One of Barack Obama’s initiatives begun a decade ago in the US has strengthened civil society by innovative means over here, writes
Whether the Barack Obama presidency achieved what the idealistic young senator from Illinois had set out in his energising Yes We Can-inspired campaign in 2008 will be judged by historians.
What cannot be denied is the enthusiasm and verve it generated among civic-minded businesses and communities, and a new era of corporate social responsibility was ushered in because young employees and community-minded activists demanded it.
The Government-backed Social Innovation Fund Ireland (SIFI) took inspiration from the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation which was created by the Obama White House,and has already made an indelible mark on communities all around Ireland since its first year of operations in 2015.
Social innovation as a theory has existed since the 1960s but has gained momentum in Ireland in the past four years through the work of SIFI.
The charity was created in order to establish a philanthropic fund of significant size and impact to aid the development of social innovation, which is described as strengthening civil society by innovative means.
The organisation’s mission is to provide growth capital and supports the best social innovations in Ireland, enabling them to scale and maximise their impact.
In simple terms, if a community-minded project has the betterment of society in mind, is able to get bigger and better with the right support, it is something SIFI would be willing to support.
Crucially, every euro raised in philanthropy is matched by a euro from the Department of Rural and Community Development through the Dormant Accounts Fund.
The Department of Rural and Community Development was established in July 2017 to provide a renewed and consolidated focus on rural and community development in Ireland.
In 2017, SIFI met its target to raise €5m in philanthropic funds, creating a €10m national social innovation fund.
On the back of this, the Department of Rural and Community Development pledged to build a €50m social innovation fund in Ireland.
Cork-based Pádraic Vallely, who is business development manager with SIFI, said it was“incredible” to see the growth of community projects such as Sensational Kids, which assists thousands of children across the country with additional needs; Tallaght-based Citywise which has substantially raised the number of young people going on to third level in the area; and DPS Engineering’s Aspire2 programme which partners with schools in areas of lower third level take up in order to boost students going on to college.
“The impact we have made is substantial. It is absolutely brilliant from a personal point of view to see the projects thrive. We had an event where we brought our donors to specific areas, and one was at Citywise, an education centre out in Tallaght.
“I had heard about it, but seeing it was something else. In Tallaght, 17% go to onto third level. That goes up to 97% once in Citywise. That’s incredible.
It’s about bringing that mindset to people in less advantaged areas that they can go to university. We’re seeing firsthand the impacts that these projects are having on the ground.
“It is so rewarding to see those funds being spent in an impactful way. But there is more to do to make long-term impacts on such organisations,” he said.
Cork Chamber’s partnership with SIFI means the business community can become immersed in supporting some of the best community projects, Mr Vallely said.
“The Cork Chamber fund really is about getting the Cork business community around this; not only will they be able to give back but they will also be brought on that journey for two to three years. We showcase that journey and the impact made.
“Innovation is key, as is scale and impact. Those are the three core criteria when we look at applications. We support them by looking at fundraising, marketing, business planning, strategy, theory of change; it’s about putting those organisations in a stronger position to succeed.
“DPS brought the funds in and we leveraged it. It is a really excellent project. Sensational Kids is another that has scaled wonderfully — the amount of families it has helped over the years is amazing and inspiring.”
SIFI has partnered with companies such as Bank of America, Google, Medtronic, Mason Hayes & Curran and IPB Insurance, as well as SMEs, trusts, families and individuals and provided growth capital and supports to 61 social innovations in Ireland.
Mr Vallely said: “We were modelled on a Barack Obama initiative when the administration originally had set up a social innovation private-public partnership.
When we were doing our exploratory conversations, our chief executive Deirdre Mortell actually flew over to the key person in that Barack Obama initiative and saw how it could work.
“We’re putting systems in place where there is double the impact — donors are getting value for money, and they are investing in organisations that Government may not even have heard of.
“It’s a private-public partnership in essence. We have no core funding from Government, we have to report to it and draw down funds, but we are very private in terms of our systems and our processes.
“To us, governance is key in organisations we support, from internal screening to interviews to due diligence — we’d look at everything in terms of governance and leadership.
“It’s a social investment so we have to be sure of the potential. It’s not just about bringing money to the table, it has to be solid in its impact as well as innovative,” Mr Vallely said.
Cork Chamber became the first of its kind in Ireland to get on board with SIFI and as part of its 200th anniversary, launched a six-month community funding drive in January to raise €200,000 to benefit Cork community initiatives with a social,environmental or economic impact. It has a fundraising target of €100,000, with the goal of a combined funding total of €200,000 through its funds raised being matched.
