JFF Interview – Part I: Deirdre Mortell, CEO of Rethink Ireland on Ireland’s philanthropic environment

[Cross-posted from JFF.]

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.

In this part of the interview, Deirdre talks about how philanthropy in Ireland has changed over the course of the last 15 years. (Read Part 2 here.)

Sameer Padania (SP): How did Rethink Ireland get established and what was your role in that?

Deirdre Mortell (DM): My previous philanthropy role was as CEO of ONE Foundation, which was a private philanthropic foundation of one individual called Declan Ryan – he’s linked to the Ryanair family. I co-founded his foundation with him, and we opened and closed that foundation over 10 years. As we moved towards closing it, we were very focused on planning successful exit for our grantees. But we opened it in 2004 during the Celtic Tiger, and we closed it in 2013 in a huge economic crash. So all the exit plans we had made had to be “re-thunk” big time from 2010 onwards, and we had to completely change strategy around exit as a result, because all the assumptions we had made no longer held.

What we were seeing was that the IMF were taking control of our country and our economy, and so there was lots of cutting going on around social spending. But at the same time, philanthropy was also falling because the economy was falling. So, whether it was endowed philanthropies whose returns were falling or whether it was live philanthropists who were losing money, or whatever else, philanthropy was just falling. It was a perfect storm for the grantees that we were supporting.

The government set up a task force called the Forum on Philanthropy and Fundraising to look at how to stimulate philanthropy during a recession – and in my role as CEO of ONE Foundation, I was one of the task force members. Through ONE, I had been monitoring what was going on in other countries to see how [they] were responding to this and I saw a number of patterns in the successful initiatives. And so I was able to draw all draw out those patterns and kick some ideas into the Forum, [which] ultimately became a policy recommendation called ‘Create a National Social Innovation Fund’. I have been CEO of Rethink Ireland [originally called the Social Innovation Fund of Ireland] since the beginning. And I was involved for a couple of years before that, getting it going.

SP: How has the philanthropic environment in Ireland changed? What was the picture when you started, what’s the picture now and where’s it heading?

DM: ONE foundation was established in 2004, that’s 17 years ago, now – that’s a generation! At that time, the Celtic Tiger was roaring. And we were not seeing philanthropy go up at the same pace as we were seeing wealth go up in Ireland at all. And that was one of our concerns. Now, I should emphasize that the data on philanthropy generally is quite weak in Ireland. So it’s very hard to produce a really strong case on anything and a lot of our data is not internationally comparable either.

While we did talk to a lot of budding philanthropists who, as they were making a lot of money, were really starting to think about what they might do with it other than, you know, buy homes and yachts or give it to their children. And it was wonderful to see that, but I think the crash came too soon, and so a lot of those budding philanthropists didn’t really turn into philanthropists during that period. That crash lasted 10 years, and we’re really only pulling back out [of that economic crash] now.

We’re all watching very closely to see how some of those international trends in philanthropy translate into Ireland. So, for example, the Next Gen movement that you’re seeing in the US and throughout Europe, we’re not seeing that yet in Ireland, but at the same time the pattern of our wealth is very different. We were a colonized country, not a colonial country, so pretty much all our wealth is new wealth, 20th or 21st century wealth – there really is not a lot of old wealth in Ireland. So the traditional patterns or philanthropy that you’ll see [with] the Dutch or the Swedish or the Germans or the UK or US, we don’t have those kinds of patterns. I think the psychology of philanthropists is just ‘we’re at an earlier stage’. We don’t have fifth-generation wealth – we have second-, maybe third-generation wealth. So I think some of those trends we’re just not seeing yet but I kind of wouldn’t really expect to see them yet either.

We’re just beginning to work with high-net-worth families and individuals now, and what we offer to them is very different. They are interested in match-funding but they’re also interested in capacity-building – which includes a specific module around a successful exit. I think all the donors we work with are interested in the fact that we provide a successful exit and that we’re supporting the grantees on exit from the very beginning, so they don’t have to worry that if they choose to exit after three years, that it’s all going to crash and burn at the end. I think that provides a little bit of a safety net for donors psychologically as well.

