Cartography: Amsterdam

March 24, 2015

Cartography[n.]: Mapping, review

In this second part of the review of my field visits to the Netherlands and Belgium, I share some lessons learned from Kennisland, Discovered, Social Enterprise NL and Impact Hub Amsterdam.


Though not a typical support organization, Kennisland taught me a thing or two that can be transferred to the more specific challenges of social enterprise. Quick recap: Kennisland is a think tank facilitating social innovation through civic participation. One of the tools they employ are social labs in which they bring a variety of relevant stakeholders such as government representatives, local service providers and the target beneficiaries to the same table to develop context-specific solutions to a shared community issue.

Any #SocEnt should run a social lab focused on their central issue before getting to work. Click To Tweet

In working with social entrepreneurs – and the lean start-up method is supporting this claim – I have found that they often shy away from talking to their beneficiaries and understanding the wider context of the issue they are trying to solve. I go as far as to say that any social entrepreneur should run a social lab focused on their central issue before getting to work, to understand the stakes of each party involved in or affected by this issue.

By the way, Kennisland has a brilliant website that I highly recommend checking out! Research insights, updates from their desks directly to the landing page and lots of background information with each post. Swing over to – worth a visit!


Discovered was the first social entrepreneur I spoke to about their general incubation experience and needs, in their case at a stage between acceleration and investment readiness. This is what I took away:

#1: Classifying and categorizing start-up stages helps us get a sense for the maturity of an enterprise. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that there aren’t soft borders and overlaps between those stages. Though I’m sure this seems obvious to all of us, we must keep this in mind when designing support programs, and make sure we have mechanisms in place to respond to support needs that come up in-between stages.

#2: I have come to understand that there are gaps between what support organization offer, and what the participating enterprises find valuable. Again, this is obvious, but the conversation with Discovered re-emphasized that we need to constantly assess whether the services our programs offer are what start-up and later-stage social enterprises need. What is the relation between perceived effectiveness by entrepreneurs as opposed to the outcomes programs hope to achieve?

Consult with your participants to fine-tune your #SocEntSupport to their needs! Click To Tweet

#3: An on-going discussion I have had over the last months was about the level of standardized vs. customized support for social enterprises. Part of the answer lies right here: Ask your participants to fine-tune your portfolio suited to what they need at any given point within the program.

Social Enterprise NL

Apart from trainings and services offered to members, Social Enterprise NL works in what they call Agenda Setting: The team around Stefan Panhuijsen represents social entrepreneurs’ interests in conversation with the Dutch government. In 2014, they published a policy agenda calling the  Dutch government to:

  • Recognize and acknowledge the entrepreneurial form “social enterprise”
  • Increase the availability of capital
  • Facilitate access to markets, and
  • Institutionalize social enterprise legislation and create targeted tax incentives.

Read more here (I recommend google translate!).

So far, I have not come across any other advocacy organizations for social enterprise and I wonder who takes it upon themselves in other countries. I can only speculate here but based on the social enterprise concept’s visibility and popularity as a newcomer in fields like academia or the start-up world, I assume it is a lonely job to represent the interests of entrepreneurs who fit neither in the profit-driven private sector nor into the world-saving charity category that we have so conveniently put in place.

Who are the agenda setters, advocates and lobbyists for #SocEnt in Europe? Click To Tweet

The one thing I did learn about advocating for social enterprise is: If a support organization wants to be their members’ voice, it can’t speak FOR them unless they speak WITH them, and keep a close eye on current issues and trends. I hope this list will grow substantially over the next months. But first tell me, dear readers, who ARE the agenda setters, advocates and lobbyists for social enterprise in Europe?

Impact Hub Amsterdam

My conversation with Wieke Van Der Zouwen about Impact Hub Amsterdam felt a bit like peeking through the keyhole into a whole new world of supporting social entrepreneurs through a tightly-knit network, franchise model and a pool of shared experiences and knowledge. Not to mention some exciting EU-funded research such as BENISI and Impact Hub Scaling. Impact Hubs are part of a closed network that generates a lot of know-how and best practices through their day-to-day work with social enterprises in over 60 locations across the world. But it is hard to gain access as an outsider. They do hold an annual summit called Unlikely Allies (click here to learn more about the June 2015 summit). The registration fee ranging from  EUR 1,200 to EUR 2,000 probably doesn’t allow many of us to participate. If anyone wants to throw Social  Venturers a free ticket for next year to see what it’s all about, get in touch!

What I do like about the Impact Hub model is that they lead by example in terms of financial sustainability. If you think that you can’t support social entrepreneurs unless it’s for free, think again.

Questions that I will take to my upcoming meetings with other Impact Hubs:

  • How do you organize your network-internal knowledge exchange?
  • How can the Hub Network open up and start collaborating with other support organizations?