Fundraising will take place until July, after which an open call for applications will be made through SIFI.
New and established not-for-profit or social enterprises across Cork may apply for funding of projects that are innovative, address a critical social issue such as health, inclusion, local economy, and environment, Cork Chamber said.
Cork Chamber president Bill O’Connell said: “This funding drive with SIFI is one of the cornerstones of our anniversary programme, marking 200 years by raising €200,000.
“Social innovation projects have a hugely important role to play in local communities and this project gives everyone a chance to become a philanthropist.
“We are encouraging businesses of all sizes, as well as individuals, to take ownership of this partnership and contribute to the fund, thereby making a personal investment in initiatives that will build community resilience and ensure longevity for the future, making Cork a better place to live and work as we start our next 200-year journey.”
Those interested in supporting the Cork Chamber 1819 fund can do so viagofundme.com/cork-chamber-1819-fund or by contacting Cork Chamber directly in relation to corporate donations.
Celebrating past, looking to the future
Over the last 200 years, Cork Chamber has given a voice to business and pushed for key infrastructure developments and projects that have changed the face of the city and region.
However, as the chamber celebrates its bicentenary, this year, our key initiatives not only celebrate the history of the organisation, but also look forward with strong vision and ambition, for our city, for today and in the future.
One such is the Cork Chamber 1819 Fund,a crowdfunding initiative in partnership with Social Innovation Fund Ireland (SIFI).
We aim to raise €100,000 in six months, and this money will be matched, euro for euro, by government, from the Department of Ruraland Community Development via the Dormant Accounts Fund, to bring it to €200,000.
The Cork Chamber 1819 Fund (www.gofundme.com/cork-chamber-1819-fund) is the first of its kind in Ireland, the first time a Chamber has engaged in an ambitious crowdfunding campaign to support social innovation.
By bringing together individual philanthropic and corporate donations, we want to demonstrate that the people and the businesses of Cork are committed to making Cork a great place to work and live.
The money will be used to back several, innovative sustainable projects that address critical social issues in the Cork region and will be distributed via a competitive application process, which will be launched by SIFI this summer.
Over the last few years, Cork Chamber surveys have shown extremely high levels of optimism among our member businesses.
Yet, while Ireland is performing strongly at the moment, we must acknowledge that our society faces many challenges.
Daily headlines highlight some of the issues in Ireland, such as political instability, homelessness, food waste, global warming, skills shortages, increasing mental health issues, and social exclusion.
There is an ongoing need for us to think creatively about how to address these challenges and we need to support those organisations,the social enterprises that are spearheading innovative projects to find solutions to some of these issues.
As an ‘influencer’ in the business community in Cork for the last 200 years, it is Cork Chamber’s responsibility not only to help businesses to connect, network, and promote themselves on a daily basis, but also to look at the bigger picture and to be ambitious for the long-term future of the region.
Businesses are looking for ways of using their influence and of directing some of their profits to worthy causes, for CSR (corporate social responsibility) or ESG (environmental, social and governance) reasons. Investing in social enterprises through the Cork Chamber 1819 Fund gives businesses the opportunity to invest in a sustainable business and to build more resilient communities. We hope that the people and the businesses of Cork will get behind this drive to jointly fund and support some of the most promising social enterprises in Cork, thereby leaving a positive legacy for our region into the future.
Katherine Fitzpatrick, director of international relations at Cork Chamber
‘Food empathy’ sprouts as group inspires others to grow it yourself
Having grown fruit and vegetables for years, Michael Kelly set up a local food growers group in Waterford in 2008. It is now an international movement with more than 500,000 inspired by the Grow It Yourself (GIY) vision.
GIY inspires and supports people to grow their own food at home, in school, in workplaces and in the community.
GIY supports over 500,000 people and 8,000 community food-growing groups and projects in Ireland and the UK.
The ethos behind GIY, according to Mr Kelly and head of community development Karen O’Donohoe, is that when people grow food on any level they gain an understanding for food called ‘food empathy’, which has a significant impact on their well-being and the health of the planet.
In October 2016, GIY opened the GROW HQ, the home of the GIY movement and its National Food Education Centre in Waterford. GROW HQ aims to attract 250,000 visitors over five years, and empower 17,000 people to learn how to grow and cook their own food. The GROW HQ bistro has been lauded by food and restaurant critics.
Ms O’Donohoe said Social Innovation Fund Ireland (SIFI) support has helped take GIY to the next level. In 2018, GIY was successful in two applications to SIFI — its Social Enterprise Development and Resilient Communities Fund. The cash award helped but the six-month accelerator programme and non-cash supports around business development, strategic planning and impact measurement was invaluable, Ms O’Donohoe said.
