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.

The 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.

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 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.

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.  Profits which are made by Clifton House go to the Belfast Charitable Society to enable it to continue the work of promoting philanthropy, tackling disadvantage and working with older people.  Clifton House also uses other social enterprises in its supply chain to ensure the tradition of social enterprise remains strong.