Getting together in Shanghai

Amidst the vibrant and lively atmosphere of Shanghai, China, the Seforїs consortium members got together to kick off our international case study database.

In preparation of the meeting all partners had identified outstanding social enterprises from their respective countries. When each consortium member presented their shortlist of possible case studies, it became clear on more time that there is a world of fascinating social enterprises out there. We had to make decisions such as: What are the most important criteria for selecting social enterprises to be studied in-depth in the Seforїs project? Which questions are most important to ask and analyse? On one thing we all agreed on was that we are going to end up with really intriguing cases!

Exactly how rich and diverse the world of social enterprise is, became clear once again during the conference organised by NPI‘s Social Entrepreneur Institute (SEI) titled “The Rise and Practice of Social Enterprise in China.” Practitioners from the field of social enterprise in China as well as several members of the Seforїs consortium provided insights and opinions on the global climate of social enterprise and China specifically. The introductory talk by Windy Tan, senior analyst of SEI, made clear that both in- and outside the social enterprise community uncertainty still surrounds the term social enterprise. There is for instance much variety in the legal forms that social enterprises adopt, or the extent to which they operate as a charity or NGO. The academic community is often similarly divided on many of these issues. Within Seforїs we agreed to adopt a broad and inclusive definition of social enterprises - building on the SELUSI project - to establish a certain common ground that allows us to conduct meaningful comparisons across countries.

One of the differences between the field of social enterprise in China and the UK that caught my attention is that in China the status of charity or NGO seems more common for social enterprises than in the UK. As of 2007, the legal form of community interest company (CIC) was introduced in the UK, a form specially designed for social enterprises. Although at the moment only a 5% share of social enterprises is incorporated under this form, see the country report State of Social Entrepreneurship in the UK, it suggests that social enterprises have greater legitimacy in the UK compared to China.

Laura Tóth, a member of the Seforїs consortium representing NESst in Hungary, shared some of NESst’s experiences from practice and research in various countries in Latin America and Eastern Europe. One of the key challenges that Laura pointed out, is the sustainability and upscaling of social enterprise. A lot of attention for social enterprise has gone out to new start-ups, but it is just as important to make sure that promising ‘young’ social enterprises are able to access funds and investments to sustain an grow their activities. Again, a parallel can be drawn with the academic community, where the focus of the discussion has been on the emergence of social enterprises and much less attention has been paid to what makes social enterprises successful in the long term. Indeed within Seforїs we investigate how social enterprises can successfully scale their activities and their social impact.

Summing up, the conference day at SEI showed that social enterprise is a dynamic and diverse field, in which opportunities for learning and research are abundant. Getting together in this field is a challenging and rewarding exercise!