Mr Kelly worked closely with business mentor Declan Droney to develop GROWBox, a retail product piloted in 2017 in response to people’s main barriers to growing food — lack of time, space and knowledge. By the end of the process, Michael and Declan produced a three-year strategic plan that identified the significant impact GROWBox, with the right investment, could have on GIY’s income and impact.
Ms O’Donohoe, founder of The Cottage Market, was given through the Resilient Community Fund, an opportunity to work with the SIFI team and Ahmed Abu-El-Eta, a London-based business consultant to undertake a forensic review of The Cottage Market concept to clarify it’s mission, strategic objectives and financial model.
Ms O’Donohoe said: “The process, though challenging at times, has repositioned The Cottage Market as a community development initiative that, with some changes to the model and sustained investment in key areas such as PR, communications and impact measurement, will develop social, economic and environmental resilience in rural and urban communities at scale. It will change the narrative around rural communities in particular, from death toll-esque negative to vibrantly positive.”
Aspire2 bridges gap, allowing students access to college
Five years ago, chief executive of DPS Engineering, Frank Keogh was looking through the yearly Irish Times schools to university feeder league tables.
He was struck at the vast gap between schools in so-called affluent areas and those not traditionally affluent. In Cork alone, progression was near 100% in schools such as PBC, CBC and Scoil Mhuire, while in areas such as Cork’s northside or Ballyfermot in Dublin it was as low as 20%.
In 2015 DPS began its Aspire2 programme, which aims to bridge the gap and enhance numbers going on to third level in these areas.
Initially partnering with two schools in Dublin and two in Cork, Aspire2 now works with six schools and has assisted 600 students by offering not just financial help, but supports including mentoring from DPS employees, work placements, youth advisory panels, and a wide range of in-school initiatives. These have included extra tuition, personal development workshops, Gaeltacht scholarships, cultural visits, motivational workshops, and after-school study hubs.
Aspire2 aims to supportstudents in their personal growth and development; motivate and encourage them to complete their second level education successfully; help them achieve Leaving Certificate results that reflect their true potential; provide them with opportunities to progress further through the education system; and help them realise their potential.
It is closely supported by UCC and CIT, as well as UCD, Trinity College, and IT Tallaght.
Aspire2 project manager Janice McGarry said: “It has been an absolute pleasure to work with like-minded partners on this programme over the last number of years. The real reward for the Aspire2 team, and indeed all at DPS, is to watch the students grow and develop into young adults.
“It was also delightful to see that the programme empowered many of the students to such an extent, that they were keen to form an Aspire 2 alumni, with the sole intention of giving back to their peers, school, community, and indeed the programme.”
DPS director Tony Mahon said the support of SIFI was invaluable.
“We were more than pleased when SIFI expressed an interest to work with us on our unique education project. Education is the most important tool for ensuring that our young people have the brightest future possible.
“We believe that through working together with key stakeholders from the education sector, we are educating the young minds who will be part of creating a brightfuture for themselves, along with Ireland Inc,” Mr Mahon said.
Fellow DPS director Michael Mulhall told a recent business breakfast of Cork Chamber that due to SIFI getting onboard, DPS was able to expand its base, the number of schools, and variety and focus of initiatives.
It has been a very successful partnership. Interestingly, it offers many advantages to our own people through mentoring, and is of tremendous satisfaction for them.
"We have helped 600 students and progression rates have gone from 40% to 60% in our selected schools. But six schools is a drop in the ocean and there is a lot of work to be done,” he said.
Service invaluable for kids with additional needs
To the families of more than 5,600 children with additional needs all over Ireland, Sensational Kids has been more than invaluable — it has almost been divine intervention, such is the massive impact it has made.
Having experienced lengthy waiting lists and a lack of affordable and accessible occupational therapy services for her own children, Karen Leigh founded Sensational Kids in Kildare in 2007, aiming to bridge the gap between public and private services.
Ms Leigh wanted to make the likes of speech and language therapy and occupational therapy affordable and accessible for children with additional needs.
The numbers positively impacted since are staggering. With 5,600 children directly benefiting, and around €1.5m saved in therapy fees, Sensational Kids has a highly skilled clinical team across sites in Kildare, Cork and Mayo.
An online store and child development stores attached to the centres means every euro goes back into providing more services for families. The stores have a range of developmental aids with all profits raised funding equipment, training for therapists and workshops.
It means parents that perhaps cannot afford fees, Sensational Kids can work with them because of the funds available from the stores.
