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 By the time I am done typing, it will be outdated and we are ready to move on to the next adventure.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.

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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.

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?

 

Cartography: Brussels

March 26, 2015

Cartography[n.]: Mapping, review

In this third part of the review, let’s take a look at the field visits in Brussels, Belgium. Visiting Oksigen Lab and Social Innovation Factory in Brussels in a way represented two opposite ends of a spectrum. The former is financed privately, the latter publicly. Read on to see what I took away from these visits.

Oksigen Lab

Oksigen Lab is unique in their approach of supporting social entrepreneurs on an individual basis. Like a conventional consultancy, clients (social entrepreneurs) pay a fix rate per consulting day. Over the last months, I have witnessed an on-going conversation among support organizations about the balance between personalized, individual support vs. standardized programs for a group of social entrepreneurs. Oksigen Lab fares well in the former. Based on my experience, however, a number of topics can be addressed very well in groups (e.g. basic accounting, fundraising, marketing etc.) which makes it less resource intense: it is more efficient and entrepreneurs may actually learn from each other.

What is the right balance between individual support vs. standardized programs for #SocEnt? Click To Tweet

I see great value in their individual consulting approach for social entrepreneurs, but I also know it is hard to pull-off financially. I see two directions Oksigen Lab can take this: Either they offer their services to social enterprises that run net-positive revenue and can afford this quality of consulting, or they start to offer a more standardized support program for early-stage social enterprises that is complemented by individual, fee-based consulting for those start-ups that require and can afford additional support. I am curious to see what Vincent and his team come up with and how they can use the ecosystem in Belgium, their proximity to the Netherlands and their involvement with EU research to further develop their model.

Social Innovation Factory

Most support organizations I have met and spoken to are constantly struggling to raise funds and keep operations going. I almost want to call it “refreshing” to meet an accelerator that has this part figured out thanks to their government funding.

Intake session at Social Innovation Factory

Intake session at Social Innovation Factory

Sociale InnovatieFabriek can employ qualified staff, focus on developing a strong peer support network, and research. Knowing where staff salaries will come from next year, a support organization – like many non-profits – thrives with a different kind of energy. This is what I experienced at Social Innovation Factory. Three team members took the time to talk to me, director Kaat Peeters met with another group of social innovators looking for an accelerator blueprint and everyone seemed just very focused on creating real lasting impact.

Business models for #SocEntSupport

Funding security has a strong impact on the job quality and satisfaction in the support sector. Who wants to initiate a research project that is funded for half the research period? Who is not tired of constantly writing funding applications, attracting new donors and reporting to existing ones? And who is not – just every now and then – wondering if it’s all worth it when looking at our friends with corporate careers?

The resources required to just keeping a support program alive are disproportionate to the resources allocated to creating a lasting impact through program activities. Not every support organization can have a level of government funding like SIF – nor should they. But it is fair to say that the days of purely philanthropic funding for social enterprise support organizations are over.

There are business models for #SocEntSupport organizations - run with it! Click To Tweet

Throughout this first Europe trip, I have identified a number of stakeholders – social entrepreneurs, local/super-/national governments, impact investors – and income streams – co-working space and venue rental, corporate partnerships – to set up support organizations in a way that they can plan long-term, invest in staff training and retention, research and experiment with new models of social enterprise support.Resources for support organizations are available, public, governmental and corporate interest in our work is growing. Let’s put this to use and run with it!


Cartography: Rotterdam

Cartography: Amsterdam

Oksigen Lab: Walking the Talk of Financial Sustainability

My second day in Belgium was grey and started with the futile attempt of finding a cafe with free wifi. Defeated, I sipped my coffee and watched the solar eclipse for which hundreds of tourists had assembled in the beautiful old-town square ‘Grand Place’. Spectacular, and adding to the surreal sensation of sitting in Brussels in the middle of the week – a city that I don’t think stands out among all the European capitals and still felt very foreign to me.

Walking to my meeting at i-propeller I was once more struck by the sight of a homeless man on the stairs leading up to the Royal Gardens. Bizarre encounter. Again, probably something you will find in any European capital, but in Brussels – the center of European politics – this sight was more startling.

I walked through the Royal Gardens with little energy, but as soon as I entered the i-propeller offices hosting both of my interview partners that day, Oksigen Lab and SI2-Fund, my energy returned with the hustle of different people running their meetings and talking in every corner.

The Oksigen Ecosystem

Today’s Oksigen ecosystem started with i-propeller in 2006 by four entrepreneurs with backgrounds in academia/research, financial services, social entrepreneurship and the corporate sector. The original idea:

Supporting social innovation in Belgium through research and consulting. Click To Tweet

“Supporting social entrepreneurs was always part of i-propeller’s work, even if we had no structured program to do so. Somehow, we always made it fit in.” says Vincent. “As i-propeller was growing strongly very quickly, we decided in 2012 to branch out the work in the field of social entrepreneurship to define clearly what i-propeller’s services were.” Oksigen Lab was born.

