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


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

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.