NOW is a good time to think about what direction our country should go in.
That’s according to Cork-reared Deirdre Mortell, CEO of Rethink Ireland (formerly the Social Innovation Fund Ireland).
Dublin-based Deirdre (who is married to this writer’s brother) says that as we navigate our way out of the pandemic, it’s time to “come together to build an Ireland that is equal, open to new ideas and focused on sustainable solutions.”
The Social Innovation Fund Ireland (whose name has been changed as it proved confusing) was created by the government four and a half years ago on the recommendation of a taskforce set up to think about how to stimulate philanthropy coming out of the recession.
“In 2012, it became government policy to create a national social innovation fund as part of a package of ideas they had,” said Deirdre.
The Cork woman, whose career has seen her working for Oxfam, Barnardos and as the CEO of the One Foundation (a philanthropic organisation) that she co-founded with Declan Ryan, is passionate about the societal changes that philanthropic donations can affect.
“We’re a grant-making foundation, providing grants and other business supports to charities and social enterprises that have developed innovative solutions to critical social issues. We particularly focus on the areas of education, health, economic empowerment and climate justice.”
Every euro that Rethink Ireland raises from individuals, families and companies, is matched by the government with the money coming from the dormant accounts fund.
To date, Rethink Ireland has raised €27.9m which when matched by the government creates a €55.8m fund. The aim is to have a fund of €60m by the middle of 2021. (Rethink Ireland also received €5m from government to set up a fund called the Innovate Together Fund that supports innovative responses to the pandemic.)
Asked if it is difficult to raise serious amounts of money, Deirdre says: “To me, that’s not the right question. Everything in life is hard. Nothing comes easy. It’s more a case of how important it (an innovation) is and how much do you care about making it happen.”
Where the money comes from matters, she says. “Building a bridge between government and the business community is something we’re able to do very effectively because we partner with both and we connect the awardees with both. As well as money, we’re offering networks and connections.”
Rethink Ireland’s awardees in Cork include the Rainbow Club in Mahon, which offers much-needed services for children and teenagers with autism. The venture “reaches a very large number of young people with autism in the Cork area and people travel from as far away as Waterford to avail of it,” Deirdre says.
Also supported by Rethink Ireland is the Cork Life Centre on the north- side which is for teens aged 13-18 who for one reason or another, haven’t fitted in with the school system.
At the Cork Life Centre, classes are very small, often offering one-to-one tuition. The students sit the Leaving Certificate and the centre “has had phenomenal results.”
Then there’s Sensational Kids in Clonakilty. It has been supported by Rethink Ireland for its work with children who have special needs. It helps children access speech therapy for example. And it runs an online shop selling educational materials for children with special needs. Profits from the shop subsidise the services Sensational Kids provides.
Rethink Ireland is working with Cork Chamber of Commerce. Funds raised will benefit Cork community initiatives with social, environmental or economic impacts.
Deirdre believes that we need “a concerted effort” around racism in Ireland.
“The Black Lives Matter protests started in the U.S and spread throughout, including in Ireland. We need to look at what’s going on here and how we can tackle the systemic discrimination that is here. We need to look at it in relation to black people, people of colour and Travellers.”
A graduate in commerce from UCC, Deirdre went on to Trinity College Dublin to do a Masters in women’s studies. She says she never really had a career plan. As an under-graduate, she was involved in the students’ union and gravitated towards women’s rights.
“The skills I got from my degree were kind of handy. I didn’t want to use them in business but I ended up by accident working in the non-profit sector, starting out in marketing and fundraising.”
Describing herself as a feminist, Deirdre says that feminism, for her, “is in the interests of both men and women and it will make all our lives better”.
Growing up outside Carrigaline with her sister, Siobhan, her father, Mick Mortell (a former president of UCC) and her American mother, Pat, an artist, Deirdre comes from “a family of debaters, with an interest in politics. The fact that my mother is American meant that we always knew what was going on in America and other places.
“There was plenty of debating around the dinner table. You learned to hold your own.”
While Deirdre has no interest in being a politician, she is on the board of Women for Election.
“I’m passionate about women being much more represented in the Dáil and Seanad. We now have 40% women in the Seanad but only about 24% in the Dáil with just four female ministers.
“There has been absolutely no improvement in this government over the last government. It was the last government that brought in quotas. But what’s the point in doing that if you don’t keep moving forward? It’s really a lost opportunity.”