Social economy at a glance
Social economy entities in Ireland may take a variety of legal forms, but a majority of them are structured as Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG).
According to a 2009 study they accounted for 91% of social economy entities. Some of them can be granted a charitable status which can give access to tax exemptions.
Latest studies (2011) measured that there were:
- 1420 social enterprises
- Accounting for 25 000 employees
- And 3100 volunteers.
Source: Social Enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe, Country Reports, Ireland, 2019
* For this website we included this overall assessment of the level of development, it is based on the data and information about the social economy ecosystem currently available and therefore has some limitations. However, we still considered it useful to include this overall assessment.
** Source: EESC/CIRIEC (2016) Recent evolutions of the Social Economy in the European Union, please note that this estimate is on the high end as it is based on organisation type and did not apply a more narrow check for all elements in the social economy definition.
For more details on the data quality see our note on social economy data.
More recent data available for Ireland:
Latest studies* conducted by Ireland (2023) measured that there were:
- 4335 social enterprises
- 84 382 employees
- 74 825 volunteers
- Total income of €2.34 billion in 2021
- 1% of Ireland’s modified GNI** (or 0.63% of GDP)
Social enterprises in Ireland take a variety of legal forms, but a majority are structured as Charities (88%) or Companies Limited by Guarantee (CLG) (75%) with overlap between both.
*Source: Social Enterprises in Ireland A Baseline Data Collection Exercise, Department of Rural and Community Development, 2023 https://assets.gov.ie/258465/1cb50b94-6a17-450e-bca7-dea5ff6d2864.pdf
** Modified Gross National Income (GNI) is an indicator designed specifically to measure the size of the Irish economy by excluding Globalisation effects.
Tradition and origins
While the term social enterprise is still gaining traction among the general population, Ireland has a long tradition of non-State led intervention in community and social life which is consistent with the ethos of social enterprise. However, the term “social enterprise” first gained traction in the 1990s to refer to organisations whose core objective is to achieve a social, societal or environmental impact, and gained recognition as organisations offering community-based services in the occurrence of a market failure. Initially many social enterprises assumed the form of work integration programmes delivering services to disadvantaged communities. The government has increasingly recognised the importance of the social economy, integrating support for social enterprises and the wider social economy into Government policies.
Framework conditions and social economy ecosystem
Policy and legal framework
Ireland primarily has a policy framework in place for social enterprises. Ireland has no separate legal form or status for social enterprise, but many have the legal status of Charities or Companies Limited by Guarantee. Regarding co-operatives there is no specific legislation in Ireland. At present, those entities wish to follow the co-operative model primarily register and operate under the Industrial and Provident Societies (IPS) Acts 1893-2021 and reflect their co-operative ethos in their rules. As an alternative, entities can register and operate under the Companies Act 2014 and use the company constitution to reflect their co-operative ethos. Draft legislation (the Co-operative Societies Bill 2022) is under development by the Department of Trade and Employment to update legislation on co-operatives.
As regards the existing policy framework, in 2019 Ireland published the National Social Enterprise Policy 2019-2022. This policy was recognised as a watershed moment for social enterprise in Ireland as the first dedicated policy in the history of the State for social enterprise. This strategy was specifically aimed at developing and realising the potential of social enterprise. In the period since, there has been significant progress under the three key objectives of that strategy: Building Awareness, Capacity Building, and Policy Coherence. This strategy is part of a suite of policy initiatives from the Department of Rural and Community Development community and rural development through the social economy. A new policy is at a late stage of development and publication is currently planned for late 2023.
Other initiatives involving the social economy have been launched, including:
- Our Rural Future (ORF), launched by the Department of Rural and Community Development, the Government’s rural development policy for 2021-2025 established and ambitiousblueprint for the social and economic development of rural Ireland. ORF committed to new measures to support the development of rural social enterprises to increase their social, economic and environmental impact and contribute to job creation locally. It also committed to expanding the use of socially responsible public procurement contracts to incentivise the engagement of social enterprises and circular economy organisations.
- The White Paper on Enterprise 2022-2030launched by the Department of Trade Enterprise and Employment recognises social enterprises as an integral part of Ireland’s broad enterprise policy landscape being an important and growing part of Ireland’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, creating jobs and stimulating local economic activity.
- Ireland’s 2019-2024 strategy for Ireland’s community and voluntary sector“Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities”launched by the Department of Rural and Community Development sets out a strategy to support the community and voluntary sector in Ireland including social enterprises.
