The SEFORÏS project is a multi-disciplinary, multi-method international research project on social enterprise funded by the European Commission. Through the generation of robust evidence and a focus on internationally leading research, SEFORÏS aims to better understand the role that social enterprises play in the EU and beyond in the development of and evolution towards inclusive and innovative societies. Below you can find more information on the project and its objectives, as well as all participating teams and partners.

Project

SEFORÏS sets out to explore the role of social entrepreneurs in reforming European societies, and societies outside Europe. Social entrepreneurs constitute a niche (statistically speaking); they run ventures that are primarily in the business of creating significant societal value, and do so in an entrepreneurial, market-oriented way.

Although through individual or group actions, social entrepreneurs bring about new economic, social, institutional, and cultural environments (Rindova et al., 2009), the very essence of their endeavors is social change (Alvord et al., 2004, Christensen et al., 2006, Steyaert and Hjorth, 2006). As demonstrated by some noteworthy examples such as Triodos bank, social enterprises seem to have more sustainable, stable, and resilient-to-shocks business models as they typically adopt a long-term view of their business, rely on different motivational schemes, and are more embedded in local communities than traditional enterprises.

To analyze the complex phenomenon of social entrepreneurship, we rely on systems theory thinking (e.g. Praszkier & Nowak, 2012), organized thinking using systems ideas consciously organized around several important observations about social enterprises, such as:

  • Inclusiveness,
  • Civic capitalism,
  • Innovativeness,
  • New models for services,
  • Diversity of Forms,
  • Operating across vastly different contexts.

The present project is designed to critically respond to the new wave of questions that these observations raise. Underlying these observations lies the hypothesis (however strongly supported with evidence) that social enterprises have the potential to achieve inclusiveness and social innovation / societal innovation goals.

Objectives

We seek to help Europe, at a local, regional, national and EU level move forward more quickly and efficiently towards realizing these goals through the promotion of social enterprise. To do this however, there must be an understanding of the actual potential of social enterprises to meet these goals – e.g. an understanding of what can be driven by policy, what can be driven by management choices and what through best practices amongst social enterprises, and what might be fortuitous given the context (and timing) in which social enterprises operate in any particular location. Therefore, our proposed work program is organized around the following three objectives:

Objective 1 - Enhancing our understanding of the role of social enterprise in leading us to a more inclusive, innovative society.

We wish to shed new light on the processes that social enterprises undertake, experiment with, and scale in the following five domains:

  • The organization and governance
  • The public and private financing,
  • The innovations
  • Market and society
  • Behavioral and societal change (i.e., impact)

Our aim is to advance our understanding of the logic and evolution of each of these facets over time and across contexts, and isolate the drivers and barriers in the processes that each of these elements involve. Without a detailed understanding of how social enterprises achieve their outcomes, it is very difficult to identify what are the best means for amplification of the positive impacts observed, and what are the best opportunities for replication or adaptation. We aim to go further than previous studies in our understanding of typologies for social enterprises for each of these process areas, and develop insight into the specific mechanisms by which each of these areas contribute to inclusiveness and social innovation.

Objective 2 - Developing insight about the social enterprises and their context – How formal and informal institutions – social capital environment and resources affect social enterprise performance and vice-versa.

Another critical component to understanding the potential of social enterprises is to develop a better, more detailed theoretical underpinning of how their context shapes and influences their performance. Understanding the institutional environment is critical to understanding transferability and replication across geographies (local, regional, national) and to understanding what the needs are for any particular ecosystem to advance. This analysis will help provide insight in areas where outcomes are generally difficult to measure – results from actions taken by government, social venture intermediaries, private sector, etc. are very difficult to isolate and identify, with questions of “systemic effects” often hindering analysis of how much resource should be dedicated. In our research on context, we wish to look at history and other aspects of formal and informal contexts to develop better ways to make informed inferences about specific actions and the likely effect on social enterprises operating in any particular geography. In addition to replication / transfer and ecosystem development, this analysis will allow us to understand the potential (and often unaccounted for) negative effects of roll-backs in support, and on a more positive note give insight into what might be suitable substitutes for any support that does need to be rolled back.

We will approach the issue of context from the same three-part investigative methodology as described above. The diversity of cases here across geographies will be critical to our success. Inclusion of social enterprises from non-European nations, in particular China and Russia will be of great benefit to the research team, providing detailed insight into social enterprises operating without the same level or conception and expectation of the social safety net (welfare state) that exists within the EU. This contrast will strengthen conclusions and insights into the role and relative strengths of various institutions, both formal and informal.

Objective 3 – Developing thoughtful and new policy-relevant insights and stakeholder-relevant recommendations.

Debate on the policy-making implications of our work will run as a red thread throughout the project. We will aim to integrate the evidence and insights that will emerge under the study of the previous two themes, into compelling policy propositions that directly speak to the needs set out by the EU. In particular, we will aim to help shape new public policy initiatives in three distinct areas: (i) the area of emerging social entrepreneurship both at the EU and member state levels, and outside Europe (China, Russia); (ii) that of social innovation and inclusiveness at the national and the EU level, and outside Europe (China, Russia); (iii) areas of both emerging social entrepreneurship and social innovation in European welfare states versus emerging market economies.

Our three critical building blocks – action-research, cases, large-scale data – also embody powerful mechanisms to improve the quality, depth and scope of our policy recommendations. We wish to pilot-test smart communication and new stakeholder participation processes ourselves so as to help ensure not only the practical relevance of our findings for our stakeholders, but also that the research insights we generate actually ‘stick’ and make a difference to the mindsets and decisions of our varied targeted stakeholders. To this end, we will launch for instance a unique Online Stakeholder Community Platform – that steps up the speed, depth, and extent of ‘two-way exchange’ between all Seforïs’ researchers and its stakeholders. As part of the large-scale data collection efforts, we will also collect rich data on the sorts of policy recommendations that social entrepreneurs themselves wish to make, and the visions they hold for society. We thus aim to enrich our policy recommendations with these bottom-up views: the views of a 1000 social enterprises across Europe, Russia and China.