Social Entrepreneurs Ireland

Think Big. Act Now. Change Ireland.

Social Entrepreneurs Ireland


Established in 2004

The Journey

In 2004, the One Foundation - a private philanthropic fund – was established in Dublin. “Social entrepreneurship” which was still a new concept in Ireland was one of the four key programmes of the foundation, based on the belief that social entrepreneurs can be key agents of innovation and positive change

Seán Coughlan headed up the programme which, after two years of launching the first awards, was eventually spun out from One Foundation to become a separate legal entity in2007.

They had a clear idea about the state of social entrepreneurship in Ireland. However, observing how social entrepreneurs were being supported in other countries and having other international organisations to reference was very helpful in developing their own strategy and make high-level decisions within the local environment.

Ashoka, Echoing Green, School for Social Entrepreneurs and UnLtd were particularly instrumental in the set-up process. Each organisation had a very different support model and was able to offer practical information about the processes and challenges within each one.

By connecting and exchanging with these partners, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland was able to incorporate their learnings about key topics such as scouting, networking, types of financial support and working with government.

Social Entrepreneurs Ireland continues on its journey, working alongside and learning with the entrepreneurs as they grow and develop. Any modifications or tweaks to the support model are rooted in the needs of the social entrepreneurs they support.



Support for Social Entrepreneurs

Social Entrepreneurs Ireland carries out an in-depth, competition-based selection process to attract and select the social entrepreneurs with the most potential to bring about social impact.

SEI believes that this type of selection process provides:

ü  a better balance between effort and reward

ü  valuable pitching experience

ü  strong opportunities to learn and develop (workshops and individual feedback)

ü  great networking opportunities (peers and potential supporters)

ü  prestige and credibility for the social entrepreneur

There are also advantages for the organisation and its partners, not just the social entrepreneurs:

ü  planning and resource allocation

ü  sense of occasion and prestige

ü  awareness and brand building (multiple PR opportunities)

ü  better chance of making the right choices

ü  great staff partner engagement opportunities

All selection processes can have their downsides. In the case of competition-backed selection there can be a lack of flexibility, timing can be an issue, social entrepreneurs can act as competitors rather than collaborators – and the staff are at stretched capacity at certain points of the year.

For the Award Winners that make it through, the support model is a mixture of financing, training, mentoring and networking.

Social Entrepreneurs Ireland provide two types of support programmes; the Elevator Programme and the Impact Programme.

The Elevator Programme offers support to 6 social entrepreneurs in the earliest stages of their projects. Through this 12 month programme SEI help refine ideas and implement the required structures to build a sustainable and scalable organisation. Geared towards projects in the early stages of development, the Elevator Programme aims to help social entrepreneurs who have yet to determine the full sustainability and effectiveness of their solution.

The Impact Programme looks to support 3 social entrepreneurs with established and effective projects that have the potential to scale significantly – creating widespread and long term social impact. Over the course of the Impact Programme SEI aim to help their Awardees develop a clear plan on how best to scale their solution, significantly increasing social impact.

All Awardees of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland are also entitled to receive a series of pro-bono supports from several partner organisations, ensuring that each of our social entrepreneurs receive the best professional services available at no cost to them or their organisations. Awardees are also provided with access to numerous free/low-cost training courses and workshops to help develop both themselves and their organisations further.

As well as their core support programmes SEI has played a key role in the development of both the Arthur Guinness Fund and the School for Social Entrepreneurs, Ireland – two major initiatives to support the work of social entrepreneurs in Ireland.

In addition SEI has built further on their own work with the creation of The Impact Series – quarterly SEI events that engage leaders from the business, public and non-profit sector as well as some of Ireland’s leading social entrepreneurs. The Impact Series is designed to inspire innovative ideas, to bring social entrepreneurship to a wider audience and to spark discussion and debate around key social issues and the role that social entrepreneurship can have in addressing these issues.

The direct support programme speaks only to a defined audience – and the media does not allow the general public to actively participate in issues they genuinely care about such as the future of education – or fresh ways of solving the unemployment crisis. However, these events provide an opportunity to the general public to engage with the social entrepreneurship community and contribute with ideas about how to change Ireland.

Within the framework of the Impact Series, SEI organises a Minnovation Fund (mini+innovation). All ticket proceeds from the events go towards the fund which will be given as a seed fund to one high potential start-up social entrepreneur. The winner will be voted for by the audience following three short pitches. This kind of support strategy has proved to be very successful: it provides an opportunity to publicise the projects, raises funding for test ideas (that are much harder to fund within the normal programme) and helps the audience to feel that their contribution can make a tangible difference. 

Top tips for supporters around the world


ü  Get out there and do it! Don’t try to get everything in place upfront. Aim for a reasonable set of candidates and a reasonable amount of support.


ü  Competition-based selection increases impact


ü  Build your own model, don’t replicate. Look for organisations that can help by sharing the kinds of insights, methods and processes that are relevant to you.


ü  Work out whether the priority is to have direct impact or to build the sector. The answer has a big influence on how you structure your programmes.


