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 By the time I am done typing, it will be outdated and we are ready to move on to the next adventure.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


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.

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!


Log 02: Feeling like a #SocEnt

February 2, 2015

Log [n.]: Personal reflection

Returning from #TheBigSocial in London I found myself facing a deadline for one of the rare funding opportunities I had come across. Working on a venture like this one without being a PhD student or academic and without business model means that funding opportunities are scarce. I had jumped at the opportunity.

Energized by an exciting week in London I arrived back in Cork at 7 p.m. on a Friday night and set myself up at the kitchen table ready to face my first proper funding application. And suddenly I felt the way a social entrepreneurs must feel when they apply to one of the programs I have worked for. The questions really forced me to put my plans into writing.

1. A clear detailed description of the Project, including particular outputs or products the Project will generate, any arguments and ideas the Project will put forth, and the need for the Project

I knew what I wanted but once I tried putting it into tangible, actual words – I was stuttering. Here’s the thing: Once you write it down, it means that you are committing to doing it. I was suddenly intimidated by the grandeur of my vision.

2. An explanation of how the Project builds on existing efforts or charts new terrain

Having just spent a week with support organizations for social entrepreneurs I nailed this one. That week had been a great source of positive feedback that left no doubt that what I was doing was worthwhile and much needed in the sector.

3. A description of the Project’s expected impact and how you might measure it.

I have been teaching social impact assessment, and knew that it was going to be a long time until we could actually speak of impacts. But I was confident in my ability to track some of the outputs of Social Venturers and set myself goals that I would use anyway to track my process. If you have read my earlier Log 01: LH426 you know I am a geek when it comes to goal setting and process evaluations, no problem.

4. A detailed account of how you will achieve your goals, including a communications and/or outreach strategy. Please describe the specific audiences you hope to reach, your reasons for focusing on them, and how you intend to influence them.

Now this was one big question. I was starting to repeat myself in parts. You don’t know how many Theory of Change models I have seen in my career and still – sitting down and writing your own can be intimidating. That said it was probably the most useful process I went through in terms of getting my ideas straight about what I wanted to achieve in what order. I decided on specific outputs such as guidelines and toolkits, a book summarizing my experiences. And the humble mission to create dialogue, exchange and maybe even collaboration among Social Venturers across the world.

Theory of change

Social Venturers’ Theory of Change (SVSO: Social Venture Support Organizations)

5. The reasons you are especially suited to carry out this Project.

Passion, experience, skills, character, time and devotion to run this project. Next.

6. A description of how you expect the Project to fit into your career trajectory and future work.

This is my career. I want to turn Social Venturers into source of exchange and information for all the professionals working in the sector of social enterprise support. I am Social Venturers. I found more eloquent ways of stating the obvious. But here it is.

7. A Project timeline.

Again, the project management geek I am, no problem. It was too ambitious, no doubt, but receiving full-fledged support and not having to work part-time I could have pulled off a more aggressive and stringent timeline.

8. An explanation of how you might engage with our organization while resident in our office(s). Please specify how these interactions could add value both to us and to your Project.

Where there are social entrepreneurs, there are support structures in place. The organization I applied with has a great number of offices around the world. They would make great starting points, in conflict zones in particular. Open your doors!

9. Estimated fellowship expenses (in US Dollars) including travel and hotels, research assistance, conference fees, health insurance, etc.

Time for dreaming. All the conferences I could finally attend, the trips I could take (and sleep in a what… hotel?! Oh the luxury…) and, most importantly, no more worries about how to pay my bills. Being able to focus on nothing BUT Social Venturers. I wanted this SO much!

After 48 hours of working on this application with my much-appreciated (native speaker!) editor-at-large, I sent it off. You cannot imagine the relief and pride of hitting send. I had given birth.

Update May 20

It has been north of three months since that glorious moment. I still haven’t heard from them except for one email in early April “We are still reviewing applications but hope to start informing at least some applicants of their status within the next few weeks.” That was six weeks ago.

I have worked with enough institutions that run searches and selection cycles, I know how intense these times can be, and how important professional communication is. I hope that means they got a number of great applicants and have some world-changers among them. Even though I did not get into the program, this application forced me to nail down this project and write a blueprint for what I was setting out to do. Intimidating but incredibly helpful in getting serious and starting to hold myself accountable.

If any of you dear readers come across potential funding sources, do let me know. I am doing most of the things that I set out to do on a shoestring budget and I’m proud of it. Yet, many countries are on my wishlist and can’t be conquered without proper funding.

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.