will sow the seeds of change for people with Autism. This highlights how SEI is about a lot more than just grants, but rather their help and focus has been a huge support in bringing us to this point.
Of course, we have a very long way to go. We have still not established solid lines of funding, we still are testing our programmes in schools, community and online – and they will take time to perfect.
We are still honing our message and our vision but the crucial point is – we are on our way!
Niamh Crosbie, as the first ever recruit for the SEI “Count Me In” initiative, shares her experience volunteering with Sensational Kids. Working to bring affordable therapy services to children across Ireland, Niamh played an integral part in Sensational Kids recent fundraiser, the “Fairy & Elf Festival”.
I spotted the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland ‘Count Me In’ campaign on social media and decided to sign up not really knowing what was involved. Looking back, I’m so glad I did!
SEI put me in touch with Sensational Kids in Kildare and I met Karen Leigh, CEO, to discuss how I could help. I started working on the PR and marketing for the charity’s 6th birthday party to help build the profile of the charity locally.
The next big challenge was to fundraise €20,000. Karen’s idea was to hold an “Enchanted Fairy and Elf Festival” at the Irish National Stud – an organisation which very generously gave all proceeds on the day to the charity. The event theme really captured the imagination on social media and in just a few weeks we had 2000 people attending on Facebook! Planning was key, so we met regularly with a journalist volunteer, Noel O’ Driscoll, to make sure the event would be a success.
“I really enjoyed volunteering with Karen Leigh- she is so passionate about Sensational Kids and her enthusiasm is infectious. ”
On the day of the event, the sun shone, the Gardai had to be called to direct traffic and a steady stream of people queued under the balloon arch and bunting in fairy, elf and superhero costumes – some parents more excited than their children. Over 70 people volunteered on the day, from the local ‘Silken Thomas Players’ drama group in costume to Newbridge Lions Club to stalwart supporters of the charity. There was an amazing camaraderie among the volunteers – people who had never worked together coming together to create this fairy wonderland. The result was worth all the planning – to see the excitement on the kids faces and the crowds having fun, and knowing you had played a part in it and for a good cause – not just for a corporate product launch, but a chance to help kids get the therapies they need to achieve their potential in life.
The final numbers were approx. 2500 attendees with €19,300 raised – a day to remember for all involved.
Joe Schmidt brings the Irish Rugby Team to the World Cup full of optimism and as one of the top teams in the world. Despite the recent defeats, there is excitement throughout the country about what this team might achieve. Regardless of what happens over the next month, Joe Schmidt’s achievements with this Irish team over the last few years have already set him apart as one of the greatest coaches in the world. He’s meticulous, detailed, a master strategist and an amazing motivator, but at the same time he empowers his team and gives them a large amount of responsibility.
One of the central approaches he takes to management is never spoken about by commentators or rugby analysts, but provides a valuable lesson for all entrepreneurs: defining team values.
The Irish team have three values that guide the behaviour of the players in every aspect of their lives. From training, to their personal lives, what they eat, and on match-day. Most importantly, these values were decided upon the team members themselves, and so they are embraced from the bottom-up, rather than imposed from the top by Joe Schmidt.
These values guide the players to be:
These are three guiding principles that the team and individuals can constantly refer back to.
Am I being humble in my approach to myself and to the opposition? Is my training relentless and is my tackling relentless? Am I disciplined both on and off the pitch?
When it comes to leading any team, developing this kind of clarity around team values can help shape and influence all of the little decisions that each team member makes every day. Rather than constantly looking to Joe Schmidt for guidance from the top, their behaviour is driven by team members themselves. And if a player isn’t living up to these values, it is understood that his team-mates will let him know and hold him to account. This is a highly effective tool for management that empowers the team and gives all of the players responsibility. After all, Joe isn’t going to be on the pitch with them on match day or watching over them 24/7 in their lives, so they need to have a shared understanding of what behaviour is expected.
The Lesson for Entrepreneurs
This approach to leadership provides a valuable insight for entrepreneurs. Set clear values with your team members and empower them to do great work. At Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, I believe the team is everything. We support Ireland’s leading social entrepreneurs, working closely with them to solve some of Ireland’s biggest social problems. Providing the team with autonomy and ownership around their tasks has improved performance and empowered them to go above and beyond in our work with social entrepreneurs. To enable this approach we have developed our own team values, decided by the whole team, that guide our behaviour.
