Belfast Telegraph

A great mission is now made possible

By Paul Gosling

The East Belfast Mission has hit the headlines and television screens in recent days, playing a leading role in trying to bring an end to the flag protests and riots that have plagued Belfast for weeks.

"We work within the area with people in the area to facilitate moving beyond violence in peaceful ways that are appropriate," said Anne Walsh, the Mission's business development director.

Yet while the Mission is a charity that supports peace and acts to tackle deprivation in east Belfast, it does a great deal more than that as well. It is a social enterprise - a business that operates to fulfill social objectives - and has won a stack of UK and Northern Ireland awards for its success. The most recent and most significant of these accolades was as UK Social Enterprise of the Year for 2012.

The Mission has a long history, beginning in the 1800s as a soup kitchen operated by the Methodist church.

"The congregation wanted to provide help and support for families through soup kitchens and in other ways," said Anne.

Gradually, that social work became more carefully defined. In 1985 the Mission was registered as a charity. It still operates under the leadership of the Methodist church, but, it stresses, operates on a strictly open and non-discriminatory basis. "Our mission is to see community transformation and renewal in east Belfast and to offer hope and a future for all those in need, regardless of background or belief," Anne said.

Eventually it became sensible for the charity to operate on a more business-like basis. "We are a company limited by guarantee and for the last eight years we have operated as a social enterprise," said Anne. "We looked at how we could become self-sustaining, given the changes that were happening in the funding environment. Organisations were becoming funding-led, rather than mission-led."

Today some 45% of the Mission's income is from trading activities. Those successful commercial businesses include nine charity shops - one of these is a vintage shop that contains a bridal department. The Bright Sparks nursery is a new business line that opened in September last year. The Mission also runs a food catering service, operating both a café and a meals-on-wheels service. Other business projects include a furniture refurbishment workshop, a firewood stick-chopping project and a bicycle repair service.

Much of the rest of the Mission's income, although provided by grants, is paid for under service level agreements that specify what services will be provided. These include the provision of hostel accommodation for people who are homeless, on behalf of the Oaklee Housing Association, and services for the unemployed, paid for by the Department for Employment and Learning.

The Mission has 90 staff and about a hundred volunteers to support its operations, which generated an income of £2.8m in the last financial year. All trading surpluses are redirected back to the core social objectives of the Mission.

Income is expected to substantially increase in the current financial year, following the opening of its new Skainos building - itself an important regeneration project. Here on the Newtownards Road it rents out space to Age Northern Ireland, the development charity Tearfund and mental health support group Niamh, while apartments upstairs are rented out for both private and social housing.

Following eight years of fast expansion, the Mission is now content to consolidate with a slower rate of growth. "One of our ambitions is rather than to increasingly get bigger is to get better in what we do," said Anne. "We are implementing a new management information system." This seeks to improve organisation control and use of data. This involves greater automation in the financial reporting submitted to funders and others, while reducing the internal administrative workload.

It is an important reminder that whatever the activity, it remains essential to back it up with effective and efficient administration. In fact, organisations often include strong administrative efficiency in their 'mission statements'. But while many businesses talk of having a 'mission', few mean it as literally as this transformative social enterprise.