- TheNational Volunteering Strategy 2021-2025 launched by the Department of Rural and Community Development seeks to develop and enhance the role of the volunteer and encourage volunteering as a means of developing vibrant communities. Given the evidence indicating almost 45,000 volunteers are working with social enterprises including at Board level, the strategy recognises the huge importance of volunteers at various levels for the vibrancy, effectiveness and overall impact of many social enterprises in Ireland.
- The Whole of Government Circular Economy Strategy 2022-2023 launched by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications recognises the contribution of social enterprises to the circular economy and the how the sector can be important leaders in the transition to the circular economy. Reuse and repair are particularly important concepts in the circular economy and provide social and economic benefits, including jobs, growth and investment, particularly in the area of social enterprises.
- The Western Development Commission has a statutory remit in 1998 to assist social enterprises and has developed a social enterprise strategy for the region to promote social entrepreneurship and innovation as a vehicle to boost the WDC region’s ability to compete economically and promote inclusive growth.
- Regional economic development plans, are starting to recognise the potential of social enterprise, such as the Mid-West Regional Enterprise Plan 2022 - 2024, which includes the development and growth of social enterprise as a key strategic objectives as well as county-level plans such as the Mayo Social Enterprise Strategy 2023-2027.
Policymakers in the field of the social economy
The Department of Rural and Community Development (DRCD) is responsible for the implementation and coordination of the National Social Enterprise Policy. To facilitate the implementation of the strategy, it collaborates with other government Departments and local stakeholders through the NSEPIG (National Social Enterprise Policy Implementation Group). The Department of Justice has a social enterprise programme aimed at former offenders. The Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment (DETE) is responsible for Local Enterprise Offices who support business, including social enterprises in developing their activity through training programmes, mentoring, and financial support for social enterprises who meet certain criteria. DETE is also responsible for legislation on co-operatives.
Networks, federation and representative entities
The Irish social economy has several organizations providing support and advocacy:
- The Irish Social Enterprise Network (ISEN) and Social Enterprise Republic of Ireland (SERI) are national representative organisations of social enterprises carrying out advocacy, networking, and educational activities.
- The Wheel is a national association of community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises providing an extensive range of support to social economy entities. Among other activities, it has created a peers' network to support mutual learning between longer-established social economy organisations and help them gain more recognition.
- Local Development Companies (LDCs) are multi-sectoral partnerships that deliver community and rural development, labour market activation, social inclusion, climate action and social enterprise services. There are 49 Local Development Companies (LDCs) across the country
- The Irish Local Development Network (ILDN) is the umbrella organisation for LDCs around the country. LDCs utilise a mix of in-house expertise and external funding to support innovation and the effective management of social enterprises through a dedicated Social Enterprise Managers Network and the provision of an annual calendar of bespoke training
- The Community Resources Network Ireland is the representative body for community-based reuse, repair, and recycling in Ireland. It provides practical support to its members while ensuring promotional work.
- Social Impact Ireland and Social Entrepreneurs Ireland also provide advocacy work and contribute to the building of connections between social enterprises.
How to get involved in the social economy in Ireland?
Social Impact Ireland is an organisation dedicated to encouraging collaboration between social economy actors and bringing visibility to the sector. It has launched the Impact Trail, a national campaign highlighting the impact and value of social enterprises across Ireland.
The Social Enterprise Module for young people was launched in 2021. It is delivered in partnership with youth organization Foróige as part of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship Program, targeting DEIS schools (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in School). It involves 120 teachers and gives thousands of students an opportunity to learn about the concept, methods, values, and impact of social entrepreneurship.
The Government maintains a database of information at https://www.gov.ie/en/collection/89e63-social-enterprise-supports-tables/ of social economy support available for social enterprises. It covers several types of support schemes, including:
- Ideation / kickstarting programs,
- Training programmes,
- Awareness raising and visibility campaigning,
- Networking opportunities and event organisation.
The Department of Rural and Community Development has launched several funding programs for social enterprises and their ecosystems. It mobilises different programs and funds to build these funding products, including the Dormant Accounts Fund and Rethink Ireland.
- The Dormant Accounts Fund (DAF) Social Enterprise Measure provides direct supports for capacity building, particularly in relation to enterprise development. This measure has been allocated €2.3m in 2023, and close to €15m since its introduction in 2017. The programmes to be delivered under this measure will continue assist in the creation of sustainable jobs with a particular focus on social enterprises supporting travellers, migrants, ex-offenders and other marginalised groups, improving the quality and delivery of services for disadvantaged communities, and increasing the capacity of social enterprises to generate funded income.