Our commitment, in everything we do, is to be:
We commit to do what we say, to be open and transparent and to be fair in our selection process. We always act behind closed doors exactly as we would if somebody was watching. This is a powerful value that ensures all of the team know that doing the right thing always comes ahead of a quick win.
As a team and as a group of individuals, we’ll never settle for the status quo. We have huge ambition for SEI as an organisation, but most importantly we have huge ambition for the social entrepreneurs that we support. We support many organisations that are still in the early stages of their development. We choose to be visionary, to see the potential in all of the projects that we support and to do everything we can to help them to fulfil their full potential.
At SEI we know that doing good isn’t good enough. All of our work is driven by the end result and if something isn’t having an impact, we should stop doing it. This value also drives us to become better at measuring our own impact as an organisation, not for the sake impressing donors or to tick boxes in our annual report, but to accelerate our own learning. With this focus we can constantly improve and adjust our programmes to maximise the impact we achieve.
These values have played a key role in the our team’s development as the organisation has grown. Based on the results that we’ve seen in SEI, I’d highly recommend that all entrepreneurs and business leaders take a page out of Joe Schmidt’s playbook and spend a few hours with your team to define your values. You’ll quickly see the return in improved performance, morale, empowerment and ownership.
P.S. Does your team have a set of values? I’d love to hear them, so please share them below. If you haven’t defined your team values yet…get on it!
Photo credit to Irish Independent of Independent News & Media PLC.
Our Policy and Innovation Manager, Eamonn Fitzgerald, looks at the new lobbying regulations coming into force in Ireland, and what it might mean for the non-profit sector and state funding.
Lobbying – it’s not usually a word that’s met with much positivity, and there’s a pretty good reason for that. Lobbying is associated with back-room deals, shady trade-offs, and special interests corrupting our political process. While this image of lobbying is fairly inaccurate, it’s also pretty understandable. Its image problems boil down to one simple fact – a complete and utter lack of transparency. Thankfully, Ireland has taken its first step in addressing this. On September 1st the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 came into force. This is our nation’s first attempt at solving the transparency problem, and hopefully our chance to provide a better understanding of what lobbying really means in the Irish context.
The first thing to point out is that this isn’t just relevant to big business. Lobbying is an essential part of every democracy. It’s the process by which organisations and individuals engage with public officials to make their views known, and hopefully to better inform discussions and policy creation at a local and national level. However, let’s be clear. People lobby to influence. Organisations lobby to influence. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they’re open and honest about what they’re trying to do and why they’re trying to do it.
Just because organisations have a social mission attached to their work doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be subjected to the same level of scrutiny. Social Entrepreneurs Ireland is one of these organisations. We have an interest in the development of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship in Ireland, and have lobbied officials in the past to encourage additional support and drive increased investment into these sectors. We will of course continue our lobbying efforts into the future, and we welcome the introduction of these regulations because we’re comfortable in standing behind the arguments being made.
We believe social entrepreneurship remains a relatively untapped resource in Ireland, and we have an evidence base to indicate that additional support for social enterprises doesn’t just drive better social outcomes for communities, but better economic ones as well. We stand behind the value of our work to the social entrepreneurs we engage with, and while we believe we can always get better, we’re confident in our ability to advise on what does and doesn’t work when it comes to social enterprise support.
The non-profit sector doesn’t just lobby on individual social issues though, it also devotes a sizeable amount of time to lobbying on funding opportunities. This is where our sector really needs an additional level of transparency. SEI has long been an advocate for investing in impact. Put money into things that work and solutions that deliver actual results. It’s a pretty simple philosophy, but a surprisingly alien concept when it comes to grant funding. When you don’t demand an evidence base, you create a massive problem for yourself – how do you know which organisations to fund?
It’s this problem that drives the less attractive side of non-profit lobbying in Ireland. It’s resulted in a number of very poor criteria being used to determine successful funding applications to state bodies:
- The more desperate you are for money the better – State funds put far too much of an emphasis on financial need, demonising non-profits who have sensibly built up financial reserves in the event of a rainy day. How can we expect long-term impact on serious issues if we incentivise short-term financial planning?
- All overheads are a waste of money – The exclusion of core costs from so many grant rounds erodes organisational effectiveness, and reduces the likelihood of efficient spending of the money invested. Excessive spending is bad, but we should be smart enough to know the difference.
- Previous public funding experience is rewarded – Government funds almost always insist that those applying have previous experience in managing state monies. This attitude encourages a system of renewals, rather than reviews. It’s hardly public funding if it’s reserved for those already in the club. It’s like advertising a graduate position and insisting on applicants having two to three years’ experience.
