Belfast Telegraph

Enterprises putting people over profits and helping communities

European delegates to learn about society-driven innovation at Belfast event. Alice Johnson reports

The future of social welfare in Northern Ireland may be uncertain, but there is one sector of the economy that aims to put people first – social enterprises.

Around 500 social enterprises in Northern Ireland employ more than 12,000 people and generate sales of up to £600m each year.

Social enterprises are organisations which use commercial strategies to improve human and environmental well-being, rather than maximising profits for external shareholders.

And the sector known as the 'social economy' will be the focus of an event hosted by the Ulster Business School and the School of Social Enterprises Ireland in Belfast on Thursday and Friday this week.

More than 150 delegates from 42 countries will attend the European Conference on Innovation and Entrepreneurship to learn more about society-driven innovation and entrepreneurship.

While often called 'non-profit', social enterprises have to make money to survive – but the gains are retained to pursue the organisation's purpose. They can include community organisations, co-operatives, credit-unions, self-help projects, housing associations, heritage bodies, and enterprise agencies and are often seen where gaps in public sector provision exist. Many contribute to helping access jobs, urban regeneration, rural development or health and social care.

Dr Brendan Galbraith from Ulster Business School's department of management and leadership is co-chairing this week's event, which is taking place at the Assembly Buildings at Fishwerwick Place in Belfast.

"The goal of the conference is to bring together a community of researchers, practitioners, social enterprises and policymakers to share their insights and good practices on social innovation and entrepreneurship," he said.

"European policymakers and industry are facing the challenge of balancing the needs of society, appropriate technology and service solutions with sustainable business models.

"This is increasingly important as healthcare budgets are reduced, pressure grows to find sustainable energy solutions and to develop user-driven ways to help combat social isolation and develop community cohesion.

"The Ulster Business School has been working closely with many social enterprises for several years and has embedded social entrepreneurship into its core activities. Now our centre for SME development is launching the social value incubator – a gateway for social enterprises to access expertise and support as well as giving our students opportunities to gain hands on experience in the social economy."

Father Miles Kavanagh from the Flax Trust, which focuses on improving north Belfast and is now one of the biggest, most successful and longest running social enterprises in Northern Ireland, will give a keynote speech. Other speakers at the event include Michael Pyner of the Shoreditch Trust, who has delivered projects valued at over £270m in the last decade and who advises government on creative industry and social economy policy.

One social enterprise that has been working alongside the Ulster Business School is the Resource Centre in Londonderry.

Kenny McAdams, director of services at the Resource Centre Derry, which at 40 years old is Northern Ireland's oldest social enterprise, told the Belfast Telegraph that it started up simply to meet the 'unmet' needs of the community.

"Resource Centre Derry has always worked on the principle that if we are going to tackle the social and economic problems faced by the many thousands of ordinary people, the only way that can be done is through real equal partnership with different sections of civic society," he said.

The enterprise directly employs over 60 people in contracts with different government departments which cover day-care, meals on wheels, information and advice, Sure-start children's advice centres and training and employment programmes.

The Turn2Us scheme – a painting, decorating and small home maintenance jobs service – provides training and employment opportunities for the long-term unemployed.

Mr McAdams said: "Social enterprise should not be about replacing public sector jobs with low paid jobs in the community, it should be about creating decently paid employment which meets the real needs of local communities.

"Social enterprises have the ability to meet these needs by working in partnerships with public and statutory bodies to address social, economic and cultural exclusion."

Through funding from the Invest Northern Ireland Innovation Fund, the enterprise has been working with the Ulster Business School to explore the possibility of setting up a social enterprise in response to the Department of Health's Transforming Your Care policy, which proposes to introduce widespread changes across health and social care services."

"There is a fear that government will keep people living in the community longer, without the proper support structures in place. But there is also an opportunity for us here. Unless we begin to work in real meaningful partnership and equal partnership at local community level, then the government's 'Transforming Your Care' will fail," he said.

Belfast Telegraph