Last week, I was privileged to attend the Oakfield Trust’s international conference on social enterprise. Presentations and panel discussions at the symposium showcased leaders in the social sector hailing from Ireland and Scotland. Notable speakers included Oakfield’s Aileen O’Donoghue and Gareth Ebbs, as well as Joyce Murray and Karen Leigh, the respective founders of Grace Chocolates and Sensational Kids. One of the panel discussions, titled “Achieving Real Social Impact,” featured Philanthropy Ireland’s CEO, Eilis Murray, who addressed audience questions on the spot and explored strategies to advance the growing field.

O’Donoghue and Ebbs, Oakfield’s chairperson and social impact manager, perfectly encapsulated the event’s purpose in their speeches. They urged their audience to refrain from imposing solutions and instead embrace their clients’ ideas, working at a pace that aligns with their needs. Established in 1996, the Clondalkin-based trust offers property services dedicated to community initiatives. Its main focus lies in facilitating property acquisition, customization, and management for organizations involved in empowering marginalized communities. Currently, Oakfield manages five properties and a range of projects, both benefitting the Clondalkin and South Dublin areas.

Following Oakfield’s presentation, Joyce Murray moved the audience through an emotional testimony on social enterprises’ impact. Her organization, Grace Chocolates, employs women touched by the criminal justice system in Scotland. The luxury chocolatier offers a supportive work environment where employees can enhance their CVs by acquiring transferable skills and qualifications. Through a mentoring program and workshops focused on mindfulness and self-care, Grace Chocolates instills confidence in these women.

Leigh, the conference’s last speaker, was realistic about obstacles facing the Irish social sector. As the founder and CEO of Sensational Kids, she knows firsthand the challenges of running a social enterprise. Since 2007, her organization has provided over 9,000 Irish children with subsidized therapy and support services. Before Sensational Kids, many of these children were forced to wait three to four years to receive the same resources. Despite achieving success, Leigh has faced challenges in securing funding support and ensuring effective staff recruitment and retention. In light of her experiences, she encourages social entrepreneurs to seek mentorship from experienced industry professionals.

As I reflected on the conference, a recurring theme emerged from the panels and presentations. Many commentators addressed misconceptions surrounding social enterprises, specifically about their profits. As Leigh stated, “profit is not a dirty word” in the social sector – these entrepreneurs aim to maximize both public benefit and profitability. Without profit, a social enterprise becomes unsustainable and its impact is limited. Because of this, founders must effectively communicate their stories to stakeholders and understand the language of returning investment.

Participating in this conference and learning from social entrepreneurs proved an insightful experience. Thanks to the convention’s fresh perspectives, ideas, and industry insights, my understanding of the social sector was broadened significantly. I look forward to further discussions on building a more sustainable, inclusive Ireland this summer.

Learn more about the Oakfield Trust, Grace Chocolates, and Sensational Kids.

Reed Jeffries.