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Council Report No.161 – Social Enterprise on the Island of Ireland

‘NESC Report sets out the potential to promote Social Enterprise on the island of Ireland’

  • As part of its 50th year work programme, the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) has published a new report, Social Enterprise on the island of Ireland (Council Report No. 161).
  • This report describes the contribution of social enterprises to economic, social and environmental wellbeing on the island of Ireland.  There are 4,335 social enterprises in Ireland, employing 84,000 people, or 3.7% of the workforce. 
  • Social enterprises are businesses and organisations whose aim is to achieve a social or environmental impact rather than maximising profit for their owners or stakeholders.
  • Examples of social enterprises include Foodcloud, which links supermarkets to charities and community groups so that surplus food can help address food poverty, and The Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun which is the national centre for the circular economy, recycling furniture, clothes, paint, and bicycles. 
  • Social enterprise has the potential to provide training and jobs for the long-term unemployed and people with disabilities, provide much-needed services in disadvantaged communities, along with addressing issues such as food poverty and climate change. 

As part of its 50th year work programme, the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) has published a new report, Social Enterprise on the island of Ireland (Council Report No. 161). This report provides an overview of the state of social enterprise internationally, in Ireland, in Northern Ireland, and on a shared island basis.

A social enterprise is an enterprise whose objective is to achieve a social or environmental impact, rather than maximising profit for its owners or stakeholders. It has a market trading relationship but reinvests its profits for a social or environmental purpose. 

Social enterprise plays an important role in providing services to marginalised groups and in disadvantaged areas, as well as creating and providing jobs, and contributing to innovative social and environmental initiatives.  There are 4,335 social enterprises in Ireland, employing 84,382 people, and engaging 74,824 volunteers.  Just over half of social enterprises are microenterprises with less than 10 employees, with about one third small enterprises employing 10 to 49 employees.  Some 15 per cent of social enterprises in Ireland operate internationally as well as nationally.

Speaking on the publication of the report, Dr Larry O’Connell, Director of NESC, said: 

“Since 1973, the Council has been providing valuable and trusted strategic research, dialogue, and advice to government.  In this latest report, NESC explores the role of social enterprise on the island of Ireland and the important contribution it can make to the social and environmental wellbeing of local communities through to the national economy.  In local communities, they provide childcare services, community infrastructure and local development, plus youth services and social care.  Recently established social enterprises are especially relevant in training and work integration, and environmental services.  It is time to move social enterprise in from the margins to the mainstream of what we do”.

NESC draws 4 main conclusions from this work: (i) that the development of a co-ordinating framework would bring greater understanding, clarity and cohesion across the diverse social enterprise sector; (ii) that there is the opportunity to have a greater ambition for social enterprises, especially by having a stronger focus on the enterprise element; (iii) to support areas of growth for social enterprise, such as providing employment opportunities for people distant from the labour market, in renewable energy generation, the circular economy and the restoration of biodiversity, in caring for children, people with disabilities and older people especially those who wish to be cared for in their own homes or communities, in new communities where social enterprises can provide language and translation services as well as support to access services, and in providing digital services and supports; and (iv) supporting social enterprise across the island of Ireland, for example, through the Peace Plus programme. 

Dr Helen Johnston, author of the report, said:  

“The importance of social enterprises to economic, social and environmental wellbeing is being increasingly recognised in Ireland and across Europe.  They played an important role in many communities during the Covid-19 pandemic and demonstrated resilience in difficult circumstances. This work is very timely as Ireland prepares its 2nd National Social Enterprise Policy, and strong connections are being built across the island as whole as part of the Shared Island initiative”.



The full report can be found HERE.



