The Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) was hosted in Christchurch in the last week of September. Ākina Foundation CEO Alex Hannant looks back at the event and into the future of the social enterprise sector.
Somewhere in the region of 1600 people attended the SEWF in Christchurch. It reached a further 3000 people through the related activities and satellite events. This was a big deal for SEWF (despite the distance, New Zealand takes the prize for the largest forum to date), and a big deal for New Zealand, as it gave shape and profile to a growing movement that has been hidden and poorly understood.
As an organiser of the forum, and head of an organisation committed to driving positive change through social enterprise, I’m still in the process of working out what happened at SEWF, and what it could mean for New Zealand going forward. This is a chance for me to share some initial reflections on the forum, and what the future holds for the sector.
What happened at SEWF?
The forum communicated to the world who we are as a nation, and set a tone for the movement we’re in the act of building. Our soul was on display as local leadership from Ngāi Tahu and the people of Christchurch underpinned the uniqueness and authenticity of the experience. Diversity and manaakitanga built trust, and enabled interactions to be grounded and ambitious.
I don’t think anyone working in social enterprise in New Zealand realised how many other people were doing the same. Not only has social enterprise been largely hidden from the mainstream, but social entrepreneurs have also been hidden from each other. Bringing people together who share similar ambitions, experiences, and expertise created instant value – I noted any number of deals being done. But the connectivity also created a more subtle benefit in terms of confidence and validation. My sense is that many of our social enterprises found solidarity at SEWF, and that shared purpose will be a key ingredient to growing the scale and ambition of our sector.
One of the ‘moments’ at SEWF was when Andrea Chen from Propeller Incubator in New Orleans fronted up on failure. Despite having created, and invested in, a number of new businesses post Hurricane Katrina, the incubator had failed to impact the socioeconomic issues it had been set up to address. It was only when the company went deeper and started tackling issues of embedded racism, and then innovating from that point, that they started to build enterprises that could shift the dial.
The lesson? That social enterprise used superficially to address symptom issues will have little long-term impact. It can be a powerful vehicle for social, economic, and environmental transformation but only if we’re prepared to simultaneously tackle deeper issues of power and inequality.
SEWF saw a number of structural initiatives launched and influential groups, outside of the social enterprise caucus, brought into the conversation. A productive ecosystem requires three things at a minimum – support for talent and innovation, enabling finance, and accessible markets. Last week, we saw all of these bases starting to be covered. To name just a few, the government reaffirmed its long-term investment in capability development, NZ Post launched a new ‘Social Marketplace’, and we also saw the launch of the ‘Impact Enterprise Fund’, the ‘Impact Investment Network’, and the intent to form a ‘National Advisory Board on Impact Investment’ that will connect New Zealand to the global social finance market. We also saw a variety of parallel events for policy makers, intermediaries, universities, investors, and Māori development. All of which focussed on longer-term strategy to support and leverage the growth of social enterprise.
So what next?
How do we translate the excitement and energy captured by an event into the development of a credible, productive, and transformational sector? This is my guess as to what will happen now.
First, I think we’ll see the business environment for social enterprise improve across the country. The top-down investment from Government for sector development will be married with the bottom up emergence of local support bodies and peer networks, and boosted by more specific investments and infrastructure supports provided by local government, philanthropy, and the private sector. ‘Social enterprise’ now has the profile to find its way into strategic plans and budget appropriations. Professional services providers will recognise the momentum and refine their capabilities and offers accordingly. The narrative will be normalised, creating the conditions for the sector to scale.
To facilitate scale we will see both increased local ownership and greater coherence at the national level. This could result in the adoption of successful overseas programmes like SEUK’s ‘Places’, which recognises hotspots of social enterprise and connects activist cities, towns, and regions to each other. And also the consumer-facing ‘Buy Social’ campaign; think ‘Fair Trade’ but for quality assured social enterprises. Expect to see social enterprise ‘Hubs’ popping up across the country, and an increasing array of financial funds, products and facilities specifically designed to serve social enterprises and unlock impact alongside financial returns. This is a market that we’ve estimated to grow up to $5bn within 10 years. Also expect to see technology play a connecting, enabling, and implementing role across all activities.
Lastly, expect to see social enterprise start to raise standards and influence behaviour across the wider economy. Social enterprise products and services won’t just be enablers of impact; they will increasingly become signifiers of quality. Mainstream business will increasingly be expected to create more value by including social enterprises in their supply chains, and everyday investors will be demanding more from their pensions funds and savings accounts. While the emergence of social enterprise doesn’t mean Government should abdicate from its responsibilities, or discourage generosity and philanthropy, it will offer the public sector new, and more equal, ways of working with communities and civil society. The prize is that we move beyond the artificial separation of commercial, society, and environmental, and work towards a new economy – an economy that recognises the interdependence of social justice, externalities, and sustainable value creation in all aspects of trade, investment and policy.
That’s the vision. Bold, but given escalating global expectations, risks, and rates of change, taking a more ambitious, integrated, and sophisticated approach to innovation and enterprise is now the rational approach, not an aspirational one.
What do we do now?
Now that the seeds of the sector are planted, we need to transition from the heavy lifting that was required to prepare the ground to a more nuanced set of capacities than can grow the garden. And in respect to this, my last thoughts are cautionary.
When any movement gets momentum, or field gets investment, it inevitably creates excitement, anxiety, and potential predation. Legitimate questions of voice, representation, and identity need to be negotiated, while mavericks and rent-seekers need to be called out and kept at bay. While the values that underpin social enterprise should suggest we are equipped to manage the more toxic aspects of human nature, I don’t think we’re immune to them.
In my closing remarks at SEWF, I spoke of taking the work forward with collaboration, respect, openness, and humility. These weren’t offered as fluffy sentiments; I see them as essential design principles for navigating complexity when multiple parties are guarding different interests while searching for a common purpose.
Through the lens of social enterprise we have a big opportunity to democratise innovation, create a more inclusive economy, and address many of the world’s social and environmental challenges, but if we don’t work together well, we could easily mess it up.