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

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


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.”



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)


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.


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.


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.”


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.