EUROPOST interview BENISI project manager Vincent De Coninck
EUROPOST interview BENISI project manager Vincent De Coninck
Entrepreneurs try to find out how to deal with challenges and tackle them
Photo by Maria Koleva
Written by Maria Koleva,
Brussels 25 July, 2014
Close-up: Vincent De Coninck is project manager at the Brussels-based I-propeller/ Oksigen Lab for Social Entrepreneurship. A specialist in business administration and marketing, he has worked for many years as a marketing and communication consultant for social enterprises and social profit organisations. In 2004, he created a company (Biodyvino) specialising in import and distribution of organic and fair trade wines. The aim was to combine his expertise in marketing and also focus on social impact. He is also the co-founder of the Belgian network of social entrepreneurs, of which he was coordinator in 2013. He has been coaching and co-creating several social businesses over the past few years and he presented BENISI during the European Social Innovation Competition award ceremony in Brussels.
- What can BENISI do for scaling social innovation in Europe?
- BENISI is an EU funded programme which is a consortium of different organisations, working in all of Europe, that seeks to build a Europe-wide network of incubators for social innovation. We have some strategic impact hubs that are partners of BENISI Incubation centres dedicated to social entrepreneurship with a focus on early stages and growth phases. These are co-working environments where they can meet each other and receive assistance, adding some coaching and different activities in order to grow their business. These hubs have a responsibility for the regional clusters. Started in May 2013, the project aims to identify at least 300 social innovations with high potentials for scaling successfully that are impacting and employment-generating and ensure the delivery of necessary support services to those social innovations. The I-Propeller, the lead of the programme BENISI and part of the consortium, is a consultancy focused on social business innovation. We advise regional clusters and the impact hubs located in a specific region, as they are in direct contact with social entrepreneurs and they spot them on the market. For a year there has been another entity that was created within I-Propeller, called Oksigen Lab and it is a research and incubation centre for social entrepreneurship. Both are acting under the BENISI programme.
- Who are the other partners within the consortium and how do they interact?
- The consortium is made up of different partners with different scopes and competences. The goal of that is to spot social entrepreneurs and innovations and to help start ups connect with a broader network of organisations that can really help them to scale. As I already said, the impact hubs with incubators are among our strategic partners. And also Pefondes, the European network of the foundations aimed in the development of sustainable employment and new activities in the area of social economy. EURADA, the European Association of Development Agencies with about 130 regional development agencies across the Union, is also in the consortium.
- In what sphere are the most promising social enterprises?
- Social innovation is trying to find out how to deal with challenges and give sustainable answers and tackle them. We can see that different regions and areas have different challenges and different types of social entrepreneurs. The social enterprises have a big employment focus. There are promising social enterprises in the sector of mobility because of the situation in some cities and countries, such as traffic jams and various problems with the pollution. In the south of Europe, with the difficulties created by the crisis, we have many social enterprises and innovations that are focusing on employment. In north regions, that have less impact from the crisis, we see other types of social innovation which are more focused on sustainable living and sustainable food.
- What, according to you, should be done at an EU level for boosting social entrepreneurship in Europe?
- For me, the most important thing is to think in a horizontal way while tackling the challenges, because social entrepreneurship and innovation are trying to find integrated business models that can give an answer to different topics and challenges. It's not only about the pollution, not only about unemployment and different social challenges. They find instruments and businesses and some different challenges can be integrated in this model. It's really important at a European level to see in a realistic way to integrate social entrepreneurship in all the different directorates general of the EC, because it's more in research, the internal market and a little bit in enterprise where we have initiatives now. In fact, social innovation and entrepreneurship is part of the answer to the challenges in most different areas in Europe. That is why it should be integrated more in different directorates general. It is also very important to build an infrastructure that can help social innovations to grow and scale. We need different types for partners and organisations to spot these innovations to grow. With BENISI, we are creating an infrastructure of networks of all these partners that really help social innovation that should last long after the end of the project. This infrastructure is not about buildings but it is making connections with all organisations that work on a daily basis in an active way, without knowing each other. They are working to support social businesses and innovations that are in the loop, but also on an international basis, and increasing their impact.