Today, Oksigen Lab works with approximately 40 early-stage social entrepreneurs per year. After an intake interview, the entrepreneur and coach develop a coaching trajectory including specific coaching topics and the days needed to achieve the collaboratively-defined goal. During ten to fifteen days over several months the coach provides input and expertise towards specific challenges the social entrepreneur faces. Content is determined case by case; the entrepreneur pays the full price for the coaching sessions if he/she achieves his/her pre-defined goal, and a reduced fee if not.

Oksigen Lab offers tailored support for #SocEnt on a consulting basis. Click To Tweet

The challenge in this model? Entrepreneurs are incentivised to not be successful in order to avoid the higher fee tranche. At the same time, the support provided to participating social entrepreneurs is highly specialized and tailored to their needs. My conversation with Vincent confirmed my growing suspicion that there is is potential for a business model when working with social entrepreneurs. Vincent argues “We need to walk the talk. We teach our entrepreneurs the importance of business models and financial sustainability. How credible are we if we do not lead by example?”. On top of that, imagine what you could do if you actually had a budget for remunerating experts and mentors instead of asking for their work pro-bono!

The business case - how credible are we if we don't lead by example? Click To Tweet

Oksigen Lab is involved in EU project BENISI which seeks to build a network of incubators for social innovation. First mentioned by Wieke van der Zouwen at Impact Hub Amsterdam, I should learn more about this project in the coming weeks.

Oksigen Lab's support approach

Oksigen Lab’s support approach

I was skeptical at first, and I remain skeptical when it comes to how high the entrepreneurs’ fees can and should be, but I am more and more convinced that having skin in the game financially is beneficial for both support organizations and social entrepreneurs. I agree with Oksigen’s policy of leading by example, not only because it helps finance the operations of a support organization, but it starts setting the tone across the industry that not all support services can or should be free. In the end of the day, that makes social business distinct from charity. I don’t want to argue that every support program should start charging for their services, but I believe that too many provide a lot of great value for free, and I am concerned about the sustainability of these programs.

twitter@OksigenLab

oksigenlab.eu

Spotlight: Vincent de Coninck

Vincent spotlight

What drives you?

I can’t accept that things are happening the way they do because people are blind and don’t want to change.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

I feel that the networks around social entrepreneurs are growing and expanding. For example, many different support organizations have sprung up, and more, they build relationships with schools and universities.

Currently reading

Scarcity by Eldar Shafir

Background

Originally, Vincent studied marketing and after two years, took some time out to see what else the world had to offer. Ater his timeout in India, he returned to Belgium and changed to social marketing. Having worked as a consultant for communication and fundraising for non-profits, Vincent “was a bit bored with selling concepts. I wanted to sell products and since I am passionate about food, I started a company that imports and distributes organic and fairtrade wines. Right now, I am still on the board but have stepped back from the operational side of the business.”

“When it comes to the social enterprise support sector, I hope we will start walking the talk of being sustainable enterprises ourselves. I feel we are the ones to set a certain standard of financial sustainability, and lead by example. Let’s work together to share our learning and outputs and successful cases!”

twitter@OksigenLab

Spotlight: Kaat Peeters

Kaat spotlight

What drives you?

To strengthen the energy of changemakers. There is so much happening bottom-up. It’s a great privilege to get in touch with all those ‘innovators’ and to find ways to leverage them.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

The upcoming awareness that co-creation is key in improving society.

Currently reading

“De wereld redden” Michel Bauwens

Background

Apart from her experience as an entrepreneur (she used to import and sale Arabic and Persian goods, and ran a bed & breakfast), Kaat has several years of experience working in the cultural sector. She set up the Forum for Amateur Arts and organized Art City Flanders.

A turning point in her career was her visit at the Delancey foundation:”I experienced first-hand how former inmates lived together and started social enterprises, anything from a moving company to a restaurant or a furniture repair service. I kept on asking them ‘WHO is organizing this?’ and they said ‘We do.’ They were self-organized. That was impressive and showed me how social enterprise as a model can empower people.”

I ask Kaat what keeps her going through the rough times, and she says:”The spirit of the team and all the little changes we create every day. Also, it’s empowering meeting all these people with a good heart who take the risk of being entrepreneur to help others.”

twitter@KaatSIF

 

Spotlight: Tomas de Groote

Tomas spotlight

What drives you?