Cartography: Rotterdam

Cartography: Brussels


Netherlands Warm Up

Before heading to the Netherlands I came across a 2011 report by McKinsey & Co. “Opportunities for the Dutch Social Enterprise Sector“. It is four years old, the researchers analysed 700 social entrepreneurs, 100 of them in more detail – I figured this was as close as I was going to get to a country-specific report on the social enterprise sector.

Observation #1: Willemijn Verloop seems to be the person to know. Along with some introductions, another Social Venturer sent me an article about Social Enterprise in the Netherlands, featuring Willemijn Verloop. Co-author of this McKinsey report: Willemijn Verloop. Founder of two support organizations for social entrepreneurs in the Netherlands: Willemijn Verloop. The book “Social Enterprise Unraveled – Best practices from the Netherlands” that some interview partners recommended – written by: Willlemijn Verloop. I didn’t get to chance to meet her, tracking down this mastermind seems difficult. But if you read this, Willemijn, I’m waiting by the phone, coffee is on me!

Observation #2: The Dutch seem to have it together when it comes to being and working with social entrepreneurs. The report starts of with defining social enterprise as “a company with the primary goal to deliver social value in a financially sustainable and independent way”. Concise and without much lingo. I like it.

Dutch social enterprises: challenges and supporters

If you are one of the 4,000 – 5,000 social enterprises in the Netherlands, you are most likely active in sectors of biosystems, cleantech, economic development, civic engagement health and well-being, or education. Secondly, the challenges you are most likely to encounter are these:

  1. Developing business models – at the time only 42% of social enterprises under study were profitable
  2. Becoming a manager both internal and external: leading the company through a stage of scaling and growth, and in the process managing an increasing number of clients, data, and responsibilities
  3. Gaining access to venture capital
  4. Legislation
Challenges of Social Enterprises in the Netherlands, McKinsey, 2011, p.10

Challenges of Social Enterprises in the Netherlands, McKinsey, 2011, p.10

Let’s get to the juicy bits: The report has an entire chapter dedicated to support networks for social entrepreneurs internationally, and the Netherlands more specifically. Giving social venture support organizations concrete marching orders is great! If every country report ever written on social enterprise did that, I wouldn’t be doing this work. So, should you ever write a report for me, or with me, or about me, please include a chapter that talks about and to support organizations directly. Dankewell! For the Dutch sector the report lists four main types of support organizations:

  • coaches and education facilities
  • investors and match-makers
  • researchers, and
  • lobby organizations (to improve legislation)

The core of the report is a set of recommendations in which the authors call for

  • Promotion: awareness and visibility of the sector in the Netherlands
  • Education: gearing more talent towards the social enterprise sector
  • Support: management support in developing triple bottom line business models, coaching and access to relevant networks
  • Capital: access to seed and especially growth capital and matchmaking intermediaries
  • Guidelines: (inter)national standards for measuring both financial and social impact
  • Government recognition and support: for example in creating right conditions and opportunities for Social Enterprises to grow (e.g., supportive legislation)
Current Providers of Seed and Growth Capital in the Netherlands, McKinsey, 2011, p. 12

Current Providers of Seed and Growth Capital in the Netherlands, McKinsey, 2011, p. 12

To be fair, this was the first report of this kind that I have come across (point for the Dutch sector already), and with little material for comparison, I think it’s very concrete and direct. I was already looking forward to what I would find in the following week!


A Multi-Stakeholder Approach to Social Innovation

My second day in the Netherlands starts with a very early train ride from Utrecht to Amsterdam. I drop Spivet at the hostel that will provide my bed for the night. Some people are still stumbling their way home. The bartenders working the morning shifts in Warmoesstraat are taking the trash out dumping it on the narrow sidewalk. 8.30 a.m. The Social Venturer is on schedule. Perfect. I am watching my left and right more than usual, hundreds of bikes – and this is not a metaphor – swarm through the streets and over the bridges. I’m in the Netherlands. The grey weather comes as a bit of the surprise as I walk across the De Dam covered in the misty morning light. I march on along the canals, the chilly humid air making me shiver. 20 minutes later I arrive at Keizersgracht, right around the corner from Anne Frank House (which – in case you ever wanted to visit – has queues winding around several blocks). My first field visit of the day: Kennisland.

Aviary Photo_130769791017327957

Amsterdam Centraal

First of all – great place. Similar to Enviu everybody was working in utter silence (pun intended) sitting around large desks typing away on their computers. I agree, changing the world through entrepreneurship and innovation requires focus – I’m all for it. Don’t let me interrupt. Nora van der Linden had agreed to meet with me on very short notice and I was thrilled to be able to fire all my questions at her after having read their report Lab Matters on the train from Utrecht earlier that morning (click here for their latest publication on Social Labs).

Kennisland is a think tank that has been working to “make society smarter” (their humble mission, love it!) for more than 15 years. Their issue portfolio includes education, government, cultural heritage, copyright, the cultural sector and social innovation. As I soon found out, public responsibilities in the policy area of work and income, youth care, and long-term care for the elderly had recently been transferred from central to local governments.

