An ecosystem for social entrepreneurship

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Last week, the municipality of Utrecht announced that it is making a large building in one of the best locations in the city (the so-called ‘Staffhorst building’) available to a number of commercial companies to establish a national hotspot for social entrepreneurship. , the BV ‘social impact factory’. The municipality will refurbish the building and will also provide an additional 350,000 euros as a ‘one-off start-up grant’. Last year, the municipality had already provided a one-off start-up grant to the social impact factory foundation, which will be incorporated into this new initiative.

This willingness to grant subsidies has to do with the fact that the city council wants to profile Utrecht as THE city in the field of social entrepreneurship and (I quote the committee letter on this) “ by strengthening and expanding the network and ecosystem of social entrepreneurs , more jobs are created. , activity, projects, internships, learning workplaces and daytime activities, in particular for people with a distance to the labor market. The municipality also expects more knowledge to be developed and exchanged with social entrepreneurs about social entrepreneurship, scalability and increasing social impact.”

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Social Media

It led to enthusiasm on social media for this initiative, but also to outraged reactions about so much public money being invested in something that apparently cannot be explained in plain language. And especially to criticism of the preferential treatment of commercial companies compared to social entrepreneurs who, without these subsidies, do something similar in much less attractive places in the city. Think of initiatives such as Vechtclub XL, the Court of Cartesius, the Metal Cathedral, the Alchemist, the Pionier and countless initiatives in neighborhoods. There is also the risk that this subsidized initiative will parasitize on these initiatives because they will attract social entrepreneurs to this special building.

I am also critical of it because besides the legitimate questions about preferential treatment and parasitizing other initiatives, I do not believe that this is the right way to build ‘an ecosystem for social entrepreneurship’. Time to delve into the basic questions: what is social entrepreneurship, what is an ecosystem and how do you develop it?

Social entrepreneurship as a container concept

A little googling tells me that social entrepreneurship is a collective label for four different groups:

  • Self-employed people and collectives who want to work on social issues in the neighborhood and city and whose income is usually very modest. They often feel more part of a social movement or a neighborhood community than part of a network of entrepreneurs. I myself call this public entrepreneurship because here the worlds of government, citizen and market are short-circuited and start to mix nicely.
  • Companies that devise and implement new systems in a contract relationship with the government to get people at a distance from the labor market back to work. Think of the ‘social impact bonds’, work with retention of benefits and arranging ‘social return’ when tendering ;
  • Companies that pride themselves on social responsibility such as sustainability, responsible investment, offering opportunities to people with a blemish and voluntary work. This used to be referred to as corporate social responsibility (CSR);
  • Companies that want to help and connect the above three groups (‘connectors’) and often still feel called to grow the world of social entrepreneurs (‘scaling up’).

The quiz question is: for which of these groups is this building and the associated concept of social impact factory intended? I think the initiators are in the last three groups and they would like to join the first group, it seems. Because the idea is: that will reinforce each other.

This brings us to the concept of an ecosystem. Simply put, this is a pleasant environment for people and organizations that have something to offer each other in which the atmosphere and mutual interaction (‘cross-pollination’) brings about something special (‘synergy’) and allows the network to grow without much effort or direction. 

In our case, the premise is: put all kinds of social entrepreneurs and people who know about it together and something beautiful will grow. I have never seen any evidence for this idea and I don’t believe in it if you do it this way. I mainly see a subsidized multi-company building annex meeting place annex meeting place with catering facilities in a prime location. What do I have confidence in? Connecting closely to what is there, seeing the neighborhood as an ecosystem and the government participating instead of facilitating. I work that out.

1- Use the ecosystems that are already there
What characterizes the approach with this social impact factory is that an infrastructure is built for social entrepreneurs instead of an infrastructure with them. And a new ecosystem is being built instead of connecting to the one already existing and under development. An ecosystem grows organically, but the impact factory is a top-down concept that has the danger of becoming a shadow system.

An ecosystem for fostering and promoting social entrepreneurship rather than a social entrepreneurship ecosystem. With a lot of people and companies that are committed to helping others realize their dreams and setting up a whole circus for this with boot camps, incubators, challenges, power boosts and inspiration days (yes, the language here is English) where they can do all those fun to attract initiators in the city.

And what do they have to offer them? Meeting and inspiration among like-minded people and developing skills to be able to perform in this innovation circus: how do I give a stimulating pitch, how do I create a distinctive website, how do I get access to the funds, how do I share my passion, how do I translate my social added value in models and business plans and so on.

By not working over the heads of social entrepreneurs, but with social entrepreneurs, you bring all this (including the desire to scale up and be distinctive) back to normal proportions. Innovative ecosystems are simply craft workshops and fine networks, but not circuses, hotspots or competitions.

2- The neighborhood is the ecosystem for social entrepreneurship
The big complaint you always hear about all those well-educated types who do social projects is that it is again a kind of elite that does not connect with the people they do it for. In every meeting where these people gather there is someone who shouts: ‘but the people we are talking about here are not here themselves’.

I am a bit more optimistic about this myself because I know many social/public entrepreneurs who do connect and also have their base in neighborhoods and districts. They are also able to call local residents to account for their capacities and see them as ally and not as a problem case. All the sadder to entice them to huddle together in a large prestigious building instead of helping them to better anchor themselves in the neighborhoods where their social face belongs. Even for people who demonstrate social entrepreneurship on very different scales than a neighborhood, it is extremely beneficial to have their home base there and not in a safe ecosystem of professionals. 

The trick is to jointly build a strong neighborhood and neighborhood economy and social capitaland that is really something different from a commercial service system of social entrepreneurs for the people with fewer opportunities. Social entrepreneurs who work together with local residents in neighborhood cooperatives are a good example of this. I think another good example is what is happening in the Voorstad Oost district in Deventer. There, social entrepreneurs, the municipality and local residents are working together on such a new ecosystem. Here is a link to the story I wrote about it.

3- The government itself is part of the ecosystem
The model of the BV social impact factory is an example of the neo-liberal government based on the Anglo-Saxon model. The city has to compete with other cities to attract companies and initiatives and relies heavily on the market in doing so. In this context, the government can withdraw into a facilitating and contracting role and in city marketing.

Can that also be done differently? Yes, the Deventer example above shows that where the government actively tinkers with the systems in which social entrepreneurship flourishes and also connects with those involved, something special arises. This includes dealing generously with land and real estate, organizing room for maneuver and regulation, short-circuiting the fragmented systems around social entrepreneurship and making financial arrangements that are in line with the fact that social/public entrepreneurs cannot be trapped in a strict three-part division of government. citizen or market. In the latter case, think of social tendering, self-management and substantial neighborhood budgets.

Public Entrepreneurship

Instead of relying on the market, the government should be proud to be part of the public good ecosystem of which social/public entrepreneurship is a part. In terms of buildings: as far as I’m concerned, the municipal office and the community centers simply belong to the ecosystem of social entrepreneurship, you don’t have to turn a prestigious building into a hotspot for that.

All in all, an ecosystem for social entrepreneurship is all about organic growth and proximity : working directly with the people who already are and already building ecosystems in different places, close to the skin of -, and together with ‘the target groups’ in neighborhoods as well as an approachable and active government. Bringing everything under one roof and flag that fits into a broad definition of social entrepreneurship is organizing a completely different form of proximity that is at odds with it. Namely building a professional and commercially oriented community around a social task. I have my doubts whether you can call this a healthy contribution to the ecosystem.

Kevin Peter