Log Book I: Europe

Full disclosure. It was hard writing this post. Having travelled across Europe for six months on a quest to find best practices, current trends and common challenges in social enterprise support has been one of the most rewarding, humbling, exciting, exhausting and growth experiences of my career. But sitting down and trying to capture it all on a few pages is a daunting task. I want to share all the enthusiasm, the learning, the information overload, early-morning train rides, sore feet and sugar lows with you all without making this sound like some “final report”. Because a report wouldn’t do this adventure justice. It is a snapshot at best, a flicker of an image of social enterprise support in Europe in 2015. By the time I am done typing, it will be outdated and we are ready to move on to the next adventure. This Log Book is the first in a series of snapshots of social enterprise support around the world. I am currently interviewing Social Venturers in the US and am headed down under in spring. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s Log Book I: Europe.

map-001

Social Venturers

In January 2015 I set out in search of best practices and common challenges in capacity building for social entrepreneurs. Mostly, I was keen on meeting the people behind the scenes: professionals who design and implement support programs for social entrepreneurs. I call them Social Venturers. I wanted to hear their views of the sector, what works and what doesn’t; I wanted to learn more about their programs – what happens outside of websites and annual reports, I was looking for insights and connections not captured by research surveys. I wanted to hear what program teams considered current trends and challenges. I wanted to learn a lot!

After six months, I had interviewed more than 30 Social Venturers at  27 support organizations for social entrepreneurs across Europe. With my red backpack – I named him Spivet after this adventurous explorer – I got on 11 flights, slept in 23 different beds at friends’ houses, AirBnBs and hostels. I covered 3.200 km by train and another 1.150 km by car and bus to speak to Social Venturers in Ireland, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. My longest travel day took me from Edinburgh via Manchester to Amsterdam Schiphol where I caught the train to Rotterdam to interview Enviu and Outside Inc. before getting on another train to Utrecht (where I spent the night to return to Amsterdam the following day). In Amsterdam – fun fact – I marched over 10 km in one day to have three interviews across the city; that night I crashed in a hostel bunk bed exhausted. But excited.

stage and length long

I was particularly interested in speaking to organizations that offer structured capacity building for social entrepreneurs. For my research that means analyzing and interviewing 14 accelerators, six incubators, and a mix of competitions, university programs, summer schools and consultancies.

Locality matters.

Our digital age of cloud computing, social networks and mobile technology has made starting a business a lot cheaper, no doubt. We no longer face high up-front investments into brick and mortar business structures only to test and validate/belie minimum viable products. But don’t be fooled. Local support organizations and networks are key to helping fledgling social entrepreneurs off the ground. Bastian Mueller at Yunus Social Business pointed out: “Our program success hinges on supporters in the local scene to act as early adopters, mentors, customers and investors.” When I visited Oxford for a day, I experienced a thriving ecosystem of social enterprises, co-working spaces, colleges and the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University working in synergy, making Oxford one large breathing organism of social impact. In Scotland I spoke to Lindsay Chalmers at the Edinburgh Social Enterprise Network which has managed to not only promote social entrepreneurship, but grow this sector through public awareness raising, advocacy and educating consumers about the social impact of their purchasing decisions. In 2015, Edinburgh counted 200 social enterprises employing 1,220 paid staff and over 6,000 volunteers (ESEN 2015). 94% of Edinburgh’s social enterprises generated an income equivalent to US$184m from trading activities – a close to 300% increase from 2012/13. The backbone of this strong growth trend is the support program of Edinburgh Social Enterprise Network and its partners who provide training and resources to local social entrepreneurs.

Success factors

I like asking about success factors. It doesn’t sound sexy, I agree. But my brain being wired as it is, that’s how I think about the secret sauce of social startup support. In each interview there comes the moment where I get to ask the person opposite me “So… what do you think makes a program effective in empowering social entrepreneurs?”, and while the answers vary, three themes stood out to me across all interviews in Europe: facilitation over curriculum teaching, founders’ personal development and leading by example as a support intermediary.

Facilitation. At Unltd’s Big Social in London in January 2015, the main questions circled around whether to offer generalized training to as many social founders as possible, or focus on individualized support to selected individuals. Throughout my trip I found that the majority of support organizations have embarked on a third route. They make resources accessible for founders to self-select what to study up about, and act as facilitators. “Social entrepreneurs that join our program come equipped with very different skill sets and backgrounds, so we focus on what they need help with at any given point in time.” explained Mareike Mueller at Social Impact Lab Berlin. Similar words from Richard Brownsdon at Impact Hub Westminster: “I believe in just-in-time learning. During the startup phase, founders simply don’t have the time to learn about topics that aren’t relevant to them at the time. We give them support when they need it.”

