The winter light in the Portuguese capital is stunning. If you weren’t with us at Gathering to Grow Part I, it’s hard to convey the atmosphere that everyone created – it bristled with curiosity. Our President John Low (CEO at CAF) dropped a line into his welcome speech which went something like this:

“If you’re not curious, you just get managed”.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to just be managed. This was a good meeting of and for the curious: aspiring & inspiring social entrepreneurs and SE coaches, investors, researchers and trainers.

It was an opportunity for a community of practical front-line social entrepreneurs to get to know EU policy-making and funding – a collision of action and policy-speak. I moderated a session to help build our input for the potential future European Action Plan for the Social Economy and Social Enterprises, that has been proposed by the EU Social Business Expert Group. Naturally the first barrier was to explain in plain language what’s in the GECES report of October 2016.

Recognising my own limitations as a self-confessed EU policy geek, here’s my attempt to capture the GECES report in plain and simple language: 12 wishes under 4 headings – and to argue that we need stronger networks to help deliver them, among social enterpreneurs themselves but also between them and policy-makers, investors and researchers.

BE VISIBLE

  • 1) every European to see what’s unique and special about social entrepreneurship
  • 2) social enterprises need to get together at every level and get their voices heard: in cities, regions, countries and at EU level
  • 3) more social enterprises getting more EU funding even when the phrase ‘social entrepreneurship’ isn’t on the label

GET MORE MONEY

  • 4) social enterprises to be better equipped to win access to finance and have good leadership
  • 5) more social enterprises winning more private investment
  • 6) more social enterprises winning more combined public-private financing

MAKING THE LAW CATCH UP WITH PRACTICE

  • 7) more countries having a social enterprise legal status based on common EU guidelines
  • 8) more larger social enterprises work across borders in the EU single market
  • 9) public authorities better informed on how to apply state aid to social enterprises providing social services

PROMOTE SE AROUND THE WORLD

  • 10) have more development aid donors invest in social entrepreneurship
  • 11) social enterprises more connected around the world
  • 12) more EU funding for social enterprises in developing world

From our session in Lisbon, recommendations 5, 6, 9 and 11 emerged as the most important. We had already coordinated in 2015 a memo from Europe’s new SE networks to the GECES group calling on the EU to regain momentum for social entrepreneurship

I would argue that our chances of achieving any and all those objectives can be strengthened through networks. The civil society or charity world has long combined social action with campaigning and social enterprises should do the same. This is tough for social entrepreneurs. The movement is just getting going in some places; social start-up founders are struggling to pay themselves a decent wage and take an occasional day off.

Should we expect them to get together and be a collective voice for the movement as well as keeping their businesses going? I think we should, yes. In the social sector, when you have a successful model that creates real social impact (makes things better), then there’s a moral duty to tell people about it, so it can be replicated and adapted for other settings – and converted into government policy – all of this with due care and attention to different local cultural and financial contexts.

There are social enterprise networks in Belgium, Bulgaria (B-CAUSE) Estonia, Finland, France (MOUVES), the Netherlands (Social Enterprise NL) , Italy (SiS), Portugal (ESLIDER), Spain, Serbia (Smart Kolektiv), Sweden and the UK. You can find them among our members here.

So if you’re in one of those countries, are you a member of your network?

If you’re not in one of those countries, call a fellow social entrepreneur and start a new club.

If you’re a social investor or foundation, are you supporting your portfolio to be part of networks – are you supporting networks as well as front-line social impact?

If I missed out an SE network, please tell me about it: stephen.barnett@euclidnetwork.eu

We’re going to be taking the messages from our members and from the Gathering to Grow part I event to the European Parliament on 28 March 2017 at the invitation of Guillaume Balas MEP. This will be Gathering to Grow Part II.

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