As the number of social enterprises grows exponentially, so does the number of organizations being launched to support them. Although there were a few early pioneers – REDF, ENP and NEsST, all founded in 1997 – most of the social enterprise support organizations have emerged only in the last few years. Some provide a specific resource that social enterprises need to thrive, such as mentoring or capital, but many have developed comprehensive ecosystem models.
These ecosystem builders often provide services to a specific geographic area, but some focus on an age group or industry. And although each has a unique approach, the basic service offerings of each look similar, even though they may have been developed in isolation. Most have developed a set of programs that strive to follow the approach that was outlined in the first article in this ecosystem series: 1) build an engaged community and grow the pipeline, 2) increase business acumen, 3) make/grow markets, 4) infuse capital, and 5) foster societal support through demonstrated impact.
The multi-country or regional approach
Founded in 1997, NESsT developed one of the most robust and proven ecosystem models that has now scaled across Latin America and Eastern Europe. NEsST has built a community of more than 300 volunteers, and develops and invests in social enterprises that solve critical social problems in emerging market countries, using a long-term portfolio approach. It also provides business planning support in order to identify and select the best ideas, help launch the most promising enterprises, incubate them with capacity support and tailored financing, and then scale those enterprises with patient investments to multiply their impact.
NESsT has invested USD$8 million in capacity and financial support to launch more than 130 high-impact social enterprises. NESsT Enterprises have directly improved the quality of life of 280,000 marginalized people. Other multi-country models include Agora partnerships, which provides incubation, mentoring and funding to social entrepreneurs in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Acumen also takes a portofolio approach and invests in West Africa, East Africa, Pakistan and India
The country approach
Enterprising Nonprofits (ENP) seeks to grow the social venture sector in Canada by offering workshops that enhance business skills among social enterprises, making the case for additional capital flows to the sectors, and expanding market opportunities for social enterprise services through its purchasing portal. Another trailblazer is Community Enterprise in Scotland (CEis), which has been providing a range of independent and professional business support services and business finance solutions for social and community enterprises for more than 28 years.
The state or multi-state approach
Starting out as a SVP chapter, Social Enterprise Greenhouse has built a community of 130 business and community leaders who are providing mentoring to more than 150 ventures in Rhode Island. They organize events, run an accelerator and two place-based incubators, provide loan capital, and developed an online marketplace. They are also expanding their services regionally. Another statewide ecosystem builder is reSET, which offers a set of support programs to social enterprises, largely in the Hartford Area, but aims to be statewide.
The city approach
There seems to be the most activity around building city-based ecosystems for social entrepreneurs. Flywheel creates a hub-like experience where advisors and community leaders work alongside nonprofits to start and design sustainable social enterprises to create an environment that supports a social enterprise ecosystem. Other “city” models include: Panzanzee, Sandbox, Bull City Forward, Springboard Innovation, Social Innovators Collective, and the Centre for Social Innovation.
Some other ecosystem builders are creating ecosystems for social enterprises that are based on desired outcomes, or a “generational” group. REDF provides equity-like grants and business assistance to a portfolio of nonprofits in California to start and expand social enterprises that aim to train and employ populations with barriers to employment. REDF also plays a critical role as a thought leader, creating and aggregating best practice. The Toronto Enterprise Fund uses a portfolio model to support people facing homelessness. The Unreasonable Institute and Impact Engine are both providing an ecosystem for scalable social ventures.
Although still a start-up, Ignite for Good chooses millennial social entrepreneurs and provides them with business acumen and capital. Encore creates an ecosystem for individuals seeking a second career in social enterprise.
With all of this activity, there is a strong case to be made for greater collaboration among ecosystem builders. First off, with the exception of a couple of the trailblazers such as NEsST, REDF and ENP, the others have largely emerged in the last few years and could benefit greatly from sharing tools, templates and best practices. Further, if these ecosystem builders could work together to aggregate the knowledge they have obtained operating in their specific markets, we could all have a more robust understanding of the impacts of social enterprise and be better armed with data that can help us all make the case for the sector.
There are several initiatives aimed at building greater collaboration among these groups. Social Enterprise Greenhouse has developed an interactive map to track how organizations are contributing to the ecosystem, and the Great Social Enterprise Census is working with the ecosystem builders who are providing a pipeline to their data collection efforts.
Please contact the authors if you know of other ecosystem builders or collaborative efforts so we can continue to map the landscape.
David LePage is the Team Manager at Enterprising Non-Profits, enp, supporting the development and growth of social enterprises. He has been blending practice and policy in the nonprofit arena for over 35 years. David is a member of the Social Enterprise Council of Canada (SECC), the Policy Council of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet), the Social Enterprise World Forum Collaboration, the Board of the Social Enterprise Alliance (North America) and the BC based Partners for Social Impact.
Kelly Ramirez is the CEO of SVPRI, a leading social enterprise support organization. She is co-founder of Buy with Heart, the first online marketplace for social enterprise in the US. Previously, she directed the Social Enterprise Initiative at the William Davidson Institute (WDI) and was an adjunct lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Previously, Kelly worked as a political analyst for the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service, an election monitor for the OSCE, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Slovakia. She was named a 2011 Woman to Watch by the Providence Business News.
Suzanne Smith, MBA (Dallas, Texas) is a serial social entrepreneur and bridges many disciplines, including serving on the National Board of the Social Enterprise Alliance, coaching nonprofits as Managing Director of Social Impact Architects, and Co-Founder of Flywheel: Social Enterprise Hub, and educating future leaders as Adjunct Professor at the University of North Texas. She holds an MBA from Duke University, where she was a CASE (Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship) Scholar and continues to serve as a Research Fellow.