Support topics

This trend towards facilitation also shows in how Social Venturers perceive their role in working with startups. Kristina Notz at Social Entrepreneurship Akademie in Munich views her job as “asking the right questions, questions that identify the blind spots.” and otherwise “giving founders the mental space for testing and learning.” Birgit Schunke at Heldenrat – a pro-bono consultancy for social initiatives and entrepreneurs in Germany – said: “Every individual or organizations we work with come to us with a different need. Our role is not to solve their problem, but to help them develop their own ideas. We believe that founders already have the answers, we help them get to that realization, and access this knowledge.” The team around Kaat Peeters at Sociale Innovatiefabriek in Belgium takes the facilitation-approach to a whole new level: In their program, social innovators support each other. With an alternative currency-system in place, Sociale Innovatiefabriek provides training templates and content, but the actual mentoring takes place among peers. “Social entrepreneurs can better relate to each other’s challenges, make relevant connections and have credibility as mentors.” The program team supports them where necessary, while their peer-system has given rise to a tight community and strong network with external experts, both of which last way beyond the program itself.

Support services

Founder development. Kai Hockerts at Copenhagen Business School explained to me where he sees the biggest hurdle for the social enterprise sector: “We aren’t short of people from the social sector but they often lack entrepreneurial/managerial training. As a leader of any organizations you are responsible for the people around you; at the same time you can barely share your concerns with anyone (investors, beneficiaries, employees). We need to invest more in developing leadership skills.” Siobhan O’Keeffe at Social Entrepreneurs Ireland thinks along the same lines: “We focus on turning social entrepreneurs into strong leaders. In the end of the day, it is up to them to secure public approval and get a cohort of followers and supporters behind them. Most social entrepreneurs aren’t equipped for that. They must be as solid as the team they are leading to run their business.”

Practice what you preach. When Leon Reiner and his team opened their new space for Impact Hub Berlin he made a simple yet surprising observation: “We are designing the Hub according to the needs of our members. After all, customer discovery and validation is what we challenge founders to do – why shouldn’t WE?” “We try to be as customer-oriented, as we require it from our founders.”, Bastian Mueller at Yunus Social Business chimed in, “As part of this, we survey them to figure out how relevant each program component is to them. We were surprised by some of the findings.” There we have it! Practice what you preach. Be critical. Solicit feedback.

Vincent de Coninck at Oksigen Lab in Belgium and Kristina Notz raised a similar point with regard to financial sustainability. Both argued that support organizations need to be financially sustainable if that is what we expect from our founders. This is probably one of the biggest questions I came across during this trip. Figuring out business models for support organizations is top of my research list, and I can’t give you an answer yet. What I have gathered so far is that the most promising models have diversified their income streams, work with corporate partners, manage to secure government contracts and have embedded themselves in an active angel investing community. This clearly is a starting point at best. I have accepted that to-date most support organizations rely on philanthropic funding. But let’s be honest here: in order to be credible role-models to the founders we work with, we need to become a lot more creative in generating revenue.

programs and funding long

And I am only just getting started… I would love to share more of the observations and insights I came across during those six months. But they don’t fit into a list of best practices or common learnings, they lie in the space between, are a piece within the bigger picture that we rarely pause to look at. And they differ from country to country. Instead, I invite you to explore the grey area, organizational trends and personal stories on right here on this website – be my guest!

I have come across some great resources for those of you looking for larger-scale data-driven insights into social enterprise support around the world. I recommend “From Seed to Impact” by the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network, Monitor Deloitte’s “Accelerating Impact” and ANDE’s “Bridging the Pioneer Gap”. These guys have done a phenomenal job in gathering and analyzing data that informs best practices in this “industry” of support organizations. They don’t focus on Europe, but they give a good introduction of the space.

Wrapping up.

If you are still reading at this point, I feel obliged to send you on your way with some recommendations based on what I learned. I outlined at the beginning how transient this research is, how out-of-date it will be the moment it’s published. Therefore, I have boiled it down to one single piece of advice: Act like a social entrepreneur.

  • Wrap your programs around the needs of your founders,
  • create a safe space for lean experimentation, failure and learning;
  • be a facilitator and support where and when support is needed.
  • Lead by example, no more and no less.

Plug founders into your local ecosystem and you will create more than a successful support program. You will grow a living, breathing community of socially-conscious founders and supporters.

Speak Your Mind

*