Dr Mary O’Shaughnessy’s pioneering research on social enterprise confirms their capacity to bring an entrepreneurial dimension to solving a range of contemporary social and environmental issues.
Quite often, social enterprises emerge during times of crisis, providing services in regions that the public sector cannot reach, employing people who might otherwise be un-employed, and reinvesting their profits back into local communities.
What’s more, social enterprises attract millennials and young people who feel they want to work on a cause or issue, their business model fosters a better social and environmental outlook which creates a feeling of purpose for all employees and stake holders, and their success can be replicated across the country.
Today in Ireland, it is estimated that social enterprises are responsible for 25,000 jobs and €1.4bn in economic activity.
Nevertheless, there is limited support available to social enterprises and no nationally agreed definition for such organisations in Ireland.
In addition, there have been relatively few studies conducted on social enterprises and there is considerable ambiguity on where they sit on the non-profit/ community voluntary spectrum.
At present, there are 19,505 registered non profit organisations in Ireland, but no way of knowing how many can be categorised as social enterprises.
Writing in the Certified Public Accountants’ report “Social Enterprise Report – The Irish and International Landscapes”, Dr Mary O’Shaughnessy lamented the “considerable gaps in our knowledge about Irish social enterprises, including the scale, social impact, and overall contribution of the sector to the national economy and society in general”.
However, Dr O’Shaughnessy’s pioneering research is beginning to shine a light on the wider impact of social enterprises.
In a previous study of 13 social enterprises providing child and eldercare services in rural areas, Dr O’Shaughnessy found that ‘59% of employees were classed as long term unemployed and 83% aged over 40’.
‘Of those aged 30-35 years, 40% were disadvantaged and faced particular social challenges. Over half the workforce (51%) had not progressed beyond the junior cycle of second level education, and almost one quarter was described by management as “hard to employ”.
Addressing the gaps in our knowledge is an important next step in understanding the benefits and value of social enterprise, which according to the CPA’s report, could create 65,000 jobs if Ireland’s social enterprise sector were to approach mean EU levels of output, or 100,000 jobs if Ireland achieved the 9% goal set by the EU under the “Europe 2020” Strategy’.
Dr O’Shaughnessy’s ongoing research as the Principle Investigator on two European Commission funded Marie Sklodowska - Curie Research Projects examining social entrepreneurship in rural areas across the European Union will help fill this void.
Dr O’Shaughnessy’s knowledge and expertise have also seen her become a director of MicroFinance Ireland and member of the national Social Enterprise Task force and national social enterprise research/policy advisory group to the Department of Rural and Community Development.
In addition, she is a board member of the HOPE Foundation, the EMES International Research Network on social enterprises, and was recently appointed Short Term Scientific Mission Manager (STSM) to the COST Action Empowering the next generation of social enterprise scholars.
In 2016, Dr O’Shaughnessy was also appointed country moderator by the European Commission (EURISCE/DG EMPL) to complete a mapping study of social enterprises in Ireland. Following this in 2017 Dr O’Shaughnessy was invited by the Social Finance Foundation (Ireland) to lead the first ever national mapping study of community led social entrepreneurship/social enterprise in rural areas.
To date an extensive, quantitative, in-depth analysis of almost 400 community led rural based social enterprises, operating across sectors as diverse as food production and food waste, renewable energy, health care, transport and community cooperatives has been completed, the findings of which are currently informing national policy for the sector.