Managing social profits by impact-driven assessment is my passion. I have seen a lot of wrong ways of focusing on what you’re essentially doing: some organizations – their leaders more precisely – miss the central point of linking their mission to daily business. It’s devastating to see the lack of innovation in social space by focusing too much on outputs instead of impacts! Concepts and ideas stop evolving over time unless you put your impact into question. Consequently, your organization stops evolving if you lose this point of focus.

Another threat: in times of economic crisis, the core debate of policy makers starts by questioning the public function of the social sector and what it actually achieves. Non-profits want to show what they are doing but policy cares about hard facts and outputs, thanks to the ‘new’ (i.e. old) managerial thinking. There is this disconnection-in-practice-by-focusing-on-outputs between non-profits and policy makers, making it hard to show what their actual and potential impact is and how much it matters for the future of society…

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

…on the other hand, a new wave of managerial thinking is appearing from different corners  – social-profit, profit, policy makers – to strive for social impact-driven management, innovation and policy based on a strong dialogue with different stakeholders.

Currently reading

Measuring and Improving Social Impacts (by Epstein & Yuthas)

Background

Before joining Sociale InnovatieFabriek, Tomas ran a neighborhood arts-education project working with children from different ethnic backgrounds. “I became active in different sectors that touched children’s’ lives, I learnt a lot about the management of non-profits and about policy in practice.”

“In 2008, I participated in the Cultural Crossing Program by King Baudouin foundation. It was an exchange project with American non-profits that work with ethnic minorities, supported by the Department for Foreign Affairs. That was a real eye opener, I learnt a lot about how things can be improved in that area of societal challenges.” If you are interested in the foundation’s work-in-progress about impact management, click here.

Right now, Tomas runs a research project on impact assessment in collaboration with an entire research consortium, a group of profit & non-profit organisations, a group of consultants/coaches, financed for the next two years by the Flemish government agency for Innovation by Science and Technology.

twitter@SocInnFabriek

Spotlight: Caroline Godts

Caro spotlight

What drives you?

In any job I want to feel that what I’m doing is meaningful, and I am often triggered by everything that is injustice and the things that go wrong in the world. My first presentation in elementary school was about the Red Cross – that tells you something. I was raised in an open family with heated debates on societal issues around the dinner table. I think criticism is important, but, for example, I wouldn’t want to be a watchdog and work for an NGO of that type. I prefer constructive work and like the feeling of enabling people to do what they want to do. Precisely what I can do at Sociale InnovatieFabriek.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen over the last 5 years?

Business, small and big, is becoming more self conscious about its role in society. Big companies are being challenged on their sustainability by different stakeholders. Small businesses are looking for a different kind of added value, beyond the financial. Hopefully this means that economics can again be at service of mankind and not the other way around.

Transparency, information, and the access we have to media is essential in this movement to a responsible role for business in society.

Currently reading

Michael Foley, The Age of Absurdity

The good news is that the great thinkers from history have proposed the same strategies for happiness and fulfilment. The bad news is that these turn out to be the very things most discouraged by contemporary culture. This knotty dilemma is the subject of The Age of Absurdity – a wry and accessible investigation into how the desirable states of wellbeing and satisfaction are constantly undermined by modern life.
Michael Foley examines the elusive condition of happiness common to philosophy, spiritual teachings and contemporary psychology, then shows how these are becoming increasingly difficult to apply in a world of high expectations. The common challenges of earning a living, maintaining a relationship and ageing are becoming battlegrounds of existential angst and self-loathing in a culture that demands conspicuous consumption, high-octane partnerships and perpetual youth. In conclusion, rather than denouncing and rejecting the age, Foley presents an entertaining strategy of not just accepting but embracing today’s world – finding happiness in its absurdity.

Background

Caroline holds a masters in International Relations and Conflict Management. For seven years she worked as CSR Project Manager at Business & Society Belgium, a learning network for companies active in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability. “I’m not a big fan of academic theories”, says Caroline. “I learned a lot about the power and the need for social innovation in my previous position where I worked with companies that had great CSR strategies but somehow failed in implementing them. The big ship of companies is not an agile strategy that you steer so easily into truly sustainable ‘shared value’ strategies. It was great coming to Sociale InnovatieFabriek and work with people who want to innovate and are really excited about getting something done!”

Caroline is a fan of the cradle-to-cradle approach and says it has changed her thinking. “What worries me most is the mindset of today’s society. Nobody seems to notice that we are so soaked up in an economic mindset, and we don’t even notice it. Picture three different-sized circles inside each other. We need to realize that a healthy natural environment and a healthy, wealthy, educated and safe society are essential prerequisites for a thriving economy. Now we look at the earth and society as ‘capital’. We treat the environment as if the earth was latest (third) priority, the farthest removed from the core of our being, and we treat society and people as human resources to use as pleased. But really, the ratio should have the earth at the core, a society that builds on it, and an economy in third place.”

twitter@SocInnFabriek

Social Innovation Factory

Manufacturing Social Innovation

After a great many visits within one day in Amsterdam I really enjoyed spending an entire day at Sociale InnovatieFabriek (SIF) in Brussels, Belgium. In case you ever wondered which governments fund social innovation and social entrepreneurship: The Belgian does. Or, more precisely, the Flemish government.  If you think anything like me, you wonder how a country as small as Belgium can possibly have region-specific governments and funding policies for social innovation. I learned that Flanders and Belgium, in fact, underlie different, not to say at times opposing, regional governments with a strong influence on the political landscape in Brussels.