- The DAF Training and Mentoring Scheme, 2019 - 2021, which supports the delivery of tailored training for social enterprises.
- The DAF Small Capital Grants Scheme,2019 - 2022for social enterprise, administered by the network of Local Development Companies (LDCs). provides funding for the purchase of equipment or the carrying out of repairs or refurbishments to enable social enterprises to improve their service delivery.
- The DAF Social Enterprise Capital Grants Scheme, 2020 - 2022which provided funding for the purchase of equipment or the carrying out of repairs or refurbishments to enable social enterprises to improve their service delivery administered by Local Community Development Committees (LCDCs) in each Local Authority area.
- The DAF COVID-19 Social Enterprise Regeneration Programme, 2020 - 2021provided €945,000to support hundreds of social enterprises across the country that were affected by the pandemic. The programme aimed to provide funding, training and mentoring to help social enterprises recover and grow their social impact.
- The €800,000 Social Enterprise Start-Up Fund, 2020 - 2021delivered in partnership with Rethink Ireland aiming to support social enterprises at the start-up and early stage of existence to help them scale.
- The €1.2m DAF Awareness Raising Initiative for social enterprise (ARISE) Scheme, 2021 - 2022developed to highlight the critical role of the sector by providing funding to increase awareness of social enterprises and their potential, in line with the Awareness Raising Strategy.
- The €2.9m Scaling-up Fund for Social Enterprise 2023 designed to improve the impact and sustainability of social enterprises that address economic, social and educational disadvantage or support those with a disability.
DRCD maintains a funding calendar for stakeholders for all of its schemes at https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/0bb45-drcd-calendar-of-schemes-2023/
Other government departments and programmes support the social economy:
- To support capacity-building and access to funding, the Department of Foreign Affairs has launched Access Europe. Led by the non-profit organisation, the Wheel, it provides support for Irish civil society organisations (including social enterprises) to better access EU funds and engage in EU policy. It offers one-to-one advice, training, information, and networking opportunities to social enterprises around all aspects of EU funding.
- The social economy in Ireland also relies on market integration programmes as a staff resource for social enterprises. Programmes such as Community Service Programme, Community Service Employment Scheme, Tus, RSS and Job Initiative, are frequently used by social enterprises.
- The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications (DECC) has initiated the Circular Economy Innovation Grant Scheme, supporting innovations in the circular economy by social enterprises and other types of organisations.
- The Environment Protection Agency also offers funding for social economy working on circular economy.
- Direct funding
Learn more about the social economy in Ireland
- The Department of Rural and Community Development maintains a web page for social enterprise in Ireland: https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/624c74-social-enterprise/
- Social Economy Research Network of Ireland is a research network for education institutions and academics who conduct research on the social economy: https://www.serni.ie/resources/
- Access Europe EU Funding Guide signposts social enterprises to the Irish National Contact Points for a variety of relevant EU funding programmes: https://www.accesseurope.ie/guide/eu-funding-programmes
- The EU Funds website intends to house information on the different EU funding programmes: https://eufunds.ie/
- The Irish Social Entreprise Network has created a toolkit to help communities and individuals setting up social enterprises: https://socialenterprisetoolkit.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Social-Enterprise-Toolkit.pdf
- Social Enterprise in Ireland – Research Report, SFF and DRCD, 2018: https://www.gov.ie/pdf/40297/?page=1
- Social Enterprises in Ireland A Baseline Data Collection Exercise, Department of Rural and Community Development, 2023: https://assets.gov.ie/258465/1cb50b94-6a17-450e-bca7-dea5ff6d2864.pdf
- Social enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe, Country Report, European Commission, 2019: Document database - Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion - European Commission (europa.eu)
- Investment Appraisal of Upskilling of Employees in the Non-Profit Sector, Indecon, 2020: https://www.wheel.ie/sites/default/files/media/file-uploads/2020-12/Investment%20Appraisal%20of%20Upskilling%20-%20Indecon.pdf
- Consultation Report on the Support Needs of the Non-profit sector, Cahill, 2021: https://www.wheel.ie/sites/default/files/media/file-uploads/2021-03/Consultation%20Report%20Nonprofit%20Sector%20Final%20V1.75%2023%20March.pdf
- Unlocking the social economy, Supporting social enterprise, The Wheel, 2022: https://www.wheel.ie/sites/default/files/media/file-uploads/2022-09/UnlcokingTheSocialEconomyReport2022WEB.pdf
- Social Enterprise on the Island of Ireland, Council report, National Economic & Social Development Office NESDO, 2023: Microsoft Word - 161_Social Enterprise (nesc.ie)