Social Enterprise, Community Development and Take-Home Lessons

Somehow, between my research interests and my project with DARD, I’ve become completely immersed in the world of social enterprise. A social enterprise is a business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or the community rather than being driven by the need to maximize profits for shareholders or owners. It can be the business arm of a charity (like the charity shops), a catering business, or an arts venture. The possibilities for social enterprises are endless. The government here has acknowledged the ability of social enterprises to address social issues that the government has found difficult to tackle. And, as a person interested in finding community based solutions to embedded social issues, I find social enterprises to be particularly exciting. Northern Ireland is full of successful models that I hope can one day be adapted to fit the needs of poverty-stricken communities in rural Alabama.

One of the best examples of community based problem solving I’ve seen in Northern Ireland came from a community association in rural County Derry. The community members wanted to preserve the Irish language in their community. Additionally, they were concerned with the lack of economic opportunities for their young people. The organization, which is completely volunteer based, now operates an Irish speaking school for children in the area as well as language classes for adults. Additionally, they have created an entertainment venue that operates as a social enterprise. The venue can be rented to those in need of a space, and there is self-catering accommodation that goes along with it. The venue solves several problems—it brings entertainment to the remote location, employs young people through its catering business, and generates revenue for the organization.

I found this community’s approach to development to be inspiring. Personally, I believe the most important thing this community has done is built its own capacity to enact change from within. Of course, they can’t always address every issue within their own borders. In our highly globalized world, that would be a preposterous notion. Sometimes there are too many external factors at play. But, their community-based approaches have touched several issues, including social isolation, joblessness and education. More than likely, I will have extended contact with this association throughout the summer as I work on a few projects. I look forward to learning from them.

Some of the lessons I’m learning about social enterprise here can be directly applicable to places like Alabama. I believe that social enterprises can be of great use there. Alabamians (and Southerners in general) tend to be wary of the direct hand of the government when it comes to social intervention. But, social enterprises create a compromise. If the government creates favorable conditions for social innovation, then citizens are free to create effective community-based solutions. Is it a panacea for all of rural Northern Ireland or Alabama’s problems? No. But, it should be added to the toolbox. I’m excited to learn more about social enterprises here and hope that I can use that knowledge at home.

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