A social enterprise is like any other business in that it works to deliver goods and services to make a profit. The difference is that they are driven by their social and environmental purposes and any profit made is reinvested towards achieving these purposes. Today, the government defines social enterprises as “businesses with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners.”

The term social enterprise was first coined in 1953 and has been widely used since the 1980’s, however the principals recognised today as social enterprise are visible in the work which the Belfast Charitable Society was carrying out in the late 18th century.

Our Past

Water PipesThe first foray into social enterprise was in 1790 when the Belfast Charitable Society thought it should supply the town of Belfast with water. Taxes were charged on water supplies at this time, and perhaps unsurprisingly no one paid their water taxes. People argued the water was of such poor quality it wasn’t worth paying for. The Society believed if it took over the water supply there would be two immediate benefits; the health of the town would improve because they would supply clean water and the Society would benefit from the collection of water taxes which would allow it to pay for the running of the Poor House. Between 1790 and 1840 the Belfast Charitable Society invested £30,000 in the water supply for the town, however the citizens still did not pay their water taxes! In the end the Society had to admit defeat and the government set up the Belfast Water Commissioners who took over the water supply for the town.

Vault keys 3The Society’s next move into social enterprise was more successful. It decided a graveyard was required. This graveyard was to enable the Poor House to have somewhere to bury the dead from the House, but also to generate an income by selling plots in the cemetery. In 1797 the “New Burying Ground” was opened. Plots were very expensive with “walled plots” being sold for £12 10s. The “New Burying Ground” was so successful it had sold out by the 1820’s and additional ground was made available. Running the graveyard was not without its difficulties including warring families and the dreaded body snatchers, however it did provide an important source of income to the Society to enable the running of the Poor House. The graveyard also enabled the Society to teach new, but necessary skills and to provide employment to the men of the Poor House and surrounding areas. Coffin makers, grave diggers, nightwatchmen and caretakers were all required for the graveyard and the Society were able to train and employ many people in these essential skills enabling them to become financially independent.

Our Present

Today Clifton House, the original Poor House, operates as a events and heritage venue. In keeping with our roots, it is run as a social enterprise. The income from our conference hire, tours and talks is one of the revenue streams which enables Belfast Charitable Society to continue the work of promoting philanthropy and tackling disadvantage 267 years after its foundation. Some of the ongoing philanthropic work of the Charitable Society is set out below:

Building Better Futures Fund

Launched in 2017, this unique collaboration between BCS, Ulster Community Investment Trust and Building Change Trust provides unsecured loans to community-based groups across Northern Ireland. To date the fund has approved over £1,123,000 to 58 groups who address social and economic disadvantage while changing attitudes on how such work is resourced.

Barbour Fund

This fund was set up through a partnership with the Hilden District Nursing Society, the Barbour family and BCS. Aims to support activities for older people, disadvantaged young people and skills development. To date over £128,000 has been awarded: creating training courses and jobs; providing bursaries; delivering activities and placing hundreds of volunteers with older people.

Great Place North Belfast                                                                                                 

A 3-year project (2018-2021) of the North Belfast Heritage Cluster supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This local Heritage Cluster is comprised of 15 organisations responsible for historic buildings and sites stretching across one mile from the City centre into north Belfast. This project, led by co-funder BCS, will use the unique built heritage and authentic character to deliver and support regeneration in this part of north Belfast.

Mary Ann McCracken Foundation

The Foundation was set up by BCS to celebrate the life and works of this remarkable woman, and her legacy and relevance today. Looking at issues around poverty, modern day slavery, human rights and equality, it will raise awareness and promote conversations around these areas.

Harmony Choir

Belfast Charitable Society is supporting Harmony Choir through an annual donation for two years.  Harmony Choir provides alternative learning environments; access to collaborations and opportunities to travel; and increased awareness amongst students of their shared cultural heritage, through music and song. Over seven primary schools are currently involved.

Family Support Hub

Belfast Charitable Society supports a multi-disciplinary team of 60 organisations, working directly with North Belfast families in crisis at the point before they fall into legal or regulatory intervention. It funds two part-time home visitor posts and immediate access to vouchers for those most in need, continuing in a modern way our original outdoor relief scheme.

Stepping Stones NI

Belfast Charitable Society has recently granted support to the new social enterprise 2nd Avenue, run by the award winning Stepping Stones NI. Through this support 2nd Avenue have purchased a barista industry standard coffee machine for their training café, which will enable local people with severe learning disabilities to receive hospitality-accredited training.