Some examples of social enterprises: 


Employment of Disadvantaged People

Working to Change works to help people with a criminal conviction to get a job, as having a criminal record makes getting a job difficult. It is about removing barriers and supporting individual change.  It does this by working with a wide range of organisations to provide work opportunities for ex-criminals, see


Promoting the circular economy

The Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun is the national centre for the circular economy in Ireland.  It supports four reuse social enterprises: Rediscovery Furniture, Rediscovery Fashion, Rediscovery Paint and Rediscovery Cycling. These businesses use unwanted materials for new product development.  The Rediscovery Centre also runs a Circular Economy Academy which provides a free mentoring and support programme that assists social enterprises and community organisations in every part of Ireland to move their actions towards sustainability, see


Progressing renewable energy 

The Aran Islands Energy Co-operative is working towards becoming self-sufficient in locally generated renewable energy, and subsequently reducing dependence on oil, coal and gas. The energy co-operative is focused on: Heating by upgrading homes and buildings through retrofitting, air-to-water heat pumps and solar hot water pumps; Transport through the use of electric cars and bicycles; and Energy generation with houses being fitted with photovoltaic panels on roofs and geothermal heating, see


Provision of community facilities in disadvantaged areas

Creggan Enterprises in Derry and Resurgam Trust in Lisburn are social enterprises which provide facilities in their local communities.  Creggan Enterprises acquired a piece of land and a redundant factory site in Creggan which was unused due to a lack of investment. The Creggan community partnered with the International Fund for Ireland in 1993 to develop a community-owned enterprise and retail park, Ráth Mór, with the Department of the Environment contributing funding support. Ráth Mór opened to the public in 1995 providing access to a wide range of essential community and retail services to disadvantaged Creggan residents for the first time.  Today, Creggan Enterprises maintains a balance of indigenous commercial and third-sector tenants alongside some publicly funded entities see,

The Resurgam Trust is a social enterprise in Lisburn, which was started in 1996.  From 2000 a number of community enterprises were set up including auto maintenance and repair, a community self-build project, a credit union and a bar as a community hub, with the Laganview Enterprise Centre opening in 2008.  The centre now houses an extensive range of services, programmes, activities and businesses which are available to the local community, see


Providing financial support 

Clann Credo and Community Finance Ireland, both themselves social enterprises, are the main social lenders for social enterprises. Clann Credo is Ireland’s largest social finance provider and it is very much focused on supporting sustainable community development. It can provide both bridging loans and term loans, and credits itself on its agility and ability to make quick decisions, see .  The other social lender is Community Finance Ireland which provides social finance on an all-island basis.  It also provides both bridging and term loans, and is developing products with other organisations such as grant giving bodies (Rethink Ireland) and the credit unions, see


All-island social enterprise 

The NOW Group is a social enterprise originally set up in Belfast in 2001 to support people with learning difficulties and autism into jobs with a future.  They now run four cafés – three in Northern Ireland and one in Ireland. In addition, they have a catering company and a pottery business in Northern Ireland. They run academies for training in catering, hospitality, cleaning and retailing. The NOW Group have a range of businesses who provide jobs for their trainees.  In addition, the NOW Group have developed and promoted the Just a Minute (JAM) card and App which allows people with a hidden disability or communication difficulties to take extra time to pay, etc when using a service, in a discreet way. There are currently 130,000 JAM card users in Ireland and 3,000 businesses who pay to be part of the scheme, and whose employees can receive training in dealing with JAM card users, see


Combining entrepreneurial nous with IT expertise to reduce food waste and tackle food poverty 

Foodcloud is a social enterprise that exists to reduce the environmental, social and economic impact of food waste by redistributing surplus food to charities and community groups.  It was set up in 2013 by two Trinity graduates who wanted to reduce food waste.  They have done this in two ways: (i) by using technology to link supermarkets to charities and community groups, so that at the end of the day the supermarkets can use the technology to let the charities know what good food they have left over, that is available for collection; and (ii) they have 3 warehouses in Dublin, Cork and Galway for larger quantities of surplus food which is subsequently distributed to charities and community groups in manageable quantities.  The technology piece has now expanded to 4 other countries: the UK, Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 2021 Foodcloud distributed 39 million meals across these 4 countries, see   


For further information, contact:

Dr Helen Johnston, Senior Analyst 


t: 01 8146333; m: 087 4191780


NESC is celebrating 50 years of providing advice to the Taoiseach and Government on strategic policy issues relating to sustainable economic, social, and environment development in Ireland.  To mark our 50th Anniversary, NESC will be hosting a full-day, in-person conference in the Printworks, Dublin Castle, on 23rd November 2023. Click here for more information.

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