Saturday 18 November 2017

Using a wealth of business know-how to make lives better

Social entrepreneurs are supporting a growing number of business people in trying to improve social conditions

Social entrepeneur Victoria McKechnie of 'Kids in the Kitchen' is joined by three young chefs,
Luan Ferriter, aged 7, Ana Coughlan, aged 8 and Thea Coughlan, aged 4
Social entrepeneur Victoria McKechnie of 'Kids in the Kitchen' is joined by three young chefs, Luan Ferriter, aged 7, Ana Coughlan, aged 8 and Thea Coughlan, aged 4

YOU ARE successful. You want to use your business skills for a new challenge and you have some sort of pet project to help people; you're on your way to being a social entrepreneur.

While most people understand the ideas behind philanthropy there is still a lot of confusion around the concept of a social entrepreneur, which is a shame because this rather cumbersome term describes a process which many people from the business world understand well.

"Social entrepreneurs are people with ideas, gumption and the ability to execute," says Annalisa O'Carroll of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, an organisation funded by the reclusive 46-year-old philanthropist and Ryanair heir Declan Ryan.

The organisation helps business-minded people to build charitable organisations that apply the best elements of the business world to improve social conditions. While the ideas must come from individuals, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland offers help on issues such as finance, marketing, structure and HR policies.

"While many existing charities exist to help people, social entrepreneurs are typically impatient with the way they are run and their often bureaucratic nature," says Social Entrepreneurs Ireland's O'Carroll, a former technology entrepreneur who decided to switch to charity after doing an MBA at the Smurfit Business School.

"A lot of existing charities don't communicate very well and then there are charities that are just not very well run," she adds.

Poster boy

The poster boy for social entrepreneurs is Mohammed Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and economist who developed the concept of micro credit or small loans to entrepreneurs, often women, too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans.

Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for his efforts was one of the first people to understand the seeming paradox that the poor are often a better credit risk than the rich and used a small grant from the US-based Ford Foundation to found a bank which proves his point.

Here in Ireland, the number of social entrepreneurs is surging. One of them is Dubliner Victoria MacKechnie who left behind the world of finance and wealth management, including a stint in Anglo Irish Bank, to start Kids in the Kitchen, which teaches children to cook healthy meals.

She came across the idea while living in Australia but only acted on it when she was made redundant in November 2008. While teaching children about the importance of good food may seem a long way from finance, she says her experience in the financial world was a big help.

"Given my background, I had an appreciation of the importance of good house keeping and I didn't need an accountant," she remembers. While much of her salary comes from teaching her skills in private schools, her charitable mission extends to disadvantaged areas where the need for knowledge is greatest. Today, she says there is "no comparison" between her life in the financial sector and as a social entrepreneur. "I know it sounds like a cliche but I really enjoy what I'm doing now. It used to be a long slog from Monday to Friday. It's not like that anymore."

While many social entrepreneurs devote their waking hours to creating a new charity with a razor-sharp business focus, some business people use their knowledge to help other social entrepreneurs while staying in their existing jobs.

One of them is Keith Mangan, group head of risk at energy and waste company NTR. Mangan has been working for the past six months with Bike Pure, a business set up by competitive cyclist Myles McCorry to try and stamp out the doping scandals that seem to regularly bedevil cycling.

While the 36-year-old Mangan has little interest in cycling, he is interested in helping a business at the early stage and fascinated by Bike Pure's potential to spread to other countries and become a global player in the fight to keep cycling clean.

"You're helping somebody develop their dream, their business," says Mangan who attends about four two-hour board meetings a year and has some email correspondence with Bike Pure in between.

"You're acting as their adviser, you're going in as an outsider, giving your experience." Mangan is lucky; his employer NTR is an active supporter of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland both financially and by encouraging its staff to mentor social entrepreneurs but he would recommend anybody in business to consider doing something similar.

"You can add a lot to their business and get a lot from it," he says. "It's beyond charity. You are trying to develop a self-sufficient company providing a service."

While Social Entrepreneurs Ireland is based in a beautifully restored building on St Stephen's Green, Business in the Community Ireland operates out of grittier offices next door to sex toy shop Ann Summers on the capital's O'Connell Street.

"Our purpose is to inspire, engage, support and challenge companies to continually improve the impact they have on society, specifically in the community, environment, marketplace and workplace," says founder and chief executive Tina Roche, a former financial controller at the 'Sunday Tribune' newspaper.

The non-profit works with hundreds of companies nationwide through social inclusion programmes, which include a Schools-Business Partnership that links schools and business nationwide, an employment and training programme for criminals who have served their time and an employment and training programme for homeless people.

It also sponsors the Philanthropist of the Year Awards, which have been won previously by Declan Ryan, Limerick currency speculator and gambler JP McManus, and Kilkenny-based developer Niall Mellon whose foundation builds houses in South Africa.

While awards such as this highlight large-scale giving, Ms Roche's organisation spends much of its time helping families and individuals to give money effectively. She mentions a family that Business in the Community Ireland recently helped when the five members decided to set up a €7m foundation.

Business in the Community helps the individual family members to pick worthy recipients for the money which reflect each family member's interests.

The youngest child is interested in sports while the mother has a particular interest in autism, she says. The donations mirror this. "A lot of people want to ensure that their children are not too materialistic," she says. "They don't want to raise a Paris Hilton."

While foundations such as these are bolstering the level of giving in Ireland, philanthropy remains at an embryonic stage in Ireland and the wind-down of two great foundations, the Declan Ryan's One Foundation and Chuck Feeney's Atlantic Philanthropies by 2020 could leave the country with even fewer big private donors although the Iris O'Brien foundation will remain significant, Ms Roche says.

While the world of foundations and social entrepreneurs is important, it is far removed from the lives of many people who would like to give something back to their community.

Ms Roche believes the best approach remains the same even if the scale of giving is different. "Don't wait for somebody to approach you in the street," she advises.

"Take a look around your town or village and see what needs to be done. Perhaps it is footballs for your local youth club or flowers to spruce up your village. How many times have you walked past something and thought it needs help or improvement?"

Irish Independent

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