Challenges & Opportunities

“There are many challenges for the social entrepreneurship sector in Ireland. The concept needs to be embedded more deeply in society so that it becomes the norm – and not just a trend or fad.

One of the biggest challenges out there is how to ensure the sustainability of the support organisation. We need to work collaboratively to maximise the resources that are out there.

As an organisation, we need to become more effective at pulling together real success stories to demonstrate our impact – which is key in promoting the benefits of social entrepreneurship not only among potential funding partners, but also among the broader public. 

After almost 10 years in operation, it is a real challenge to know where the balance lies between building the sector and having more direct impact through the social entrepreneurs.

For more direct impact, it’s best to pick exceptionally good projects and provide intensive support. If we want to build the sector, it’s arguable better to opt for more visibility by supporting a higher number of projects and have more stories to tell. The level of impact is lower – but the policy makers may start to listen more carefully – which in turn can bring in more funding.”



The conversation about impact measurement is on-going outside and inside the organisation.  

Social Entrepreneurs Ireland has designed a diagnostic tool to measure the success of individual projects over time. They believe it’s important to measure the growth and sustainability of the initiatives they support. For example, 45-55% of Elevator Programme Awardees have progresses to real impact one year afterwards. In other cases, the projects have become obsolete because the challenge they are addressing has been solved.

General metrics:

Number of social entrepreneurs supported: 169

Money invested in their projects since 2004 €5.4 million

Directly impacted over 250,000 people across Ireland and created over 850 employment opportunities in the process.


SEI metrics

The Social Entrepreneurs

Irish Community Rapid Response - Irish Community Rapid Response was established to support local teams of volunteer doctors and paramedics who can be called upon to assist local emergency services in rural communities across Ireland.

“The Impact Award is a powerful endorsement to our vision of saving lives.” – John Kearney

MyMind - MyMind was established with the goal of building an accessible and affordable network of community based mental health services, ensuring that every person in need of help in Ireland could reach it.

“Thanks to SEI and the Impact Award, MyMind is moving towards self-sustainability in the next two years.” – Krystian Fikert

Irish Men’s Sheds Association - The Irish Men’s Sheds Association was established with the purpose of supporting the development and sustainability of Men’s Sheds on the island of Ireland, advancing the health and well-being of all its members.

Solas Project - Using a mentoring and skills building approach, the Solas Project’s Prison Programme was established to help young offenders make a real and long-lasting change to their lives after release.

“The support, assistance and encouragement has been invaluable and has moved us way down the track, much quicker than we could have without.” – Graham Jones

Jobnet - Jobnet is an innovative programme developed to address the needs of a new kind of jobseeker in the Irish jobs market – the highly skilled, experienced and qualified professional or graduate facing the prospect of long term unemployment.

“Being an awardee has helped me grow as a person, as a leader, and has helped give shape and direction to my project.” – Peter Johnson

Fighting Words – it provides classes for children of all ages to build confidence in creative writing and self-expression.

Mad Pride – the founder, John McCarthy’s experiences as a patient within mental health institutions compelled him to work to reduce the stigma attached to mental health issues.

“I was rejected for six or seven years by everybody… The first break I got was at SEI [who] gave me money… and more importantly contacts.”  - John McCarthy. 

Partnerships & Financial Sustainability

The One Foundation provided Social Entrepreneurs Ireland with 100% of its funding for the first two years. The model has since evolved and SEI now attracts a diverse group of funders, partners and clients.

SEI’s individual high-net-worth donors commit not only money but also their time. They enjoy site visits, mentoring and other activities that get them closer to the social entrepreneurs.

Foundations, trusts and government are more process driven and require a more structured approach with formalised reporting.

For corporate donors, SEI can provide opportunities for staff engagement and increasingly more CSR departments are looking to support social entrepreneurship.

SEI has developed innovative ways of diversifying its revenue streams. For example, when Guinness was celebrating its 250th anniversary, Diageo Ireland was keen to do something meaningful. Social Entrepreneurs Ireland was instrumental in setting up the Arthur Guinness Fund, which focuses on social entrepreneurs. SEI partnered with them to help create the criteria, selection process, etc. As well as the brand association, this kind of income is unrestricted and of therefore huge value to the organisation.

In Ireland, there is still a small fundraising market and therefore raising money from the general public is a complicated issue. Social Entrepreneurs Ireland does not want to be in competition with its awardees or with other early stage social entrepreneurs. 

Support organisations such as Ashoka and UnLtd were instrumental at the design stage of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland.

The partnership with Diageo Ireland to set up the Arthur Guinness Fund resulted in the investment of almost €3 million over the first three years to support more than 40 social entrepreneurs who took their initiatives to the next level.

Social Entrepreneurs Ireland strongly believes that the work of collaborators and partners should be driven by the end goal: the development of the social entrepreneurs. By competing for funds or influence, everyone’s position is weakened. They recommend the setting up of task forces that state very clearly what the collective agenda is and restricts individual organisations pushing forward their own agenda.


Sean Coughlan & Eamonn Fitzgerald


Contact Member Visit Website

Useful Tools

2013 SEI Overview 8 things about SEs Selection Process Guide

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