In January 2018 Sir John Low is due to step down as Euclid Network’s President, after serving ten years on the Board. We sat him down in Brussels for a last chance to glean some words of wisdom before his successor, Neven Marinovic, takes up the baton.
You were involved in establishing Euclid Network back in 2007. How did it all start?
At the time I was chair of ACEVO, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, in the UK]. We had an international director and were trying to work out what we should do beyond Britain: we had 2200 members, yet across continental Europe there were no leadership groups for civil society organisations or for social entrepreneurs. There were some trade associations, but nothing representing the nonprofit sector.
So we decided to incorporate a separate legal entity. We agonised over where to base it, whether in Britain or France
. In the end ACEVO was willing to give space, legal help, management expertise and staff.
ACEVO, CJDES (France) and IDEELL ARENA (Sweden) were the three founding members. My role was to represent ACEVO and help steer EN. I saw myself as an enabler — I was able to provide some financial support through my organisation, facilitate meetings, provide meeting rooms, find speakers, and generally help to build it up.
What was the vision for Euclid Network back then? What were you hoping it would achieve?
The belief was that if organisations are well led, they’ll be more effective. In many ways it was an ACEVO for Europe — an organisation that would help chief executives to do a more professional job.
But it soon became clear that people at different levels in organisations, in different branches or countries, all needed support. We also realised there was a gap in that social enterprises were very small — sometimes they didn’t even exist as a legal entity but were the driving force for change and innovation, and we thought, how do we support that group?
The demand was huge. Two strands emerged: one supporting civil society and the other supporting social entrepreneurs and the infrastructure around them. The membership changed from an individual one to networks of individuals — so today our membership is nominally small, but each member has hundreds of members. So we are gluing together these organisations.
What have been some of Euclid Network’s biggest achievements in your view?
We quickly realised that some countries had their own systems for cross-border interaction. In France and Germany, for example, the demand for the kind of support we were offering was less. In places like the western Balkans, central and eastern Europe or southern Europe, the appetite for such support was huge, and there was strong interest from Scandinavian countries who wanted to do things better. There was a period when we were doing a lot of work around the Baltic sea — in Belarus and places like that. We went where the demand was.
EU exchange programmes have been very successful… lots of people, young and old, have spent time in a different country and learned immense amounts — the hosts benefited as well. That’s worked out as a very strong area for us and is alive today in the SEEDplus programme.
And we worked very quickly to develop policies for the European Commission. Older or more established organisations would say: we’ll have to do a six-month consultation with our members. We said: we’ll phone round and produce a paper in a few weeks. So we were able to be a new kid on the block, and see where the opportunities were. We’re still doing that today.
There’s no doubt there are funding streams we helped to establish. There were things the EU wasn’t funding; we ran pilots, the pilots were successful and they came back with major programmes. We didn’t always win those: the social innovation prize which we pioneered then went to major organisations who piled in once they saw it was successful and profitable. For the Euro-Med programme in North Africa, the EU ran three pilots on social entrepreneurship. One failed quite quickly and the other two succeeded, each after some challenges and a redesign. One of those, SEED Euro-Med, was ours and the other was led by Oxfam Italy. Next year, we’ll be working together in a larger longer-term programme. We were a catalyst for change.
What about areas where Euclid Network hasn’t been able to have the impact you hoped for?
There are parts of Europe where we could have brought value but the opportunity never arose. I was disappointed we weren’t able to do more in Greece, but we just didn’t have the resources. I always thought we could have done more in some of the eastern Baltic states. We began to do work there, but the level of poverty means asking someone to come to another country for a meeting is completely beyond their financial means. It’s very hard to support that kind of emergent civil society.
Speaking of resources, how do you feel about Euclid Network’s financial sustainability?
It’s been a tough road — we’ve had lots of successes but it’s also been very fragile at times. Today it’s in good health. There’s not loads of money in the bank, but social entrepreneurs and small NGOs will know how that feels!
We became more established when we got our first core funding grant from the EU. But we have to generate 25% of our income from other sources: memberships, corporate sponsorship, foundations, a whole range of people. Some of our state funding has come from the UK government and we’ve had money from the United Nations and from a number of banking foundations around Europe.
But EU funding will always make sense for us because it puts us into relationships with other organisations around Europe and the EU is really the only funder of large-scale cross-border projects – and because it allows us to pursue EU Neighbourhood projects.
Do you think civil society and social entrepreneurship in Europe today is in a healthier place than it was 10 years ago?
The EU’s policy towards it and support for it is much stronger: their funding is clearer and is producing better outcomes.
And you’re seeing large numbers of people saying, I can do something in my community better, can you help me? In Lisbon, the last figures I heard are that 50% of all businesses are social businesses. So social entrepreneurship has found its place through periods of austerity. You see that in the Balkans as well — well educated people concerned about what’s happening in the places where they live asking themselves, what can I do to make things better? Neven [the incoming President] himself is an example of that.
Why rely on big corporates or governments to solve problems? Why not have young people with ideas instead, and equip them — that’s how you get transformation in communities.
What do you see as Euclid Network’s role in the future?
Spotting the opportunities, being fast-moving, keeping an open mind, finding new ways to strengthen civil society and its leaders. One of the big ones now is to support CSOs and social enterprises to get ready to take on social finance. Just yesterday (19th December) we did a webinar on that with the Commission.
Another is to lift up the voices of social entrepreneurs at the EU level – the EU agenda been dominated by social investors and researchers and they’ve really helped. The social entrepreneurs were probably too busy trying to survive and grow. And we have plans to do more on those issues in the next few years, both in the EU and in its Neighbourhood.
More generally, as EN becomes more established and grows, we need to carry on being a bit like a noisy, troublesome child, saying: “look, there’s a problem there, come on, let’s fix it!” We need to continue to play that role — to see a problem and speak about it, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist.
There’s a very strong new EN Board coming in now and new funding streams for 2018-21 so I am very confident in the future.
John Low is CEO of Charities Aid Foundation (CAF). He was previously Chief Executive at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), and before that had a 20-year career in the private sector.