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Interview II: Deirdre Mortell, CEO of Rethink Ireland - on journalism, and Rethink Ireland's model

Deirdre Mortell is the founding CEO of Rethink Ireland. After roles in high-growth NGOs like Oxfam Ireland and Barnardos Ireland, Deirdre co-founded ONE Foundation with philanthropist Declan Ryan. After the planned closure of ONE, Deirdre became CEO of the Social Innovation Fund of Ireland, which was renamed as Rethink Ireland. She has also served on the board of the European Venture Philanthropy Association.

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In this part of the interview, Deirdre talks about her connections with and funding of journalism, and in more depth about Rethink Ireland's model. (Read Part 1 here.)

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Sameer Padania: So I understand that you have some connections with the world of journalism…

Deirdre Mortell: Yeah, so I'm married to a journalist! He's a science journalist, so he's very specialized. As he always says, ‘my mum's never heard of any of the media outlets I write for’.

And then at ONE Foundation, we developed an analysis that one of the reasons why equality issues were not moving forward as fast as you would think was that the public understanding of those issues was limited. So we thought that a contribution in the mainstream media to a deeper understanding of those issues - not through news items, but more analytical items, like longform journalism or documentary-making - was needed. Even though there was lots of appetite [to do that kind of reporting], that kind of money just wasn't available to journalists. At the same time, a very famous journalist in Ireland called Mary Raftery, who had been writing for press and producing TV documentaries and was very strong on these issues, died of cancer very young. Her friends and family were trying to kick off an initiative exactly on the kinds of issues that we felt we weren't seeing enough of, so we connected up with them, and ONE Foundation became the first funders of the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund.

We were looking at issues like racism and discrimination around travelers, refugees and migrants, raising the reality of poverty and its lifelong impact on children, LGBT issues and things like that. What the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund did initially was to open up bursaries for journalists who wanted to explore a piece in any form - video, radio, print, online, whatever - and they had to just put in a proposal, but they also had to secure agreement from a media outlet that they would use it afterwards and that they would credit the Fund. So we funded the first three years of that Fund to get it off the ground - and lots and lots of articles came out. One of the main areas where I saw public opinion begin to change was around asylum seekers and refugees and trying to move that debate from [people thinking they were] ‘spongers’ to ‘people who have experienced trauma, violence or whatever else and how people don't leave their countries unless they feel they absolutely have to’. Public understanding of that was in a really bad place. I think the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund articles were the very beginning of beginning to move public understanding. And now public understanding is in a very different place 10 years later. And as a result policy issues we're now shifting. It was just a very simple thing we did – quite long-term impact, not short-term impact, but that was fine with us.

SP: What's the challenge that Rethink Ireland is trying to meet, and how does the way it is funded support that mission?

DM: Rethink Ireland brings together philanthropic funding from a wide range of sources - from companies, from individuals, from families, lots of different places - together with state funding through the Department of Rural and Community Development. We were five years old in June [2021], and we launched a five-year Impact Report, to say: “Well, what have we done anyway, with all that money and support and everything else?”

Our mission is to provide funding and business supports to support social innovation to grow and spread around Ireland. We see our mission as two sides of the same coin. One is to stimulate philanthropy, by both matching it with government funding, so your money goes twice as far, but also by really demonstrating the impact that your money can make to the way that we fund. So we think the ‘stimulate philanthropy’ and the ‘backing of social innovation’ are a dual mission.

SP: That philanthropic money is matched by the government, but from an unusual source – dormant accounts and assets – which a handful of countries like the UK, Japan, Canada are also using to support social causes. Can you explain what that means, and are there any implications for the way you work?

DM: As you’ve said, the philanthropy is being matched by what's called the Dormant Accounts Fund. The public doesn't get it typically, but if you don't know what these funds are, I always talk about how Dormant Accounts Funds is the fiver (€5) that my granny had in the post office, and she lost the passbook, and none of us knew about it when she died.

