Can ‘venture philanthropy’ help to solve vital social issues?

13 Dec 2019

Deirdre Mortell, CEO, Social Innovation Fund. Image: Social Innovation Fund.

Deirdre Mortell, CEO of the Social Innovation Fund, explains why she feels her ‘innovation-first’ philanthropy philosophy is the way to combat social issues.

If a rich business magnate cut you a cheque for €85m, set a 10-year time limit, and asked you to help burn through that wad of cash before the sun sets on that deadline, what would you do? Would you buy planes, trains, automobiles? Would you purchase entire sports teams, thoroughbred racehorses and lavish properties?

For many, it’s a sum of money that is pretty impossible to visualise. But it’s also the amount that Declan Ryan, son of Ryanair founder  Tony Ryan, set his sights on giving away to good causes while he was still young. He needed help, so he called Deirdre Mortell.

Future Human

The above scenario isn’t quite exactly what happened. As Mortell explains, she was contracted by Ryan, who noticed her record of working with non-profits and her steady climb up the career ladder as a fundraiser. Mortell and Ryan set up the One Foundation philanthropic organisation in 2004, and Mortell came on board as CEO.

‘I think, somehow, ‘Ireland Inc’ understands the importance of innovation in the business sector but undervalues its importance in the social sector’

Mortell was originally born in the US but moved to Cork with her family when she was five years old. She went on to complete a business degree at University College Cork (UCC).

“During that time, I got very involved in student politics, particularly women’s issues,” she tells “So, I was elected to the student union and, as part of that, I was involved in campaigning for the first female doctor on campus for students.” After steering that cause, Mortell was subsequently elected to student government.

When she graduated in 1989, emigration was rife in Ireland, and so she, like many of her cohorts, decided to travel the world for a few years, eventually returning to Dublin to take up a master’s degree in women’s studies at Trinity College Dublin.

“I was very interested in concepts around female leadership, and how women and men lead or manage, and how that is the same or different.”

‘Venture philanthropy’

Fast forward to 2013: the sunset fund is soon to close, as planned. Yet what neither Mortell nor Ryan (nor most people, for that matter) had anticipated back in 2004 was that Ireland would be in the throes of massive economic recession in the 2010s.

“As a result, when One Foundation closed, and Atlantic Philanthropies announced they were going to close three years prior, it became clear that 85pc of the organised philanthropy in Ireland was going to close within the space of three years.”

Mortell worried that organisations working with vulnerable groups and vulnerable migrants – organisations that were vital to begin with, let alone during a period of economic downturn – would really struggle as a result.

The Irish Government set up a task force to investigate what could be done to encourage philanthropy during a recession. This led to the recommendation to set up the Social Innovation Fund, which Mortell came on board to lead in 2014.

To date, the Social Innovation Fund has funded 116 projects, the majority of which were funded in the last two years. It raises philanthropy by approaching individuals, couples, large multinationals and SMEs.

Any donations gained are then matched by the Government, through what is called the ‘Dormant Accounts Fund’ – a fund of unclaimed monies left in accounts at various credit institutions for long stretches of time. This money is then set assigned for, according to Pobal, “the personal and social development of persons who are economically or socially disadvantaged”.

During Mortell’s time at the helm of the One Foundation, she worked off of a concept known as ‘venture philanthropy’. Essentially, it involves using the tools and methodology of venture capital to support non-profits. “The only thing that’s different is that your financial instrument is not equity or loan, it’s a grant. We learned our trade with an organisation called New Profit Inc, who were really pioneering in the US at the time.”

Corporate funding

Many of the largest billion-dollar multinationals that have set up shop in Ireland – Google, Medtronic, State Street and Bank of America – have committed six-figure amounts to various measures, to be doled out over multiple years. Bank of America, for example, has pledged €900,000 over three years (which has been matched by Government, bringing the fund’s total value to €1.8m) to a fund entitled ‘Mná na hÉireann’.

“[This fund] is focused on the economic mobility of women,” Mortell explains. “Particularly women who are disadvantaged in some way. We’re focused on moving women out of poverty and into sustainable employment.”

This fund led to the creation of a number of grants, including ‘Dress for Success’, which provides women who are on the job hunt with professional clothes to wear to interviews.

The Social Innovation Fund has also awarded a grant to the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) to support transgender women in searching for and keeping employment, covering everything from retraining to getting their confidence back.

‘Ireland Inc’

Many of the schemes Mortell names revolve around gaining and keeping employment, and that seems to align with what she notes, as a primary goal: to stimulate the economy and encourage employment.

“I think everybody understands that if we want to create jobs and create growth in the economy, then we need to back innovation. It’s not very hard to extrapolate from that and say that, therefore, if we want to solve our critical social issues, we need to also back innovation.

“I think, somehow, ‘Ireland Inc’ understands the importance of innovation in the business sector but undervalues its importance in the social sector.”

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Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic