What is a social enterprise?

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 Pipes

The first foray into social enterprise was in 1790 when the Belfast Charitable Society (BCS) thought it should supply the town of Belfast with water. Duties were charged on water supplies at this time, but unsurprisingly not everyone was willing to pay. 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 rates 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, yet not everyone paid their dues to the Society! In the end the Society had to approach the government who ultimately set up the Belfast Water Commissioners to look after the water infrastructure of the town.

Clifton Street Cemetery

The 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 cemetery 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 support the Poor House. It 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 and the Society were able to train and employ many people in these essential skills supporting 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 addressing disadvantage 269 years after its foundation. Some of the ongoing philanthropic work of the Charitable Society is set out below:


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 £180,000 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.

Family Early Intervention Support

BCS has supported two part-time home visitors and vouchers for local families in need for three years. Since Oct 2020 almost £6,000 of financial aid has been shared with 80 families (inc over 200 children). The need is identified through a multi-disciplinary approach (60+ organisations) considering North Belfast families facing hardship.