I think it's important [to speak about it] because we're drawing down €5.5 million a year, which isn't a big amount of money, but within the department that funds us, we actually get the largest chunk of that money, so in that sense, it's significant and it stands out. Also, it's granted out to us, it's not spent by the government itself - most of the dormant assets are actually spent by government departments on their own programs. In this case, it's going to an external body and there's transparency that comes with that.

SP: Do people understand the difference between this money - which comes from accounts or assets that have remained dormant for 15 years, and which the government passed legislation to allow it to be used for social causes – and other government funding that comes out of taxation?

This is a different source of money - to me, just morally and ethically, that's quite an important message. I suppose because a lot of what we're focusing on are things like poverty issues, equality issues, issues of disadvantage and marginalization, we could face an accusation that it should be taxpayers' money, and why are we getting it?

I'm really happy that it's citizens’ money - and not taxpayers’ money - that we're spending, so we are not competing with poverty-alleviation funding programs by the government. By giving us €5.5m they're not taking €5.5m out of some other program. So there's nothing in it that would bring concern to me. I actually think that it's a real asset.

SP: How does the model you use stimulate philanthropy?

DM: We're a venture philanthropy model, which doesn't mean much to most people – it’s just jargon really. Basically, we never provide only money - we always provide ‘capacity-building supports’ alongside that, or what we call ‘accelerator supports’. And that's because we know that the skills it takes to develop innovations are not the same skills that it takes to grow and spread them. And that's okay. That's just something that we're going to help you fix because we'll support you with those skills.

We often find that the way the grantees choose to spend the money changes on their journey as they go through the accelerator program. And that's the point. It's flexible funding in that sense that we're focused on outcomes, and what you need to do to get those outcomes might change along the way, particularly informed by what you learn in the accelerator.

So funders really, really like that and different funders like different things about it. The way that it stimulates philanthropy is that philanthropists can really see the impact that they're making. And because we're outcomes-based funding, we are very focused on measuring the impact, and one of the big capacity-building supports we provide to grantees is social impact measurement, so that, at the end, they can actually see what they've achieved because we've trained them in how to do that and how to measure it.

SP: There are different schools of thought in the funding field about outcome or impact measurement – some feel you can’t really measure this stuff, and others feel there’s a lack of rigour compared to other sectors. What has that journey been in Rethink Ireland’s case and where you are now with it?

DM: What I would say is that, with short-term funding, all you can measure is outputs, because that's all that's achieved in short-term funding. So if you're doing six months or a year or even two years, you can measure the number of kids who went through the program or you can measure the number of somebody who something happened to. But you know, you can't really measure a whole pile more than that. So there's what happens to the beneficiaries of the programme. The second thing that we measure – with a tool we call the ‘organizational health assessment’ - is how much the organization we're focused on has been strengthened. We do an opening, middle (sometimes) and closing assessment, because if the organization is stronger, then whatever has happened is going to continue for longer. That's what you can do with a relatively small amount of money in a relatively small amount of time.

And that strengthens the organization for the future, which, for example, might be handed onto another funder to do the next thing - because the other thing not to forget is that philanthropy is a relay race. One philanthropy doesn't solve the problem with two years funding, let's face it, so it's important not to overclaim as well…

SP: As part of your work to understand impact, what do your academic collaborations add?

DM: If you have a larger amount of money, and a longer period of time, as some of our funds would have, then we would commission an academic evaluation and that's around trying to get outcomes. So what actually changed for the beneficiaries as opposed to ‘what have they done?’

So if we take a very simple literacy programme, it’s the difference between an output – how many kids have done the reading – and an outcome – how many grades have they gone up - and ideally, you'll even find out if we got the ‘dosage’ right. Is 1 or 3 or 5 hours a week ideal for this age group and improvement in grades? Those are the things you can explore with an academic evaluation that you can't explore within an organization, as they won't have the skills or the independence - but it takes a lot of money.

