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.


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


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!”