Making the EU work for social business

Making the EU work for social business
The Guardian, by Dan Ridler


In November 2011, the European Union made its latest step towards recognising the value of social business by launching the Social Business Initiative, which could mark a turning point in how the union approaches this rapidly expanding sector.


The Social Business Initiative has been developed to foster social business. It aims to improve funding access, to raise the profile of social business, and to simplify rules that make it difficult for social businesses to compete, to help social entrepreneurs to get off the ground. Obviously this could make a huge difference.


With potentially massive amounts of cash at stake, and having attracted the ear of the top brass in Brussels, it is worth considering how those of us with an interest in the future of social innovation can now ensure that this moment becomes a long term commitment.


At least one significant element of this will be to ensure an active dialogue during these early days and an identification of where the EU can help foster the development of the sector. The commission has demonstrated a willingness to help to overcome obstacles to social innovation and to give social enterprise a helping hand, both financially and, perhaps more importantly in the long term, by introducing policies which empower the sector.


It has also already launched some schemes such as Social Innovation Europe and the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme, which improve access to funds, help entrepreneurs by sharing Europe-wide best practice and encourage better relationships between government and civil society.


They are positive, but this initiative is more than that. It is directly focused on social business, helping it as a primary goal rather than as a part of a more holistic enterprise boosting venture.


If some not-insignificant hurdles can be overcome, such as considering not only the cheapest but also most socially beneficial bids for public tenders, or by introducing policies which reduce risk for experimental entrepreneurs, then social business could compete on its own terms with other more established forms of enterprise.


Unlocking opportunities in this way, we could then witness an unprecedented growth in social innovation and reap the rewards of a thriving social business sector which could develop into a central part of the economic recovery.


One thing all social entrepreneurs will know from first-hand experience is that even the most open minded and forward thinking large organisations can’t necessarily move as fast as they would like to. By its very nature, social innovation is dealing with the avant-garde of business practices, changing the way things are approached every day.


Law making institutions need to know not just where we are today, but also where we expect to be in 12 months’ time if they are to legislate effectively. To do this they need to hear from those practitioners on the ground.


The launch of the Social Business Initiative offers an excellent chance to change the future of social enterprise in Europe. Yet opportunities to engage across sectors with governments and the EU are often not simple, particularly in an open forum where debate and discussion can be fostered. We need more discussion between states, the EU and civil society to make sure that everything can be done to build a vibrant and innovative social business sector.