Social Innovation: the answer to the Sector's prayers?

21 Oct 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 Oct 2015

Paul Braithwaite: pushing for change

With the funding crisis deepening by the day Scope examines a new approach which may help to transform communities and create social change. 

The Voluntary and Community sector is facing crisis. Regardless of whether or not Northern Ireland’s political structures are saved, one thing is certain: there will be less money to fund both grants and the front line services that charities provide.

This will inevitably lead to more closures of organisations doing good work, and less support for communities.  It could also lead to exciting opportunities for organisations prepared to work with others and to innovate.

Against this background the Building Change Trust (BCT) is setting about creating an initiative which it hopes will become a lasting legacy after the trust is wound up in 2018.

The idea is to help stimulate and then fund new solutions to social needs which will be more effective than what we are doing at the moment. This process is called Social Innovation.

Social Innovation is a field so riddled with jargon that few understand what it is about and many are put off by the strange language used by its proponents.

That’s a pity because when you strip away all the gobbledegook it is simple and exciting and some of the best examples anywhere already exist in Ireland, north and south.

One of the oldest and most successful is the Credit Union movement which was founded in Dublin in the late 1950s by a small group of ordinary people who wanted to help people manage their money within their communities and fight the scourge of loan sharks. Today the Irish League of Credit Unions is one of the most successful social movements in the world.

Other examples include the remarkable and inspirational community arts centre the Playhouse in Derry which has grown from an initial grant of £300 into one of Ireland’s leading arts centres; the Now project which operates Loaf Catering offering work to young people with learning disabilities and the Community Restorative Justice programmes which have been working successfully in Northern Ireland for several years.

The Building Change Trust has been working away to promote social innovation ever since it was founded. Projects already underway include:

  • The social innovation camp which was held in the Crumlin Road jail last December. This brought together students from Queen’s University Belfast, University of Ulster, North West College and Digital Media Choices who were challenged to come up with ideas to help resolve nine social problems.
  • “Techies in residence” a programme which started in April, whereby digital experts are embedded in community and voluntary sector organisations and challenged to support new social innovation projects
  • The Young Foundation’s Amplify NI programme which has identified 24 social innovations which can be accessed here and is now helping them to develop and grow.

Next month the BCT intends to launch Social Innovation NI, a ‘one stop shop’ through which social innovations in Northern Ireland can access practical and financial support for social innovations at all stages - whether they be new ideas, prototypes that need testing, or proven, transformative approaches that are ready to be implemented at scale.

The BCT’s development and implementation officer Paul Braithwaite explained: “We aim to create the space for this to happen by inviting all the key stakeholders – VCSE organisations and networks, funders, government departments, public agencies and private companies - with a commitment to enabling or practicing social innovation in Northern Ireland to engage with us in co-designing a collaborative approach that enables us to be more than the sum of our parts.”

Collaboration is at the heart of Social Innovation NI the idea is to bring together individuals and organisations from all sectors: private, public, voluntary, community with a variety of different expertise to help crack problems together.

This might also help unlock previously under-sued funding pots and access to investors outside Northern Ireland.

Braithwaite is setting his ambitions high: “We want to see innovation as the new normal, and we’re very excited about the potential: once people get beyond all the jargon they will realise just how much potential there is in what is essentially a very simple, and extremely successful idea. “

There is nothing really new about Social Innovation, it has been going on in one form or another without the jargon for centuries, but as existing funding models come under increasing threat and communities wonder why their needs are not being met by external partners, it is beginning to look like a model whose time has come. 

The BCT will be organising a series of events to discuss Social Innovation NI shortly. 

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