Saturday, June 11, 2011

Social Enterprise the Irish Way

Just back from Louisburgh, a place which sounds like it should be in Tennessee or Wyoming but is in fact in Co Mayo, Ireland. It was a 24 hour flying visit to speak to the 2011 Finalist for Social Enterprise Irelands's Social Impact Awards.

What a setting. We flew into Knock, an airport built by a priest on a hilltop so that people could come see the nearby shrine. These days it is the gateway to the remoter towns of the west, for one of which I was headed.

I was picked up by the Cex of SEI, Sean Coughlan and we spent a pleasant hour and a half going over the recent election there followed by the visit of our Queen.

Irish politics, if you haven't noticed, has undergone a seismic shift with the dominant party (Fianna Fail) reduced to 19 seats - which would be the equivalent of Labour or the Tories getting less than 80. For the first time, it seems, old party allegiances have been abandoned in a collective protest against the economic collapse and the cronyism of the Irish state.

This, coupled with the Queen's visit, which is helping put to bed the longstanding issue between the UK and Ireland, make this feel like a time of reappraisal, Sean believes - and I agree.

I have been all over Ireland but never to Mayo, Louisburgh is set among mountains and sea. The weather changes quickly,making it a place of ever-shifting colour, light and shade. It never feels the same for long. The event was at the home of Declan Ryan, one of the founders of Ryanair, who is Chair of Social Enterprise Ireland and the One Foundation, Ireland's biggest social investor.

Declan is an aviation nut who now sets up airlines in emerging countries. Unlike a lot of big business guys, he is very unassuming and is the opposite of the 'Big I Am'. In fact, me being slow, it took me quite a while to work out who he actually was - halfway through a conversation in fact.

The event itself is about selecting from a field of about eight, the three strongest candidates for a significant social investment from the One Foundation, an investment that will enable significant scaling up. I didn't get to talk to everyone but at dinner I had a chance to talk to two candidates at length.

One was Sean Love. A former Director of Amnesty Ireland, Sean has paired up by novelist Roddy Doyle to set up Fighting Words. Staffed mainly by volunteers, it runs free creative writing and storytelling workshops for students of all ages to enhance creative writing skills and build their confidence in writing ability and self-expression.

In just over two years the centre has hosted 13,000 primary school children, 6,000 secondary students and 5,000 adults. Ireland is full of 'name' writers and artists, many of whom, with no accolade, show up and deliver sessions. Sean is heavily oversubsribed and wants to scale the programme.

Another was Krystian Fikert, a young Polish man set up MyMind in 2006, while employed with Google, in response to what he saw as the complicated nature of the Irish mental health system. MyMind provides affordable and accessible mental health services within the community, which aims to bypass the need for clinical referral, long waiting lists and high- cost services through ePsychologist, an innovative online support model.

What struck me about the group, overall, was their quality and energy. It reminded me a bit of that first day of the Ambassador programme when 20 of the UK's best all came together for the first time.

They have their work cut out. Ireland's economy is weak. Problems are growing almost as quickly as the pot is shrinking. These guys will depend on the country's new Government being willing to press the reset button in many areas of public policy - such as mental health, suicide prevention, education and the environment.

Which means taking on vested interests such as unions and the media. Easier in a small country where Ministers and MPs are often a phone call away. But harder, given the scale of mountains to climb.

I decided, after a bit of faffing around to waive my fee for this one. Not because I am a great guy but because I got as much out of this trip as anyone got out of me. Most of what I see I have seen before, in earlier version.

This was a bit different. I felt I was with the best of a generation, the people who are going, one way or another, to be the shapers of this country's future. To spend time among them was my privilege.

1 comment:

Darren said...

What a pleasure it was to have you at our event, and what a generous gesture to waive the fee for the day.

Our social entrepreneurs have all told us how inspired they were by your story (especially your openness about the things that didn't go so well). For social entrepreneurs at the early stages of their journeys, this was a truly brilliant workshop.

Thanks again,

All the team at Social Entrepreneurs Ireland.