SP: Is there more engagement from other kinds of philanthropic actors in Ireland?

What we are seeing is more engagement with corporate
philanthropy, both in the multinationals and more local Irish companies as well, and that’s encouraging. The role we’ve played as Rethink Ireland has been important in bringing some of those companies to the table – and with some of the multinationals that we have worked with, we competed internationally to bring that philanthropic money to Ireland. That wasn’t money that was coming to Ireland, we would have been pitching against other countries because [the multinationals] were going to do one big philanthropic initiative in Europe this year, and which country will it go to? And we’ve been successful at bringing that in. There are ways that we’ve been able to stimulate philanthropy – because of the particular model we have – that have been really important and that become showcases for others. Like our State Street initiative – a big American Boston-based bank made a very significant donation €750,000 over three years, matched by government, which is focused on supporting with people with disabilities into employment – decent employment, I might add – through innovative programs. We did pitch internationally to bring that [funding] to Ireland, [without which] that would not have happened.

SP: How about your engagement with Big Tech companies, many of which have based their European operations out of Ireland?

DM: We’ve worked with Google [through Google.org, its philanthropic arm] now twice in the last five years. We had a €0.5m donation in 2016 for ThinkTech and now we’ve a further donation this year for the Rural Recovery Fund; we had a small donation from Twitter for our COVID-19 fund. But the other tech firms we haven’t successfully engaged with to date.

I think that a lot of the tech firms in Ireland are interested in donating their employees’ time as volunteers and various other ways of giving, but they wouldn’t be as big on philanthropy in the Irish market as they would be in their home market of the US. And I think some of that comes down to the culture – both as consumers and as a government – that we don’t demand philanthropy as a norm from multinationals based here in the way that that, in the US, would be an absolutely basic assumption of what would be expected of a corporate citizen. Other sectors, for example, financial services, would have a different culture.

SP: I understand that you have a richer connection with the US in some ways in that your mother is American – does that inform the success that Rethink Ireland has had in bringing US funds in particularly?

DM: Exactly – I’d have a good understanding of the philanthropic culture in the US as well. Through that, and also we had an American board member at ONE Foundation who I would have learned a lot from too – we became very good friends as well as professional peers! So I’ve been able to really build networks in the US, particularly in the Boston and New York area, and that means I can really keep up with the trends and what’s going on. But does it matter if I’m American or not? I think it’s helpful, but it’s not critical. I think I’m able to work cross-culturally, and that makes everybody feel more comfortable – and being comfortable is very important to decision-making and to trust. But if the next CEO of Rethink is simply Irish, they be able to do just as good a job as I can.

SP: Does the fact that the funds they donate are going to be matched by government and the bang for their buck is effectively doubled work as a factor in your favour? Is it an unfamiliar thing for the donors you’re approaching in the US to encounter?

DM: It’s not that unfamiliar in the US – there are models, but I think they’re perhaps being forgotten. One of our models for developing this fund was actually the Obama Social Innovation Fund, which he set up in his first 100 days – that involved not a 1:1 match, but a 3:1 match, i.e. for every $3 raised philanthropically you got $1 from the federal government. It was a very powerful model that ran for the eight years he was president, but it was it was gone pretty quickly. When Trump came in, he shut it all down. So not everybody remembers that, and not everybody participated in it either.

SP: I was living there at the time, so I should have known about it. Maybe I’ve forgotten too… What about diasporic funding?

DM: The Ireland Funds – they work between Ireland and the US, and other countries as well – play an absolutely critical role there. We work very closely with them – and they have been a tremendously supportive partner to us. They work particularly with Irish-American individuals and families who may be wanting to do something philanthropic in Ireland, so we are not traveling to the US to pitch cold. We’re either doing it with American companies through their Irish EMEA headquarters here in Ireland, or else we’re working with the Ireland Funds where perhaps they know a donor who’d like to give and they think the way Rethink Ireland operates might be a good fit.

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