In Clonakilty, Co Cork, Sensational Kids has helped over 100 children and provided over 150 therapy appointments since opening last year, specialising in speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and play therapy from this month.
Clonakilty-based business development manager Beth O’Regan said: “Within the first six weeks of opening, we had 100 appointments. We are growing and scaling every single week, getting more and more enquiries and children, and we are adding more strings to our bow such as play therapy. Everyone that comes to us says we are so lucky to have this facility on the doorstep in West Cork.
“We were lucky to become an awardee of SIFI last July and it has helped us grow and scale in Clonakilty and Claremorris later this year.
SIFI believed in us and invested in us, not only in financial terms but through support and guidance. It’s been unbelievable. They saw our merits and believed in our mission as a social enterprise to narrow that gap of children on public waiting lists waiting for therapy.
“That support means being able to see more children, to grow and scale — we want Sensational Kids to be accessible to people within an hour’s drive. That is the dream. SIFI is helping us achieve our dream.”
Corporate Ireland call to innovation
SOCIAL Innovation Fund Ireland (SIFI) was created by the Government in 2013 to fill the gap in risk funding for innovation and to fill the gap in philanthropy after the closure of Atlantic Philanthropies and ONE Foundation reduced the organised philanthropic funds available for social issues in Ireland by 85% in just three years.
So what is social innovation? Social innovations are innovations that are social in their end or in their means.
For SIFI, a special focus is placed on innovative solutions to critical issues. Our purpose is to find and back innovative solutions to critical issues in Ireland.
We provide cash grants and business supports to charities and social enterprises so that they can scale and reach as many people in need of their important work.
Ever euro we raise in philanthropic donations is matched by a euro from Government, by the Department of Rural and Community Development from the Dormant Accounts Fund.
In 2017, the Department of Rural and Community Development announced its commitment to building a €50m fund for social innovation in Ireland.
Since then, we have significantly accelerated our fundraising and we are on a mission to raise €25m in philanthropic funding from corporates, SMEs, trusts, foundations, and individual and family philanthropists.
Our vision is to create the best ecosystem for social innovation right here in Ireland and we are calling for as many people across the country to come and join us and help make this happen.
Since 2015, we have raised over €28m in commitments, 50% from private philanthropy and 50% from the Department of Rural and Community Development through the Dormant Accounts Funds.
We have partnered with companies such as Bank of America, Mason Hayes & Curran, IPB Insurance, Google, and Medtronic, and trusts such as Cork-based Tomar Trust.
We have opened over 20 calls for applications,addressing a wide range of critical social issues including education, youth mental health, and equality, and supporting projects that use new and innovative ways to achieve impact, including through technology, arts, sports, and more.
This has enabled us to provide growth capital and business supports to 81 of the best social innovations in Ireland including Sensational Kids, an innovative social enterprise that has positively impacted the lives of more than 5,600 children throughout Ireland with additional needs, and the Irish Men’s Sheds Association, which was set up to support and promote the development of Men’s Sheds in Ireland.
A Men’s Shed is any community-based, non-commercial organisation which is open to all men to provide a safe, friendly, and inclusive environment where the men are able to gather and/or work on meaningful projects at their own pace, in their own time and in the company of other men.
In January, we partnered with Cork Chamber of Commerce to launch a €200,000 fundraising drive to create a Resilient Communities Fund in Cork.
We are urging corporate Ireland and corporate Cork to get involved in this fund, which has potential for meaningful impact in communities across Cork and beyond.
Cork Chamber is the first Irish chamber of commerce to launch an initiative of this kind with SIFI.
We believe that now more than ever is the time for a Resilient Communities Fund.
Significant development occurring across Ireland since the late 1990s has brought changes to settlements, transport patterns, and economic bases, and has altered the traditional rural/urban population balance.
As a result of this shift, our rural and town communities are facing challenges to build sustainable economies, maintain public services, and retain young people; while our urban communities are burdened with
increasingly unaffordable housing, longer commute times, more limited resources, and stresses on infrastructure.
Both urban and rural communities are facing potential impacts of climate change, such as adverse effects on water quality and increased risk of flooding.
The Resilient Communities Fund represents the ability and effort of Irish communities to overcome all of these challenges and more for stronger, more vibrant communities that also deliver positive economic, social, and environmental impact.
We are also calling for applications from organisations in Cork to apply for funds which are now open, including the Ignite Fund, the Mná na hÉireann/Women of Ireland Fund, the Children and Youth Mental Health Fund, and the Children and Youth Education Fund.
Deirdre Mortell is CEO of Social Innovation Fund Ireland. See: socialinnovation.ie