One of the few positives about the Covid-19 crisis has been the way that many communities have rallied together during one of the most difficult times in living memory.
Social enterprises across the country have responded to the crisis by shifting gears to support their users and the wider community with innovative initiatives during the lockdown. To find out more about how this sector is making a difference, we spoke to John Evoy, Social Enterprise Development Fund manager with Social Innovation Fund Ireland (SIFI).
The Social Enterprise Development Fund has been supporting social enterprises since 2018, in partnership with the 31 local authorities across Ireland and funded by IPB Insurance and the Department of Rural and Community Development via the Dormant Accounts Fund. The fund has already supported 33 organisations with direct funding and non-financial supports like bespoke business supports and access to their Accelerator Programme.
“It has been really inspiring to see how many of last year’s Social Enterprise Development Fund Awardees are doing whatever is needed to meet the needs of their communities during the Covid-19 restrictions,” says John.
“Their tenacity means hundreds of the most vulnerable people in Ireland are being supported through this tough period. It is real social innovation in everyday life as these organisations come up with brilliant new ways to deliver the services that are needed most.”
Since 2018, SIFI has used this innovative fund to invest in social enterprises in order to help them scale their impact, thus encouraging others to get involved in social enterprises that will benefit their communities.
“We aim to find and back the best social enterprises in Ireland so that they become household names that will inspire others to set up social enterprises and to see that there’s a real, genuine option to do business with a social impact in Ireland,” explains John. “The long-term vision would be that we enhance the social enterprise ecosystem and inspire as many people as possible to get involved.
“Social enterprises in general are businesses or enterprises that trade on an ongoing basis but they don’t trade to create profit for owners or shareholders. Their purpose is to fulfil a social mission so in Ireland that typically takes a non-profit format.”
Supports like the fund can be an invaluable support for these initiatives, with SIFI allocating €3.2million to social enterprises between 2018 and 2022. It received a €1.6million donation towards the fund from IPB Insurance, which was then matched by the Department of Rural and Community Development via the Dormant Accounts Fund.
Many social enterprises have been uniquely placed to help support groups, communities and vulnerable sectors during the current crisis.
“There’s a wide range of non-profit organisations but the social enterprises that are in the middle of the spectrum – between businesses and charities – really have the chance to drive these positive missions because they’re not reliant on fundraising and not reliant on government grants all the time,” says John.
Many of the fund’s previous Awardees have had to pivot in response to Covid-19, finding a new way to provide essential services.
Based in Ballymount in Dublin, Recreate collects surplus or unwanted items from shops and businesses for use in schools, colleges, special needs groups and community centres. Their goal is to make art materials and educational supplies accessible and affordable for whoever needs them.
“Teachers and individuals use it in creativity classes and in schools,” explains John. “They’ve built up a really fantastic social enterprise. They’ve got a number of social missions, like supporting kids to be more creative but also reducing waste that goes to landfill.”
Recreate had to cancel its materials collections and the creativity workshops they provide for schools and private groups as a result of Covid-19. However, they’ve now moved these workshops online and they’re running online creative challenges for kids.
They have also sent out creativity packs to over 800 children living in emergency accommodation, so that these kids will have the opportunity to develop their creativity while schools are closed.
Another social enterprise that has continued to provide essential services during the current crisis is St Gabriel’s Orthotics Services. Based in St Gabriel’s School and Centre in Limerick, they provide orthotics devices for kids with special needs or disabilities that allow them to walk, run and play.
“It’s the only social enterprise orthotics supplier in the country,” says John.
With the school being turned into a drive through Covid-19 testing centre, they found an alternative way to meet any urgent orthotic needs.
“They were really creative. They set up a drive through orthotics service out in the carpark for the kids that had urgent needs. You can imagine if an orthotics device cracks or breaks, it literally means that a child can’t walk.”
It’s initiatives like this that can be the difference between a child walking or having to go on a waiting list to get essential orthotic devices repaired.
“Another super organisation is called Siel Bleu,” adds John. “They would usually work in nursing homes or community settings to deliver exercise classes for older people.”
Lockdown restrictions made it impossible for Siel Bleu to go into nursing homes to provide exercise classes for older people and those with chronic diseases or disabilities. However, they’re now providing online exercise classes on Facebook and YouTube and their videos have been viewed over 120,000 times and their livestreams have been accessed from 26 countries.
WALK is another organisation that provided a much-needed service for older people when their normal service was disrupted.
“WALK has a café and garden centre that was set up to create jobs for people with disabilities in the Walkinstown area and they’ve been very successful,” adds John. “They’ve a lovely café out there called the Green Kitchen.”
With lockdown forcing the café to close, they used their facilities to provide healthy, tasty and nutritious meals for cocooners in the Dublin 12 area. After five weeks of providing meals for free, they introduced a €3 delivery fee to continue providing this brilliant service for those cocooning in their homes.
John points out that these are just some of the many incredible social enterprises making a real difference around the country. The one thing that unites them all is that they’ve found a way to help those who need it most during this difficult time.
“I think the big difference with social enterprises is the people who find themselves involved in social enterprises approach their businesses with a social mission. They’re really amazing people who are on a mission to change the world and to solve a social problem.”
Please support a social enterprise in your community today. You can do this by buying from the online shop or donating to their cause!
Visit the Social Innovation Fund Ireland website to learn more about each Awardee.