- Where does the money for supporting the social services come from?
- Financing is always a problem for the companies dealing with social innovation, and we connect the social businesses with funding organisations. Some of these social entrepreneurs don't know how much financial support they need, where they can find the necessary funding, how to contact investors. If we don't focus on helping these entrepreneurs to better understand business management, how to present a business plan, and to create financial tools, they won't be able to find the necessary funding. It is a kind of collecting out the pieces of the puzzle in order to increase their capacity, to increase their competencies so they can find financial support, but also so that they can find their way to partners who can help them to create another site of their business in another country or region. Without focusing on support and coaching, it won't work. There are different private and also public organisations, even such with a market driven approach. The reality is that if you have a good case you can find the money. We have as partners many different social impact investors, funds or individuals who invest in social business with a purpose to create and increase the social impact. They target some return but not the same as in a classical business, because they consider that the return, which has been created by social impact, is also kind of a return, not a financial but a societal return. We also have more and more foundations who, before, worked on a charity model and now they are offering to social entrepreneurs certain grants that have to be used to increase their capacities and competencies to scale up their business.
- How can the project help the development of the necessary infrastructure for knowledge sharing?
- In BENISI we have an online database with all the social innovations we interviewed and we assessed so we can better understand their situation and the challenges they face and connect them with partners and recourses that can help them. In this database, there is a lot of interesting innovations that are being set up in another country or region. Our partners read this information and connect them with other entrepreneurs so we can really share the knowledge of existing social innovations, so they can spread the word and also share their experience with others to collaborate or maybe just to disseminate knowledge so they can take over the model and do it in another country. We keep connections with other organisations that are working on an active basis on social entrepreneurship. Our consortium doesn't only deal with social innovations issues. A broader network, called SIAN, social innovation ambassadors network of organisations, from a variety of sectors and from various regions, connected with us and helps us to scale social innovation in our database. We have funding organisations, business coaching, legal experts and a lot of different competencies in our network.
- How many social innovations has the consortium identified so far?
- We have now 170 and its number is increasing quickly. And we see a lot of young entrepreneurs who create interesting models. As I mentioned before, the goal is to have at least 300 in 2016. One of these innovations, for instance, is CharityStars, the first celebrities' auction platform for the charity sector in Europe. Celebrities pair up with charities, and offer either personal memorabilia or their personal time to the highest bidders. The money raised then goes directly to the selected charity or not-for-profit organisation. After a record start in Italy, supported by Impact Hub Milan's incubation programme, during which CharityStars helped a selected number of charities to raise almost €500,000 on their platform in less than a year, the founders decided to scale their social innovation to the UK through the BENISI programme. Working closely with Impact Hub King's Cross, CharityStars started developing a network of strong partners in London, who are supporting its scaling efforts. Amongst them is Young Philanthropy, an Impact Hub member who is now helping them scale to the UK. CharityStars is now gearing up to pitch to impact investors in the UK alongside other BENISI organisations supported by the Impact Hub Network. Also, an inspiring example is Elos Foundation. It uses plays as a way of creating an impact in the community through the construction of a collective dream project - which may be a community square, a playground, a garden or other physical venue that has meaning within a local community. A 'reverse innovation', Elos draws on learning and social techniques from Brazil to encourage south-north collaboration and social cohesion both globally and locally. Elos' initiatives include the Oasis Game, which addresses social exclusion in neighbourhoods as well as the lack of confidence to participate in the change of one's own environment. Through the BENISI project, Elos has received hand-on guidance through Impact Hub Amsterdam and the whole network. Its primary challenge is longer-term and transnational funding commitments that allow them to build on one-off neighbourhood initiatives for more sustained impacts and to support its growing network of community facilitators in neighbourhoods across Europe.