The biggest issue it’s created though? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not any of the three above. It’s the simple fact that personal relationships with public officials too often dictate successful funding applications. This cannot and should not be accepted by Irish society. With so many social and environmental challenges still to address, we need to spend our money smarter and better than ever before. Shining a light on how these funding decisions are made can only encourage this, and it is my belief that these regulations are a good first step.
SEI itself will need to be more open about its own lobbying activities, and we hope to make that the case in the next couple of months. Ireland has a long way to go to make all of this a reality, and enforcement of these regulations will be key to securing this transparency. I’ll be keeping a close eye on how the regulator gets on over the next few months, and I hope you will too. For anyone looking for additional information on what the regulations mean and if they apply to you or your organisation, please visit www.lobbying.ie
The virtuous journey of a social entrepreneur is often plagued with misfortune, mishaps and misunderstandings. What is my mission? What does success look like? How will I truly help the people who need it most? The SEI Impact programme gives direction, focus and mentoring to those who need it in their journey to try change Ireland for the better.
Karen Leigh, an Impact Awardee in 2014, has had a steep learning curve in her quest to provide therapy and professional services for children with Sensational Kids, a Kildare-based therapy centre for children.
This year, Karen celebrates the first anniversary of her relationship with SEI following her Impact Award in October 2014. The evening of the awards ceremony in Christchurch Cathedral was a surreal experience for the mother, social entrepreneur and businesswoman. Questions centering around “Am I going to be able to get through this?” or “Am I going to be able to give my speech on time?” consumed Karen, only to realise her efforts had been successful and she would make the transition from Impact finalist to Impact awardee. And Karen’s aspirations weren’t small: in her speech, she vowed not to rest until she could see Sensational Kids in every province in Ireland.
“The long-term plan is to grow and scale Sensational Kids. I won’t rest until I see at least a Sensational Kids in every province in Ireland”
Moving on from the awards ceremony, into the Impact Programme, Karen breathed a sigh of relief: “I’ve won the award now, happy days – I’m going to sail off into the sunset”. Unfortunately, the reality wasn’t as simple for Karen, as a robust programme of workshops, mentoring and goal-setting was in store. Karen quickly realised the effort and hard work needed to make her ultimate goal a reality would need significant time and energy investment.
The most obvious change for Karen in her work ethic, through the mentorship programme, was the change from thinking about operations to thinking about strategy.
“In the past, I might have got caught up in the day-to-day operational activities, which is important too, but through the SEI workshops I’ve really realised in the last year the importance of prioritising what is going to bring the most impact. It has really changed the way I work”. Speaking about the importance of resilience in social entrepreneurship, Karen cherished her time with her SEI confidant, Annalisa. Moving into the second year of the programme, Karen sees SEI helping them “build that bridge from where we are now to where we want to be in the future.”
“It’s life-changing in terms of work and how you do it. It’s the connections and relationships you build with other people that are really beneficial”. Hoping to transition from a mentee to a mentor, Karen highlights the experience of growing her own organisation, as an opportunity to help new social entrepreneurs entering the sphere “The challenges you face everyday as a start-up are nearly everyday things for me as we have been there, done that and do it nearly everyday. You can then help other people, give them advice and help them with those challenges – That support in the alumni network is really beneficial”.
The mentorship, funding and alumni network have been fantastic resources for Karen, however her newest SEI support service, Count Me In is proving truly beneficial to her business model. Count Me In is a synergistic initiative to bring together industry professionals with social entrepreneurs hoping to change Ireland. Karen was delighted to have the fantastic marketing support of a Count Me In partner, volunteering her time to help grow Sensational Kids especially with so many events and workshops throughout the busy summer period – “we have really valuable volunteers with really great skill sets to come into the organisation and help us, all through the SEI corporate superhero”.
“Growing and scaling our impact was going to be a huge step and is going to take a lot longer than previously thought”.
However for Karen the programme offered the right mixture of funding and mentorship to allow her to grow Sensational Kids over the last year. A combination of impatience and passion is met with strategic support to help Karen, one of Ireland’s best social entrepreneurs, succeed.
Our Policy and Innovation Manager, Eamonn Fitzgerald, looks at the importance of site visits to the SEI selection process, and why all funders should look beyond application forms and pitches to inform their investment decisions.
People have a tendency to assume that all funding decisions these days are made as per the Dragon’s Den formula. High pressure, time constrained, all-or-nothing pitching sessions. After all, you learn a lot about people in situations like that right? Wrong. There’s a reason less than half of the successful entrepreneurs on the show actually receive a penny!
