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Annalisa Contini manages international programmes at our member Consorzio Sistema Imprese Sociali (SIS). Established in Milan in 1988, SIS is a consortium of 27 social cooperative members who focus on social and collaborative housing, work-life balance, ICT and the circular economy. Annalisa was previously a social worker and project designer at an Italian social enterprise for 20 years, and also spent two years in Lebanon working on international development programmes.

What is the current state of social enterprise in Italy?

The social enterprise phenomenon in Italy is one of the most advanced in Europe. The ecosystem is rich, well-developed and diversified, and can count on support from public institutions. There are about 100,000 social enterprises of various legal forms, involving more than 850,000 workers and 1.7 million volunteers. Social cooperatives are the main types, but there are also organisations with a legal status of social enterprises, associations, and foundations.

Despite of the huge number of social enterprises, only half of them are able to make strategic investments with their own income. Most of them are just breaking even. At SIS we are supporting our members to merge with similar or complementary organisations, so that they’ll have more financial capacity for innovation and social impact investment.

Why is it so important that social organisations innovate?

Problems affecting our communities are becoming more and more complex — we cannot solve them anymore using a single approach. To have an impact, we need more integrated solutions.

One example of how we’re doing this is in housing. For more than 10 years, we’ve been developing special agreements with the Municipalities across the Milan metropolitan area. They often have empty buildings and we invest in these buildings by renovating and managing them using collaborative housing solutions, for example cheap apartments for students who in return spend some of their free time with older people who need assistance.

How advanced are most organisations in measuring and tracking their social impact?

The current law on social enterprises requires all social cooperatives and social enterprises to produce an annual social report. A year ago we started experimenting in transforming that into a social impact report. This requires a big effort, above all in data collection, but also in adoption of new internal procedures and development of specific ICT tools that combine daily management with impact reporting.

In Italy the public authorities don’t include a clear evaluation approach in their policies, and in general our culture is not oriented to evaluation processes, but people also recognise the need to experiment and to find smart tools to monitor our social impact and accountability.

Last year you created an international department in your network. Why?

Collaborating internationally is a key element of innovation and competitiveness for two reasons. Firstly, challenges we meet locally are more connected with the global dimension than before — issues like migration and the economic crisis. Secondly, international and European funds allow practitioners to combine research and innovation with social challenges. National funds to support growth of SMEs usually don’t prioritise social impact. For example they might support tourism businesses, but would not necessarily support innovations to improve the experience of disabled tourists.

EU-funded projects are currently often led by organisations that have the know-how in EU funding rules but not necessarily knowledge of the topic itself, at a community level. So funding doesn’t sufficiently reach the level of practitioners in the relevant sectors. We want to change this by working with organisations experienced in international projects, while empowering our social entrepreneurs to adopt a transnational perspective — and to learn new skills.

How does being a member of Euclid Network fit your international objectives?

First of all, it’s an “out of the box” network, gathering different types of third sector organisations and engaging all of us in the debate around social entrepreneurship. Most of SIS’s social enterprises were NGOs who then chose to become social cooperatives — that’s a form in which we strongly believe, but we also want to experiment with hybrid legal forms, depending on the goal. Euclid members are also businesses and financial intermediaries, universities and so on — we believe it’s important to keep the debate open to all of these as we build a new concept of EU social enterprise.

Secondly, the focus on the Balkans and the Mediterranean region, including North Africa, is crucial for us, partly due to geographic proximity, but also because most of our members work with migrants, refugees or asylum seekers. If we strengthen collaboration with organisations working in their countries of origin, maybe we can improve our capacity to deliver integration services and improve our intercultural competences. Also, in North Africa and the Middle East there’s a lot of potential in social enterprise, and we want to be part of this process, helping to deliver a feasible strategy to support them.

Why is cross-border networking important to you personally?

Working in international development, I understood the value of working with an international partner, and the combination of approaches that brings. You often have to communicate what you do in a different way, and that helps you to reflect on how you do the work, and maybe find ways to do it better. A lot of our entrepreneurs are working effectively but cannot scale up, because they are tailored to a local level. To make this good practice more innovative we have to reflect on the model — and through a transnational network you can learn to do that.

What are you excited about in 2017?

We’ve started our first ever English course for social entrepreneurs — it includes studying GECES documents and helping participants to set up an English-language presentation of their own organizations. Through learning English, we want them to feel more self-confident.… We don’t want to run international projects if our members are not able to participate.

We are now in our second year of Euclid Network membership and we are excited to be part of the new phase. We are implementing two international projects, including hosting entrepreneurs from the SEED EUROMED exchange programme. And in March we are moving the office and will also have access to a co-working space in an incubator focused on digital social innovation.

We are excited to see what will come from these new links!

Annalisa Contini

Euclid is an “out of the box” network, gathering different third sector organisations and engaging all of us in the debate around social entrepreneurship

A lot of our entrepreneurs are working effectively but cannot scale up from the local level. Through a transnational network you can learn to do that.

Consorzio SIS is involved in the SEED Euromed project, which supports social enterpreneurship in North Africa

If we strengthen collaboration with organisations in the Euro-Med, we can improve our capacity to deliver integration services for migrants and improve our intercultural competences.

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