“We are the Enterprise Ireland of the non profit sector” – CEO Q&A with Deirdre Mortell, CEO of Rethink Ireland

By Business & Finance
23 June 2021
Pictured: Deirdre Mortell, CEO of Rethink Ireland (formerly Social Innovation Fund Ireland)

Deirdre Mortell is CEO of Rethink Ireland, formerly the Social Innovation Fund Ireland. She steers the organisation which is a non-profit growth capital fund, backed by the Irish Government, looking for the best social innovations that tackle Ireland’s critical social issues. If it already exists, has evidence that it works, and is growth-ready, then Rethink Ireland will want to hear about it. Deirdre is former CEO of ONE Foundation and has held senior roles in fundraising & communications in Oxfam and Barnardos, and held multiple Board directorships. She is also a founding Board member of Women for Election. 

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

Social Innovation Fund Ireland backs the best social innovations in Ireland with grants and business supports, using all the tools and methodologies of venture capital – it’s called venture philanthropy.  My goal is to maximise the funds available to us – €52 million to date – through raising philanthropic funds from companies, SMEs and individuals and families, each euro of which is matched by Government through the Dormant Accounts Funds.

We use these funds to select and back innovative solutions to our critical social issues to grow and spread.  For example, IPB Insurance have committed €1.6 million over 4 years to support social enterprises to grow across Ireland, when matched by Government, has created a €3.2 million fund – the largest investment in social enterprise in living memory.

We are the Enterprise Ireland of the non profit sector – and we plan to raise the funds to match that – our goal is €150 million in the next few years.

What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

Ensuring all our stakeholders are not just happy, but delighted, with the work we do, in partnership with them. They include the Minister for Rural and Community Development (who provides matching funds), our donors – multinational companies, indigenous Irish companies, SME’s, individuals and families, as well as of course our awardees and staff.

How do you keep your team motivated?

Working on addressing the critical social challenges of our time is a big part of our staff’s motivation. This includes developing a rapid response to the needs of our grantees and the communities during the COVID19 emergency.  We are also a learning organisation so invest strongly in our people.

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

The non profit industry is needed more than ever during the current pandemic but we have not seen a rescue plan for it that we have seen for SME’s. There is a serious danger that organizations we rely on during good times and bad will shut their doors for financial reasons or because all their staff are sick.

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

We were beginning to see the rise of social enterprise models, backed by the new Social Enterprise Policy launched by Minister Ring last year.  That is now under threat with COVID19, as there has been no rescue package for the non profit sector, and social enterprises face the risks that SME’s face but without the business supports available to meet those challenges. We need to fix this as a country. 

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

We need to see much greater investment in data gathering and analytics, and more generally in technology by the non profit sector – I think that will now naturally emerge from this crisis. 

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

We seek needles in haystacks – people with a combination of great analytical and great people skills, but we don’t care what discipline they come from. So far, thankfully, we have been able to find them.  Our workforce is also diverse – we have 6 nationalities among 19 staff in Galway, Wexford, Cork and Dublin.

How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

We were created by Government out of the economic crisis – to stimulate philanthropy during a recession and to find and back innovations to solve our emerging as well as entrenched social issues.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

Success to me looks like reaching 1 million people in the next 3 years in Ireland through the growth capital we have invested in our best social innovations. For example, we have invested €2.5 million in Foodcloud over 3 years, with the backing of AIB, to double the meals they have saved from food waste in Ireland. Now that’s just the beginning…

We need to rethink Ireland, and social innovation has a critical role to play. We all get it that we need to invest in innovation to grow jobs and the economy – so it’s quite obvious that we need to invest in social innovation if we want to solve our critical social issues – both new and emerging. When everyone in Ireland gets it, my job is done.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

Cash is king.

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

In January, we turned four years old, and crossed the line to being a €52 million Fund, with 120 awardees, and 24 issue-based funds open. That was a day for celebration.

What’s next for your company?

We aim to be a €150 million fund within 3 years, so we can genuinely become the Enterprise Ireland for non profits.  In the meantime, we will collaborate with our colleagues in Philanthropy Ireland to step up and play our part in addressing the COVID19 crisis.

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

Backing the next wave of social innovations that are needed in the changed world after the COVID19 crisis.