The UNESCO Centre for Children and Youth in NUI Galway did a three-year academic evaluation of our education fund grantees that we published this year. There were 10 grantees that started and 8 grantees that finished, and [the academics] were able to do a really deep cluster evaluation that says what happened in the end, but also what did we learn, what mattered? ‘What happened in the end’ is obviously important to the funders, but in terms of the field, ‘what mattered’ is actually a more important question. They were able to draw out of these eight grantees ‘what have we learned about what is innovative and works?’ And they were able to pull out some principles around what innovative programmes at work looks like, and that's something that anybody in the world can take and apply to their funding, or their policy or their thinking. And they've produced policy recommendations around what that would look like, so that policymakers can take that on if they choose to.

To me that's the difference between measuring outputs, which we can do in any short term fund, and measuring outcomes: if you want to start looking at outcomes, you need a minimum of three years and you need enough money to commission an academic valuation, [but] you have to be patient with academic valuations because academics don't work in the same timeframes as some other people.

SP: The growth plans for Rethink Ireland, your Manifesto for 2030, they’re ambitious. Can you talk us through that?

DM: Our next stated ambition is we want to be €100m fund by the end of 2023. We're currently at €73m or so right now, so we believe that's very achievable, again based on a combination of philanthropy and government funding. That's a number and that's what catches the headlines, but obviously it's about the impact we want to make – and in our new strategic plans we're focusing in on four key areas: educational disadvantage, social enterprise supports and scaling, equality issues, and the Green Transition. And the Green Transition is relatively new to us.

In terms of where we've put our money to date, [most] of the €73m has been allocated in education and social enterprise. We really want to raise a lot more money for equality and the Green Transition in the next stage. And equality includes some of those kinds of challenging and dirty-enough issues, like racism, discrimination against all kinds of groups, LGBT, trans, black and ethnic minority, our own indigenous group 'travelers' and so on, and that's far harder to raise money, because that's where the stigma lies. So we're really want to focus in on that and do some really tough work in there.

And then the green transition we all know we have to face into it. One of our challenges there is that, with the Dormant Accounts Fund, what you can focus on is defined in legislation, and it doesn't include anything to do with the environment or climate change, because it was written in the 1980s. So the Green Party has managed to put into the current programme for government that they will update that legislation, but until they do, we're a little bit limited in what we can do there. The Green Transition is something where we're not really seeing the philanthropy emerge [in Ireland], which is a concern. Part of why that’s not yet happening is that we’re not yet seeing the Next Gen trends [here] we're seeing in other countries, combined with the fact that the government match-funding is quite hard to apply. So that needs to be a big focus for the next stage.

SP: What about the European dimension of Rethink’s work, and particularly the National Competence Center for Social Innovation, which is part of a European project?

DM: In relation to the European work. Yes, we're the lead organization on this four-country partnership consortium to build a national competency centre for social innovation in all four countries by the end of 2 years. That is part of a commission program. So the commission has decided that in this seven year program, they want one in every country by the end of the seven years, and they're doing two rounds of funding. So we managed to win in the first round. And they will reopen that in a few years time. And the purpose is, you know, how can we build a flourishing ecosystem for social innovations. So we're very glad to be ahead of the curve. And as part of that we're working with government, as well as genio another partner in Ireland, and our international partners. The point is to really look at strengthening the ecosystem, but as part of it is enable us to actually map the social innovation ecosystem for the first time ever in Ireland. So getting some data is a great way to start.

SP: What’s distinctive that Rethink Ireland and Ireland more generally contributes to that European mix?

DM: So one of the distinctive things is our model - we're the only model that combines philanthropy and state funding in a way that all points in the same direction around social innovation. Our partner Genio also started out with their model. The second thing that's distinctive for us is just the way our country works, which is as a small country. Decision-makers are all very close together. (Related to that I gave the keynote to the Green Party of Ireland conference yesterday.) We're working with Cyprus, Bulgaria and Portugal, which are also small countries. So I think exploring how that works in different political environments, is also going to be very interesting as well..