EUROPOST interview BENISI project manager Vincent De Coninck

EUROPOST interview BENISI project manager Vincent De Coninck

Social innovation creates investment return as well

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.