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Have you passed your best before date - the growth of leadership and social entrepreneurs in the NI Third Sector.

Have you passed your best before date - the growth of leadership and social entrepreneurs in the NI Third Sector.

by John McMullan

When Nora asked me as I retired from my role as CEO at Bryson to produce a short blog reflecting on over 30 years of working in the N Ireland 3rd Sector, it got me thinking.  The first thought that came to mind was that I had perhaps reached my ‘sell by’ date but then it got worse; in extending the analogy, the ‘best before’ date come to mind – OmG; what if I should have retied some years ago; a sobering thought.

Having packed that unnerving thought away, there are some reflections I would like to share.  I’ve worked in the sector much longer than the +30 years in Bryson; in the late 60s redevelopment in the Lower-Falls meant the McMullans ( Mum, Dad and 6 children), like many more families, moved from cramped terraced housing ‘up the road’, sacrificing strong community bonds for modern accommodation.  Inside toilets and a bath that was in a room not hanging on the back yard wall were welcome improvements. However the community vacuum and the need to build community cohesion and social common purpose was the best ‘schooling’.

The McMullan house became the meeting place for a new tenants association that spawned a youth club; a Credit Union and a range of people led initiatives, which included: a Claimants’ Union, a Citizens Advice Bureau, a community house, a food purchasing co-op, a community transport service and much more.  What this taught me in the mid 70s was the importance and strength of voluntarism, community resilience and the amazing skills and talents that until unlocked through necessity can lay latent in people and within communities.

After two redundancies from manufacturing jobs (Tyrone Crystal and Michelin Tyre Company) the new Action for Community Employment (ACE) programme gave me my first opportunity to be employed in the 3rd Sector, beginning with BVWS ( Belfast Voluntary Welfare Society, the precursor to Bryson House and the current Bryson Charitable Group).  I believe firmly, more than most of Government’s interventions, the ACE programme was a ‘sea’ change in the development and structure of our 3rd sector. Access to a new workforce, engaging people who had been economically forgotten and written off as unemployable, allowed the more entrepreneurial 3rd sector organisations to develop responses to social need and demonstrate a new social business paradigm; more than anything else, I firmly believe that this created the foundation upon which we have built the current vibrant and innovative social economy in N Ireland.

Many people like me used the opportunities provided by the programme to enter 3rd level education and in my own case acquire a range of 3rd level business education culminating in an MBA.  A growing workforce, educational driven new thinking and a move away from the stranglehold of 75% grant funding to the evolution of social market contracting has opened the door to he emergence of new social business models. 

The resulting growth has driven innovation leading directly to a greater number of social enterprises appearing annually in the N Ireland top 200 SME lists and winning recognition regionally and nationally in all-Island and UK business awards.  In my view, we have created here in N Ireland some of the best examples of social enterprise to be seen across Europe and as a consequence, we have created a vibrant and innovative social economy, building sustainable community businesses many (+40%) led by women and sourcing most of their workforce from our local communities.  This brings me back to the starting point of this short blog and my experience of community resilience, innovation and finding opportunity in the face of adversity, which is something we do well and that our public sector needs to recognise and invest in.

It would be myopic of me not to recognise in my reflections on the development of the 3rd sector, the important role played by CO3, initially under the leadership of Majella McCloskey and more recently Nora Smith and their fantastic support team.  I was privileged to Chair CO3, following the skilful chairing of Dame Judith Hill and with my fellow board members help shape a new construct focussed on supporting the Leaders in the 3rd Sector but more importantly, building and developing leadership across our sector enabling new leaders to emerge and replace those like me, who wonder if they have passed their ‘best before’ date.

I can close this short blog sharing my personal delight and satisfaction that I have spent many exciting years working alongside great leaders and social entrepreneurs, who I know will continue to establish and grow our social economy and rebalance the N Ireland economy, making it focus on delivering social value to all but in particular, the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society.


John McMullan

Not at all retired

November 2018


By Howard Davey on

What a fitting reflection and a valuable reminder of the ACE programme being life-enhancing for many people in Belfast during some very difficult years.

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