How do you ensure that the services provided to vulnerable citizens match their real needs? Click To Tweet

This transition challenged the latter to find local solutions, and Kennisland has positioned itself to develop such local approaches. As we speak about their work in Social Labs, Nora helps me understand this approach: “With already limited resources, how do you ensure that the services provided to vulnerable citizens match their real needs and desires? This is what we try to figure out in Social Labs.”

Social Labs – User-centered design to develop local solutions

A Social Lab focuses on a specific issue in a certain area and is often commissioned by local government authorities. Kennisland sets out to analyse the context and understand the issue from different angles. They then identify the relevant community around that issue and invite local citizens, professionals and (local) government officials to assess the situation (week 1) and derive possible solutions (week 2). Based on a recent neighborhood example (read more about it here) Nora explains: “We first go out and collect stories of the people in that neighborhood trying to understand their life situation, needs, and how they are affected by the issue we want to address. We publish the stories, collect feedback and re-evaluate until we get it right. Based on these findings, we spend the second week talking to local service providers and municipalities taking the beneficiaries with us. We start a dialogue about the current situation and its challenges, and develop opportunities to solve the issue. We look for quick fixes as well as long-term solutions.” Every Social Lab ends in some type of festival or closing event where all stakeholders come together, present solutions and – if available – prototypes, and have a chance to discuss on how to move forward.

Questions of Sustainability

An obvious dilemma is the question of the sustainability of the developed solutions. Who takes the lead after the Social Lab experience, once the Kennisland team has gone back to their offices? To what extent do you manage to identify and equip community leaders within the short time frame of such a pop-up Social Lab, and support them in the long run? For now, Nora says “We managed to secure a follow-up project and can go back to the community for a longer period.” To me, Social Labs are a great tool to raise an issue and ignite a first spark in the search of long-term solutions and change. What follow-up mechanisms are available to pick up the work after a Social Lab?

Kennisland now also runs other labs that cover a longer time frame. In Dordrecht and Nijmegen they work with municipalities on questions affecting their young population and work issues for several months, with ‘Lab days’ each week.

Social Labs and Social Entrepreneurs

Throughout our conversation I was trying to figure out how social entrepreneurs fit into this equation. We had talked a lot about civic participation and involvement of different stakeholders. Nora helped me out: “Some individuals feel compelled to implement a social business to address a need that is not met by any other stakeholder within that community.

Social entrepreneurship can be a tool for social innovation, but it’s not the only option. Click To Tweet

Very much in line with what I would learn from other social innovation enablers over the coming days. The Dutch chorus seems to be “Social entrepreneurship can be a tool for social innovation, but it’s not the only option.” I had and would hear it a lot more on my field visits. So what can we learn from Social Labs?

Learnings for Social Enterprise Support

Social Labs are a great way of tackling a specific issue securing the buy-in from all parties involved. I sometimes find that social entrepreneurs participating in incubators or other support programs tend to work in isolation from their target beneficiaries without fully understanding

  • the root causes of the issue,
  • the impacts on the community,
  • the consequences for beneficiaries,
  • the involvement of other stakeholders in the issue, and
  • their potential contribution to the solution.

A Social Lab approach borrows from the Lean StartUp Method and is a great way of getting social entrepreneurs out of the building, their support program, and potentially develop business models that consider the above-mentioned issues.


Spotlight: Nora van der Linden

Nora VDL

What drives you?

My current question is “How can we make sure education creates equal opportunities and outcomes for all children instead of reproducing inequality? And how can we develop new inclusive approaches (like the social labs) to work in and around the education system?”

Biggest #SocEnt trend in the last 5 years?

Social entrepreneurship and being engaged with society, nature and the world around you more generally is becoming the norm. If your product or service is not sustainable or not contributing to a better world, you have to explain yourself. And this is not a bubble of only the elite, it’s a slow transformation into a more reflective society where people are aware of the consequences of their actions.

What are you reading right now?

  • Paul Jungbluth, on inequality in education
  • Het F-boek, on feminism today
  • The Bible for non-believers (Bijbel voor ongelovigen), Guus Kuijer
  • Ik kom terug, Adriaan van Dis
  • Different articles for some research on accelerators and incubators


Nora studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam and in fact had her first job at university. “At that point I was asking myself: ‘How can you not only think about change on a theoretical, academic level, but actually make it happen? At Kennisland, I had the opportunity to put many of my previous ideas into practice and learn how to make them work.” About her work in education and social innovation she says: ”This whole innovation language is the language of those who are already in the space rather than for people who are new to it. We need to be open and inviting, and among many other things, we need to break that language barrier.” Nora is involved with organizing the European Competition for Social Innovation and you can stay up-to-date with her work on the Kennisland website.


photocredit: Giorgos GripeosCC BY 4.0