Pitches are great, but they only tell you a part of the story. For the past couple of years, as part of the SEI selection process, we’ve decided to conduct site visits with the finalists competing for a place on our Impact Programme. We do this for the same reason we do anything in our selection process, and that’s the fact that it improves our decision making capabilities. It allows us to make more informed and effective investments.
The team at SEI is currently in the middle of our 2015 site visits, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to look at the information that these visits provide us with, and to build a case for why all funders, whether they be commercial or social, need to be doing this as part of their decision making process.
1. Due Diligence
Application forms are a useful way to enforce eligibility criteria, and to obtain key pieces of information about a project, but they’re not fool proof. There’s only so much you can articulate on paper. Site visits provide funders with a chance to literally see a programme in action, to observe the development of products or the delivery of services, and to fact check some of the information already provided. It can also inform whether or not the level of investment being requested is realistic, often proving a good indicator as to a project’s readiness for the level of funding involved. This increased level of understanding is crucial to funders – who are often unfamiliar with the nuances of particular social/environmental challenges.
2. Entrepreneur Engagement
Investments are about more than just the money. For it to be successful there needs to be a good working relationship between the entrepreneur and the funder. While pitching sessions are useful for meeting entrepreneurs face to face, site visits allow you to interact with an entrepreneur in a more traditional and real world environment. It allows you to discuss aspects of their project in a location they feel comfortable, and to see how they interact with other members of their team. All of this is far more representative of what a working relationship with them might look like, rather than the interrogation like pitches that we’re so used to seeing on TV.
3. Support Network
When we’re talking about growing and scaling an organisation, you need more than just the right entrepreneur behind the project. That entrepreneur needs a support network, and those individuals need to be valued as part of any selection process. Site visits give funding bodies a chance to meet and talk with staff members in charge of various aspects of the project, and to meet with board members overseeing the organisation to get their sense on the future direction of the project. It’s one thing to hear about the plans for an organisation from the entrepreneur themselves, but it’s another thing entirely to hear from the people tasked with delivering those plans.
4. Social Impact
We all love quantitative data when we talk about social impact, and application forms are a great place to articulate and display all those numbers and graphs, but in most cases the qualitative data is where the real game-changing impact is best demonstrated. Site visits are often a great chance to meet and interact with the beneficiaries of the projects in question. Hearing first hand their experience of an organisation, what’s worked well for them and what hasn’t, and the difference they’ve seen in their lives due to a particular intervention, can be the most powerful way to understand the impact potential of any early-stage project.
While site visits alone are not the answer, they do massively complement traditional selection process elements like application forms and pitches. So if you’re looking to improve your funding decisions I’d recommend getting out from behind that desk and hitting the road. You, and your fund, will be better for it!
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 email@example.com
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.
This week was one of the most exciting weeks of the year here in SEI. After going through all 182 applications to our Awards Programme we selected the top 50 applicants who we will be bringing through to Social Entrepreneurs Bootcamp.
There is something magical about this stage of the selection process. We only get to see a snapshot of the projects, but the energy jumps off the page. The passion is infectious and the potential of each of these social entrepreneurs to make a difference in Ireland is huge.
So we’re looking forward to meeting the top 50 at the end of the month.
Unfortunately, for every social entrepreneur that we are bringing to Bootcamp, we had to turn away nearly 3 others. And that’s really hard. It’s hard for us to have to turn away people who are doing genuinely amazing things around the country. And no matter how much we stress that what they are doing is incredible, it is hard for them not to take this decision as rejection.
And so for any of the unsuccessful applicants out there, I’d urge you not to take this as too much of a setback. While our support can be really helpful, there are other ways to build your project. This is a time to roll up your sleeves and hopefully prove us wrong. We don’t have the monopoly on good ideas, and you don’t need to be chosen by us to develop a great idea and have a big impact in Ireland.
And there will always be setbacks if you’re an entrepreneur. The key thing is how you overcome them. Many of our Award Winners in the past few years had applied to us a number of times before they were successful. They took the learnings from the application process (we strive to give every applicant feedback at each stage of the process) and they worked even harder to develop their projects, so the next year they were that bit stronger.
So to all of you who were unsuccessful this year…keep in touch with us, keep the passion alive and hopefully this time next year we’ll be seeing you again with an even better project, even greater impact and even more ambition.
In the meantime, good luck!
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