Helen Nolan spoke to us for this case study about the social enterprise’s mission, and – since there are many variations on the themes – she began by explaining what her definition of a social enterprise is.

“For me, it’s about delivering impact and addressing problems in local communities for people. I suppose, I sort of became a social entrepreneur by accident, but I realised that there was a lack, 10-12 years ago, of activities for stay-at-home mums and dads to do with their children, so we addressed that. And in addressing that gap, we identified that there was a whole gap in terms of the provision of other services in our local community.”

Today, Spraoi agus Spórt’s list of services are endless, including – supervised children’s activities, summer camps, co-working facilities, their vintage and charity shops, adult educational classes, and lots more. They’ve filled many voids and supplied where much was lacking.

Much of this lack came down to the fact that no-one else seemed willing to fix the problems. Private companies by default tend to go where the profitable business models lead them, but social enterprises are a different breed.

“What’s fueling it is the impact made in terms of mental health or addressing social inclusion, or bringing economic benefit to an area where private industry mightn’t go,” Helen adds.

With the social entrepreneurship crusade comes an incredible amount of work behind the scenes to keep everything on track, from an operational, finance management, and social presence point of view. With all of that comes the challenge of having a big enough team of experts who can do their utmost every day. As Helen explained, the best way to keep the dream alive is through funding, something that isn’t always easy to come by.

“To be fair, that’s probably our biggest – and one of our only – major challenges, securing funding for staff, especially staff at a senior level…we’ve gotten so big now that we’re beyond just one manager, and we’d need to have a series of people in senior roles. 

“Funding is a huge challenge because it’s very hard, especially in a rural community to generate that profit to sustain a senior management team, unless you are fundraising non-stop, and that’s hard to commit to – and hard to sustain as well.”

Helen Nolan Spraoi agus Sport

Spraoi have always been diligent in securing funding for what is a crucial strand in so many people’s lives. Earlier in 2022, for example, they received some €300,000 from the RTÉ Toy Show appeal grant.

To balance that equation out, many social enterprises need to rely on the community spirit that exists in so many places – and Spraoi agus Spórt is no different. Their inception was all about solving the issue for the community, so it’s easy for people to see why they should be supported. But, again, that puts the focus back on engagement and outreach, something that does take time and money, all the same. 

So, one of the tasks that people like Helen are tasked with championing is continually encouraging people to get involved – and stay involved – with Spraoi agus Spórt.

It’s all about, as Helen says, highlighting the importance to people of supporting our work whether its “buying something in our charity shop, attending a summer camp, or our after-school club, so people realise the added benefit of using our services – they are not only sustaining the direct jobs at Spraoi agus Spórt, but also any profits that we make are re-invested in our services, and a lot of those services provide special needs assistance so that children with a disability can attend. 

The positive overflow of one person attending a Spraoi agus Spórt event – or one person contributing a donation – means that other people will benefit in so many ways, and it also means that Spraoi can spend less time fundraising and more time raising awareness and improving the day-to-day experiences that they offer, which are already fantastic.

Helen also pinpoints the work that Minister for the Department of Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys, TD, has done to improve the visibility and presence of social enterprises, underlining how crucial it is to have government officials whose job it is to make social enterprise more understood, better funded, and generally better supported.

And the results are there to be seen, even anecdotally. Helen describes the story of a seven-year-old boy who was able to attend his first-ever summer camp thanks to the Spraoi agus Spórt initiative. There was the story of two Ukrainian children who fled to Ireland and had their lives uprooted – they were unable to take their favourite piano lessons until Spraoi agus Spórt stepped in to make that happen for them. And there was the foodbank that they set up to help families during Covid – something that still supports some 19 families.

Spraoi agus Sport Social Enterprise
Spraoi agus Sport Social Enterprise
Spraoi agus Sport Social Enterprise

“We have two young lads, teenagers; they’re great fun and have been coming to us since they were around six – one is a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, and the other chap has Down Syndrome. This summer, they were mad keen on going to the local mart, so we organised a day trip for them to have the craic – and that meant the world to them.”

Helen’s list of how Spraoi agus Spórt has positively impacted so many is seemingly endless. And there are sure to be many more examples to come in the years ahead. For now, plans to develop Donegal’s first-ever purpose-built Child and Family Hub with a number of collaborators is really gaining momentum. Having helped thousands of young people, supported numerous parents, and provided all sorts of other support such as their co-working hub and digital creative lab, their thoughtful and innovative spirit clearly knows no limits.

Social enterprise is not for the faint-hearted, but Helen Nolan and her colleagues are certainly making it look like fun and games.

Register for ARISE Social Enterprise Event, 8th October in The Building Block, Sligo

This project was approved by Government with support from the Dormant Accounts Fund