I have to admit that I’ve been sceptical about the value of social enterprise. My perception was that social enterprises were an unsatisfactory hybrid between a charity, an underfunded community start-up, or even some sort of political sticking plaster to create local jobs where there was effectively market failure from economic development programmes. I also wondered what motivated the team in social enterprises – many of them with more earning potential in the private or even (regular) public sector.
For the love of place it turns out and a demonstrable commitment to bring long term benefits to the local community. Last week, when I visited a village in Connemara, in the West of Ireland and spoke to the manager of a local co-op there, Sean O’Domhnaill, I was totally inspired by what this enterprise has already achieved in a decade and their plans for the future. The Co-Op operates in a community of just 3,000 people called An Cheathru Rua (Carraroe in English). It sits within the Galway Gaeltacht (Irish speaking region) and one of a number of communities on the Western seaboard where communities still speak Irish as their first language.
I was surprised at the commerciality, with yoy growth in revenue and profitability that would embarrass many companies. It is creative and innovative, with multiple income streams spanning a scuba diving school to managing a co-working space. It’s a sustainable and ambitious project through its investment in solar panels which are already providing the power source for the facilities and in phase two will generate surplus power to sell back to the grid. It’s giving back to the community through use of shared facilities (which it has purchased, maintains and will soon own outright). And that use spans from women’s groups for “a knit and bitch” session (the patrons’ words, not mine!) to community sports. It’s a centre for education, culture, history and heritage. It’s the hub for a language school and houses an amazing photography display highlighting the changes in the community over the years; from turf cutting to offshore wind, kelp harvesting to biodiversity, and dry stone walling to smart building, reminding us of how far we’ve all travelled in a relatively short space of time.
The profits are used for a range of placemaking and economic development initiatives. It’s distributing the profits across its shareholders, the people of Carraroe. It brings community cohesion. And the visibility of this creates a virtuous circle, support from the community for the resource, profits back into the community - circular economy in action. It’s adding value to every place pillar – Live, Work, Invest and Study – even if not from the conventional angle.
This co-op is also working effectively with other statutory, voluntary and private sector partners in the area such as Udaras na Gaeltachta, the body responsible for preservation of language through fostering enterprise development, employment and supporting community, cultural and language-based events. Evident place partnership, working collaboratively for common social goals, leveraging networks and funding streams as appropriate. And the leadership is key: Sean O’Domhnaill is a former employee of a significant foreign investment facility in the region, with 2 All Ireland Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) championships for his county, and a presence, personality and commitment that would be prized in any world class organisation. He could be top of his game wherever he chose to work, but community, roots and place are his DNA and he is living those values.
As Kerr (2007) defined, “Social enterprise is an investment, not a gift and not charity.”
We all could do with more of this investment in our communities.