The Rise of Social Enterprises in Europe: Just a Trend or Here to Stay?

By Jessica van Thiel

“There are lots of injustices in the current economic model, but I think social enterprise and social investment offers a way forward. I don’t see whole-scale revolution as likely any time soon, so we need to change the system we have.” – Paula Woodman, Global Adviser on Social Enterprise, British Council

The European SocEnt Scene

We’re a social enterprise based in Canada and in France, with a predominant client and partner in the United Kingdom, so it’s imperative that we be closely connected to the social enterprise (or #SocEnt) scene in Europe. We understand the importance of knowing the European market and the impact it has in the larger picture. After all, social entrepreneurship is much about collaboration, as a great number of social enterprises maximize their impact through partnership and co-operation.

According to the Social Enterprise Council of Canada social enterprises are, “businesses owned by non-profit organizations that are directly involved in the production and/or selling of goods and services for the blended purpose of generating income and achieving social, cultural, and/or environmental aims[1]”. In short, a SocEnt is a business that has a greater purpose and in general aims to ‘do good’ while making a profit.

One common practice among social entrepreneurs is to share ideas with peers. For us, building relationships and networks across Europe and North America have been essential in maximizing our reach. Rather than compete with other social entrepreneurs, as common practice in other industries, we’ve adopted the strategy of sharing information and connecting with our peers in efforts to gain insight, explore best practices, and establish key contacts. This has been incredibly rewarding for us, and through trial and error, we’ve learned that it is one of the most effective ways of accomplishing our objectives.

As the SocEnt community thrives on other SocEnts and there is an increase in the general awareness of the industry, it is very encouraging to see signs that social enterprises are on the rise across the globe. The industry has been growing in North America for decades, having gained momentum since industry giant, Ashoka, was founded in 1978. Social Enterprises have also steadily risen in developing countries, with investors and governments increasingly recognizing the potential of the sector. Europe may well be the next hot spot for social entrepreneurs.

So why is Europe getting on board now? We believe it’s a result of varying factors. For one, an uncertain socio-economic time in Europe and perhaps a renewed pressure to find new solutions has created plenty of opportunities for SocEnts across Europe. The (2009) global economic crisis in particular, resulted in widespread public discontentment with the way the global economic system functions, and it fueled interest (from many sectors) in more inclusive economic systems. And perhaps most importantly, this lead to an increased recognition of the role social enterprises can play in tackling societal and environmental challenges and fostering inclusive growth[2].

While the importance of the opportunity and necessity SocEnts hold is becoming increasingly clear – and there are a few note worthy studies which have aimed to fill this gap in knowledge such as The European Commission’s Mapping Study (April 2016), The British Council’s study on what Social Enterprises will look like in Europe by 2020 – little research has been done regarding the scale and impact of the sector in Europe as a greater, dynamic whole. There’s certainly the opportunity and a growing market, with the possibility to change the current economic model, one where social enterprise and social investment offer a way forward.

However, much work is yet to be done to discover all of the benefits of running socially responsible and economically sustainable organizations. The bottom line is this: while there is plenty of interest in exploration, we are still far from where SocEnts are a new normal.

A SocEnt’s Map of Europe: Who and What to Watch For

Who are Europe’s most promising SocEnts and what is their focus? As Europe deals with possibly the largest refugee crisis of all time, it’s no surprise that a large number of young SocEnts have made the refugee cause a priority, and they are running organizations focused on migration, successful integration and economic independence.

For example, Josephine Goube, is the Director of Partnerships of Migreat, an enterprise that simplifies the complex process of migration in Europe; Paula Schwarz founded Startupboat which finds scalable solution for mass migration emergencies; and Nathanael Molle of Singa,  helps refugees entering France set up small businesses or re-enter the workforce with French language training. Others are addressing different issues such as SimPrints, creating medical record-keeping technologies in developing countries, InternsGoPro are finding students meaningful internships across Europe, Social Wolves is encouraging widespread social activism in Europe and around the world, and Make Sense is an international community that rallies ‘SenseMakers’ across the world to help social entrepreneurs solve their challenges.[3].

Across Europe we are seeing a surge in youth entrepreneurship and interest in social innovation, sustainable technologies and helping the world’s most vulnerable. We too, have had the opportunity to participate first-hand, through our work with universities in the UK and with networks such as the European Sustainable Development Network and the Unreasonable Institute in France. It’s pretty incredible the rate and pace at which these networks and communities are emerging, it only gives more momentum and enthusiasm to the industry.

With social entrepreneurship on the rise, social entrepreneurs will surely have a vital and central role to play in changing the world for the better, one business at a time[4]”.

How We See It

There are many amazing efforts underway, and by some incredible people, none-the-less. While this is all very promising, we are reminded constantly through our work, that there are still major gaps in the SocEnt industry in Europe and around the globe. But where there are gaps, there are opportunities, and we are optimistic that the future of SocEnts is vast and exciting; in Europe and elsewhere. And as more people get involved in such businesses, it is only a matter of time before there is greater impact where governments and ‘business as usual’ increasingly fail us. Simply put, the more people are inspired and informed of the potential of social entrepreneurship, the more likely they will recognize opportunities to change the current economic model to one where social enterprises offer a way forward.

[1] The Social Enterprise Council of Canada, 2017

[2] European Commission, 2017

[3] Forbes, 2016

[4] Lyon Business School, Global Entrepreneurship Program, 2016

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