Log 03: Netherlands & Belgium in review

March 30, 2016

Log [n.]: Personal reflection

This trip was a great kick-off for Social Venturers. On the professional side, I learned about a great many different approaches to working with social entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by the stories of the Social Venturers themselves – their previous careers and why they care about the impact space. I ran anything from 45-minutes to 2-hour interviews with ten Social Venturers and one social entrepreneur within four days.

On the personal side, this trip tested my grit. Three to four interviews in one day may not sound much if you consider your work day to be somewhere between eight and ten hours. But four days in a row is ambitious and I had to realize that in order to be an open-minded active listener, I can’t cramp too many interviews into such a short time period. Noted. By the time I left Belgium, I had been on the road for over four weeks for contract work and Social Media Week in Hamburg as well as Social Venturers-related work in Scotland. In brief: I was exhausted. I spent the following week with friends where I locked myself away to gather my notes, follow up with interviewees, and sleep.

Amsterdam

I am no ethnographer but if I had to pinpoint what struck me most about speaking to Dutch and Belgian Social Venturers, it’s their humility. The team at Kennisland, for example, sees itself merely as a facilitator. They run social labs together with their target beneficiaries, co-develop solutions, and withdraw. Social Enterprise NL: I walked past their office twice because I couldn’t find a sign indicating that these was in fact their office. I had expected a small army managing their 230 members, trainings, collaborations, agenda setting and social media. Instead I found a chatty and cheerful group of four (out of seven), with whom I felt instantly connected. And even the social entrepreneur I spoke to – Jacquelien Bunt, head of Global Seller Activation at Discovered – explained: “I’m not trying to change the world; I’m not Mother Theresa. But if I can make life a little better for those who are worse off than me, that’s great.”

In summary

Here’s what I learned:

  • Streamlining and professionalizing processes in our programs reduces transaction costs, especially when we work with third parties such as corporate or governmental partners.
  • Let’s be precise and strict about the definitions and terms we use. Speaking the same language within the sector will allow us to better position ourselves towards external parties and potential partners in other sectors. This will pay off especially in the work of agenda setting and advocacy.
  • Inviting external views on an issue and collaborating with other organizations such as think tanks can mean higher costs. But if it’s well-facilitated, it can lead to more holistic and sustainable solutions.
  • We need to be aware of gaps in our support programs. Not all social entrepreneurs fit in the pre-defined stages of maturity and may need individual support parallel to our standardized programs.

One question remains

In line with what I heard at the GSEN-Learning week in London, a central conversation revolves around: What’s the right balance between generic vs. individual programs? Do we want to reach as many social entrepreneurs as possible and run them through our programs, or do we want to pick a few and work with them individually, at a higher cost? I have come across some examples along this spectrum on this trip: Enviu crowdsources innovative ideas that may grow into social businesses; Impact Hub Amsterdam, Social Enterprise NL and Social Innovation Factory offer structured programs with personal mentor aspects, and Oksigen Lab offers individual coaching. They cover the whole spectrum from working with an entire community of social innovators to individual one-on-one support.

After these field visits, I suggest generic programs for early-stage ventures and more specialized support as they grow more mature. That way, we open the field for many early great ideas and filter them as they continue to develop through testing and validation. If our objective as a support industry is to get viable solutions to scale, then we need to understand what those who enable scaling (impact investors) look for. When I spoke to Christophe Baudin at SI2 fund he said they’d prefer selecting from a small number of outstanding concepts rather than filtering through a large number of non-investment ready ventures. If this is a role we as support organizations can play in the pipeline – supporting ventures on their way to investment readiness – I think we are serving the sector as a whole. Thoughts?

 

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