With the last few remaining seats for the 32nd Dáil decided this morning, we thought we’d take this time to reflect on the 2016 General Election, what it meant for social enterprise and social entrepreneurship in Ireland, and where we go from here. While it’s been all doom and gloom from political parties and pundits, is the situation really that bad for those of us trying to do our bit to further social innovation?
The obvious thing to point out is that we have yet to determine the shape and make-up of any potential government in the 32nd Dáil. While Fine Gael remains the largest party in the state, their coalition options are in short supply, with many senior members within the Fianna Fáil party making it perfectly clear that they have no interest in entering into a formal coalition with their historic rivals. Although many smaller parties and groupings have stated their interest in forming ‘constructive’ partnerships, their numbers simply won’t be enough to form any sort of stable government going forward.
So formal coalition options are hard to come by, but perhaps there is a way forward that allows for some governing to be done in 2016 at least. In the days following the vote, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have indicated a willingness to work with each other, although in the case of the latter it would be an agreement to work with Fine Gael from the opposition benches. This type of agreement – opposition support for a minority government on certain issues – presents both challenges and opportunities. While not the most stable form of government, it does allow us to avoid an immediate repeat of an election campaign, while making legislative and policy progress on a number of common areas of agreement.
Social Enterprise Reforms:
For the first time ever, all four major political parties outlined a number of social enterprise and entrepreneurship reforms they would introduce as part of their manifestos in 2016. While this in itself is not success, it is indicative of the progress being made in highlighting the economic and social value of these sectors at a political level. It’s also important because in an increasingly unpredictable and divisive political environment, it’s one of the few areas all political parties seem to agree on. This presents the sector with a big opportunity to implement some important reforms over the next 12-18 months. Let’s not waste it.
Looking closely at the commitments made by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (the only two parties with enough seats to win a majority in the 32nd Dáil), both parties seem to agree that progress can be made on developing social enterprise in three key areas; political leadership, business supports, and an improved financial environment.
Broadly speaking Fine Gael have committed to ensuring the “continued growth of the social enterprise sector”. They propose doing this through a combination of accessible finance, educational initiatives, and increasing awareness of supports currently available. More specifically, they promise to ensure that any SME, commercial or social, receives high quality mentoring, and support from Ireland’s Local Enterprise Office (LEO) network.
Fianna Fáil for their part agree, stating that they will extend the role of LEOs even further, establishing social enterprise-specific training courses and broadening out financial guarantees to assist in the attraction of investment. They also committed to measuring social enterprise activity in Ireland as part of future CSO business surveys, helping to improve access to data in relation to the size and influence of the sector. Finally, Fianna Fáil also made a clear commitment to move social enterprise under the remit of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation – the Department with oversight over existing and future enterprise support delivery.
The overlap in commitments here is clear, and requires us all to insist that social enterprise and entrepreneurship form a core part of any SME/enterprise strategy agreed by these two parties over the coming weeks and months. This will mean SEI working with our sector colleagues to drive this message home, but it also requires individual entrepreneurs and organisations making their views clear to their newly elected representatives also. For anyone interested in getting in touch with their local TDs, please click here to find more details on those elected in 2016.
In the meantime, we at least have the launch of the 2016 Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awards to enjoy. Regardless of political circumstances, we’ve got €600,000 worth of funding and support to give out to 9 social entrepreneurs this year. More details on our Awards can be found by clicking here, and please do spread the word to let others know if we might be of use to them.
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
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
Charity, social enterprise and for-profit
With the launch of this year’s selection process we are already getting a few questions from potential applicants asking whether we support for-profit organisations, whether we just support charities and what our take on social enterprise is. Having pulled together some brief answers on this in our FAQs, we thought it might be good to explain some of our reasoning and thinking here in more detail.
Our current offerings for this are based on our latest strategy (full details of which will be revealed shortly!).
Ultimately at Social Entrepreneurs Ireland what we care about is that the best ideas for social change get the right support to help them to succeed. That is our vision. And in that context it doesn’t really matter to us whether the organisation is a charity, a social enterprise or a for-profit. Each of these models have different advantages and disadvantages associated with them, but all three models have the potential to make a positive social impact in Ireland.
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