Supporting enterprise and innovation in the third sector

The Department has a key role in supporting Social Economy Enterprise (SEE) growth within the Voluntary and Community Sector and this is reflected in our Programme for Government commitment 'To invest in social enterprise growth to increase sustainability in the broad community sector'. This is being taken forward through a number of initiatives.

Community Asset Transfer

Community Asset Transfer (CAT) is a change in management and/or ownership of land or buildings, from public bodies to communities. 'Community' ownership and management of public assets encompasses a range of third sector organisations:

  • voluntary and community sector groups,
  • faith-based organisations,
  • community enterprises and social enterprises.

A cross-departmental Steering Group was established to develop the Community Asset Transfer policy framework. This was subject to consultation and was approved by the Executive in May 2014. Development Trusts NI (DTNI) have been appointed as the Department’s delivery partner for CAT. DTNI’s role is to develop capacity and skills within the voluntary and community sector to enable organisations to take advantage of future opportunities. It is also working with the Department and other asset holders to advance a number of demonstration projects. It is hoped Community Asset Transfer will stimulate social enterprise activity as communities look for sustainable ways to operate these assets.

Pilot Social Economy Projects

Two pilot ‘Social Economy Growth’ projects have been initiated with the Resurgam Trust  in Lisburn and VISTA  in Omagh. These projects are supporting the development of new, sustainable social economy businesses within their communities and aim to create new employment opportunities in disadvantaged areas.

These pilots were instigated following a joint initiative between the Department and the Department for the Economy which resulted in the publishing of research on the potential for growth of the social economy enterprise sector in Northern Ireland. You can read the full Third Sector Report on the DE website.

Social Enterprise Hubs

The Social Enterprise (SE) Hubs pilot project is one of the Signature Programmes being taken forward with funding support from the Northern Ireland Executive’s Delivering Social Change framework. It is an action based learning project which seeks to tackle poverty and social exclusion through the establishment of SE hubs across the nine Social Investment Fund zones.  The aim is to:

  • facilitate the removal of community eyesores through targeting clusters of street level vacant or under-used units within  ten communities
  • encourage SE business start-ups within local communities
  • provide services for the purposes of facilitating SE

All potential social enterprises can avail of free workshops, training and mentoring one to one support. The NI social enterprise hubs are available to all new or existing social enterprises with an idea for a new product or service and provide:

  • advice and mentoring services
  • potential shop front retail space
  • hot desking facilities
  • conference/meeting rooms
  • training suites
  • general workspace – from where SE businesses can operate on a ‘test-trading’ basis

If you are looking to start or grow a social enterprise hub use the NI business info site to find your nearest social enterprise hub.  You can find out more by contacting the Social Enterprise team - their details are on the NI social enterprise hubs page.  

Social Innovation

Innovation is wider than Research and Development, including changes to products and processes, introduction of new business models, organisational changes and entering new markets. InnovateNI, the NI Executive’s Innovation Strategy, recognises that if innovation is to play its full part in realising the vision of the Economic Strategy, then we need a complete step change in terms of an innovation culture, priority and performance across the public, private and third sectors.

The aims of the strategy

The Northern Ireland Innovation Strategy aims to deliver a vision that Northern Ireland, by 2025, will be recognised as an Innovation Hub and will be one of the UK’s leading high-growth, knowledge-based regions which embraces creativity and innovation at all levels of society. 

The role of the Department

The Department leads a working group to bring together senior representatives from Government, the private sector and local and UK wide third sector interests, to identify areas where social innovation could make a difference (the problem spaces), scope the current activity/ interest in social innovation, recognising the context of Innovate NI, develop some potential social innovation pilot actions and advise on key opportunities to connect the work on social innovation  with other projects and initiatives taking place in Northern Ireland.


If you have any queries please contact Voluntary and Community Unit 

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