Field Study: UK

Field Study [n.]: Preliminary research

Since my initial field visits to the UK I have been able to update this post with the most recent study of social enterprise in the UK,  published on 15 September, 2015 by Social Enterprise UK. Supported by Santander, Social Enterprise UK surveyed 1,159 social enterprises via phone and online surveys. To date, this makes it the largest study of social enterprise in the UK. I ask every Social Venturer which countries they consider leaders in the field of supporting social entrepreneurs, and most of them respond with the UK. Let’s see what this is all about.

#SocEnt in the UK are outperforming their mainstream counterparts. Click To Tweet

The survey reports 70,000 social enterprises in the UK making up £25 billion of the UK economy providing nearly one million jobs. The study finds that social enterprise in the UK is thriving outperforming their mainstream counterparts (small and medium sized enterprises) in most business areas such as growth in turnover and workforce, job creation, innovation (how do you measure that? Serious question!), and diversity in leadership. In terms of new business formation, social enterprises score 35% compared to their commercial counterparts at 11%. 52% of social enterprises managed to increase their turnover over the last year while the conventional startup sector stands at 40%. A growing number of social enterprises (14%) have been able to enter into export or licensing, and if you are not convinced yet that social enterprise rules in the UK, let  this sink in: “With 31% of social enterprises working in the most deprived communities in the UK, the more deprived the area, the more likely you will be to find a social enterprise working there.” Doesn’t that just sound like the textbook idea of social entrepreneurship?

State of Social Enterprise Report 2015, p. 10 (link above)

State of Social Enterprise Report 2015, p. 10 (link above)

These are just some highlights from the report. An updated version of the report is published every six months so if you are interested in learning more about social enterprise trends in the UK, I highly recommend a thorough read!

In terms of actors in the social venture support landscape, it is worth mentioning Nesta and Unltd as well as the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network based within Unltd. I had an informal meeting with Nesta and had the chance to talk to Jessica Stacey who ran Nesta’s research on impact accelerators before joining Bethnal Green Ventures in 2015. Nesta has done some fantastic work in the field of startup acceleration; some of their research even focuses on impact accelerators. If you want to learn more, check out their report on Good Incubation and read up on their launch event with contributions from Banks Benitez at Unreasonable Institute and Victoria Fram at Village Capital (who you will learn more about here in the not-so-distant future). Unltd supports social entrepreneurs from idea- to growth-stage through various competitive awards programs. Initiated by Untld, the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network is a membership network for social venture support organizations from around the world. While the majority of their work takes place behind closed doors, I recommend their recently published report From Seed to Impact – Building the Foundations for a High-Impact Social Entrepreneurship Ecosystem.   

Insights from GSEN's first member report, p. 21 (link above)

Insights from GSEN’s first member report, p. 21 (link above)

I went to London for a freelance gig that had me interview and film conscious business leaders at an event at the Royal Bank of Scotland. I spent two days preparing and running the interviews and had only two days to meet with Social Venturers. By no means is this going to be a complete account of social venture support organizations in the UK; it is a start at best. With that said, I was thrilled to be line up meetings with some really inspiring Social Venturers in London. I even managed a trip up North to learn more about social entrepreneurship in Scotland. I am painfully aware of how many organizations I have not been able to visit yet, and I keep a keen eye on my travel itinerary to plan my next UK visit!

For now, enjoy some first highlights of the Social Venturers and support programs I have met and grilled with questions about social entrepreneurship!


Field observation: Testing London waters

February 8, 2015

I just returned from a fantastic week with Unltd and the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network – GSEN – in London. I met a whole lot of fellow Social Venturers passionate about supporting social entrepreneurs one way or the other –  pretty exhausted but absolutely thrilled. Time for a little recap.

The Big Social

Monday and Tuesday I attended #TheBigSocial, hosted and run by Unltd. It was a two-day event during which supporters of social entrepreneurs – mainly from the UK – came together to discuss current issues of the field, from peer support and scaling to working with corporates and universities, and so on. For some impressions, check out the Twitter stream #TheBigSocial – the 6th most trending hashtag on Twitter in the UK during those 2 days.

Global Social Entrepreneurship Network

Wednesday through Friday were dedicated to the GSEN Learning Week directed towards its 48 members. After a long-ish Q&A session with Unltd’s CEO Cliff Prior, network members gave insights into their work. I took the opportunity to grab Daniel Nowack from Yunus Social Business and Julian Wolfson from Acumen to run my first Social Venturer test interviews (Spotlights forthcoming!). I was excited to finally be speaking on Social Venturer terms while I frantically took notes (note to self – must start recording interviews) and tried to suppress the occasional gasp when hearing about their career and personal developments. The second   and third day of the Learning week were very much similar to each other in that we addressed different topics that were of different relevance to different members.

Aviary Photo_130770765477065779

Social Entrepreneurship in post-/conflict zones

In the meantime, I met up with Richard Catherall of Katarsis Ventures. Richard works – amongst many other things – with social entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict zones which – I will admit – I hadn’t given much thought until meeting him. I have worked with social entrepreneurs in Pakistan, Yemen, Ukraine and Honduras. In the back of my mind I always knew they had more challenges to struggle with, but during my conversation with Richard I gained a better grasp of the deeper systemic challenges to social entrepreneurship in conflict zones. Challenges that require a different type of support. Richard confirmed an observation I had made myself over the past years: social ventures in fragile environments are more creative and much more resilient than the ones working in more developed countries. “In these regions, conflict has fostered people’s self-determination. For some (social) entrepreneurs, it has shifted their vision of who they are; their gritty way of life has honed them to become their own person. There is lots to go for!”

Social entrepreneurs in conflict-zones don’t have a sector of social enterprise support. Click To Tweet

This won’t come as a surprise: Social ventures in post-/conflict zones develop different kinds of solutions, which we like to call innovative. I believe – and hope to test this hypothesis some day – that they have a different understanding of the issue’s root cause (cultural understanding, personal experience of the need etc.), and work with different resource allocations available to them in these zones. As compared to social entrepreneurs I have worked with in more developed countries, the ones Richard and I were talking about face different institutional contexts and deal with issues of different severity. “These social entrepreneurs don’t have a whole sector of social enterprise support to turn to. They find the support they need when they need it in their local environment. They help each other out and when they come across a support organization they expect it to be sustainable and not dependent on import or limited funding.” I wonder how local incubators/accelerators operate in these contexts and can make use of these strong local ties. How are their programs different from the ones I have met in Europe and the US so far?

Aviary Photo_130770765748719661


I learned three things this week:

  1. Big groups need proper facilitation. Throughout the week I couldn’t help but feel that precious energy was lost due to sessions that ran too long and had no specific objective.
  2. The conversation about Social Venturers’ personal backgrounds are not only inspiring but tend to take up most of the interview time. It is entirely possible that I am the only person who is inspired by the curricula vitae of other Social Venturers, but just in case I am not: I am keeping and highlighting this as one stand-alone aspect of Social Venturers.
  3. I need to sit down and develop a concrete concept for Social Venturers. These test interviews were really helpful in trying myself out as an interviewer and testing the questions in real-life situations, but I need to become more structured and take a stronger lead during these conversations. Hopefully I can follow up with these four to fill some gaps once I have set up the questionnaire accordingly.