SIF’s support model

With funding for four years, Sociale InnovatieFabriek started in July 2013 to promote social innovation and social entrepreneurship in the Flemish region of Belgium. The team around Kaat Peeters is nine staff strong (or 7.1 full-time equivalents as they like to point out) who work on social innovation by providing support to social innovators, aspiring entrepreneurs, and conducting research in these areas.

Not every solution to a societal challenge can or should be entrepreneurial @KaatSIF Click To Tweet

Notice the distinction: Social Innovation Factory does not focus solely on social entrepreneurs:”We provide services to early-stage social innovators and social entrepreneurs – not every solution to a societal challenge can or should be entrepreneurial; hence the broad approach.” says Kaat. These services include

  • events, trainings and their community platform for social innovators to connect with and learn from each other,
  • SIF’s learning network that operates on a unique currency to manage advice and peer-support,
  • access to research, surveys, opinions and needs-based advisory services, as well as
  • a resource center that holds publications, toolkits and guidelines.

Around 150 social innovators make use of Sociale InnovatieFabriek’s (I just like saying it!) services per year on an average engagement of six months.

Engaging with your peers, and by that, I mean ENGAGING

To me, Social Innovation Factory has managed to set up a support program that is very much driven by the community members, the skills they bring, and expertise they are willing to share with each other. Already during intake interviews, potential participants are assessed not only based on their idea and support needs but on the skills and expertise they bring to the community and can offer to their peers. Their custom-made database tracks when participants receive and give support through an alternative currency. Sociale Innovatiefabriek sees itself as an enabler occasionally giving input but mainly managing the logistics of the program.

We encourage peer-support through an alternative currency. Click To Tweet

Imagine you are a social entrepreneur who has benefited from, say, two input sessions (-16 points). Before you can receive any more support, it is your turn to pass on some of your knowledge to another participant (+8 points/session). The team around Kaat will help you prepare with content and methods to go into the session. But beyond that, it’s all about understanding your session-partner’s business and advising him/her in solving the issue they scheduled the session for. With my experience in peer-learning, there is great value in this approach for at least three reasons:

Number 1: Participants value the support they receive because it’s not free. Mutual support and the philosophy of give-and-take make a strong currency that I believe is a great driver for community building.

Number 2: I think that peer-sessions are almost always valuable for both participants. Putting yourself into the shoes of someone else and their venture, more often than not, helps you see your own venture and challenges in a different light. It’s a two-way conversation and invites both participants to draw parallels and share their experience. You never know what you will find.

Number 3: In the majority of incubators and co-working spaces you will find a community mainly based on the shared location, maybe the program, or potentially similar issues they work on. Participants may talk about their ventures during an introductory session, or in the tea kitchen, but how often do co-working start-ups really understand what their peers are working on, where they are struggling, and how one can potentially help?

Intake session at Social Innovation Factory

Intake session at Social Innovation Factory

I think this level of in-depth peer-support makes for a truly tightly-knit community in which members appreciate each other, are willing to help and really understand the nature, challenges and successes of their peers and their ventures.

The Research Bit

Another benefit of Social Innovation Factory’s admirable funding source (don’t be fooled, government funding comes with a set of reporting requirements that I don’t envy) is their ability to devote two staff members to research with and about the social innovators and entrepreneurs they work with on a daily basis. Caroline and Tomas, for example, work solely on knowledge management and research on social impact assessment.

Funded research: stepping away from the daily grind to think strategically. Click To Tweet

Who has the capacity to devote two team positions to looking at big picture questions? I am sure there are limitations, but one of the things I missed the most in my previous positions was doing just that – stepping away from the daily grind and think strategically. That’s how Social Venturers came about, so if the Flemish government wants to throw some funding my way (or almost any government really), find the “Contact Us” link and drop me a line!

I had a great time at Sociale Innovatiefabriek. Not only because I saw one of their intake sessions in action, in Flemish, but because Kaat took time to speak to me, answer my questions, and introduced me to her team who in turn took time to speak to me, and answer my questions. Also, she introduced me to Flemish cuisine and some two very interesting researchers. It was like a day at the SIF-amusement park. I went home tired but blessed.

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