OECD Local Development Forum: Practitioner of the Moment


Practitioner of the Moment




An interview with Jeanne McDonagh, CEO of The Open Doors Initiative

How has COVID-19 impacted your work and how have you responded?

We started as a standalone organisation on March 12 – the day Ireland was first locked down due to Covid. Ireland went from nearly full employment to 15% unemployment almost overnight. We work to create pathways to employment for marginalised people – and we knew they would suffer more in a downturn, so we redoubled our efforts.

We helped over 2,300 people last year and we were set up for success with companies that want to take our pledge ( and live it and have that ethos engrained. Once the initial shock passed, we moved online, created new training programmes and seminars, podcasts and toolkits, all aimed at helping our companies and participants through this time and encouraging them to persist with the work.

It paid off in that more companies came on board and have strived to help where they can.
On a practical level, we had not signed a lease for office space and have been operating solely online, including onboarding new employees and running training and seminars. With physical offices you need to consider accessibility, reasonable accommodation, parking for people with disabilities, and being centrally based to accommodate all. With virtual offices, we have been able to accommodate far more participants from all backgrounds and abilities and living all around the country, in our work, and that has been a huge benefit.

We did find that some of our participants found the regular lockdowns very hard and it was difficult getting them to engage in work planning or that they might not have access to hardware to take part. We worked with some other organisations to source computers for those in Direct Provision, to ensure they had quality access to education, training and employment to overcome this.

Overall, we have grown the developed innovative ideas and programmes during this time. We have found it a source of inspiration and it has shaped our future plans in a very creative way.



What are the main lessons learnt from the Open Doors Initiative in terms of achieving local impact for the community?

We recognise everyone’s individuality – our participants are people coming from a wide range of backgrounds and abilities, with differing needs. We try to deal with everyone on a case by case basis and make our programmes work for them as opposed to shoe horning people into training or jobs that do not meet their skill sets.

We also see the potential in all that we work with. Just because someone comes from another country, a disadvantaged background or has a disability, it does not mean that they can only aspire to low paid work. We have people with Doctorates who we work with and we ensure that the companies see this potential and worth and place them accordingly. This also applies to giving people an education and getting them into courses to increase their skills and possibilities. We are very lucky in the organisations we work with, that they see this and work with us to achieve the best for everyone. We strive to create an equitable pathway for our participants into employment.

The importance of contacts with groups working with the people we also work with cannot be overstated. They have helped us start, grow and develop and it is a peculiarly Irish culture that benefits us in that everyone knows someone who can help. We learnt to be brave – reach out, ask for help and collaborate. If someone is doing something similar, join forces and increase impact – you have the same North Star so work towards that rather than dividing resources and people.

One of the best ways to ensure this happens is through mentoring. We have started a mentoring programme, which brings people from companies together with our participants to help both understand their differences and similarities and use these learnings to grow as people and as employees. I have first-hand experience of the benefits of mentoring both for myself and for a participant, who has flourished through our relationship. It is so impactful for both parties and opens your eyes and mind to the wider worlds. Make it your business to mentor someone. You will benefit in so many ways.


What would be your suggestions for someone wanting to start a similar programme somewhere else?

  • Talk to and enrol business and trade union umbrella bodies in the country. These are vital for contacts and giving an imprimatur to the organisation. Also avoids potential issues of bad labour practices, poor wages etc.
  • We work with all types of business, multi-national to SMEs and semi-states. The MN tend to roll out training programmes, the smaller SMES tend to hire and are very invested. They also make up the vast majority of businesses and have Government support
  • NGO buy in – they provide the social issues expertise for training for programmes and companies and can find people to take part in the programmes and fill positions. It also gives real credibility to the work
  • Government engagement – this is vital in terms of funding, influencing change, getting support etc. It got us our initial access to the Direct Provision Centres and expertise in a lot of areas. It also helps with funding and promoting your work
  • Seed money – this will vary but costs include travel, subsistence, print and design, website building, hosting seminars and meetings as well as head count. These can be relatively modest and can be built off the existing models or using secondments. We were incubated in Diageo Ireland and built out from there which was essential to creating a solid base
  • Ensure your company pledge is robust and covers a fair wage for participants – this is not cheap labour, and you want to attract companies with a similar ethos of helping participants authentically
  • Avoid getting into a company at the wrong level in terms of initial contacts - It really has to be CEO or HR Director level to gain traction.
  • Governance - this will change as the company grows and needs to be put in place from the start but flexible as you grow. You also need all the required legal framework done well in advance as this can hold up the process e.g. setting up bank accounts, insurance, payments
  • Use the skills of the companies – indeed target particular companies – for assistance in setting up e.g. accountancy, legal, PR, etc. It is really beneficial to have expert advice and reduces costs significantly. 
  • One size does not fit all, and you need to tailor your offering to companies depending on size e.g. multi-nationals tend to be very self-sufficient and need little support but those starting on their journey need a lot. Try and put a package in place for these that answers all questions and supports with less drain on resources.
  • Contacts, contacts, contacts. They are so important and anyone who takes building a similar organisation will have to have these in abundance or know how to get them. It is one of the most important parts of the Open Doors Initiative and its capacity to grow.

Published: January 2021


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