Social Economy and Collaboration in Practice

Being both an impact investor as well as a co-founder of a space which is focused on co-working, programmes, and events for social enterprises, I am quite firmly (and happily!) embedded in the social economy. I travel around the world as much as possible with the goal of visiting other social enterprise communities and initiatives to exchange best practice and to meet passionate people working on making the world a better place and am often amazed at how warm and welcoming these communities are. I also believe in the true potential for social enterprise models to be the future of all business – mainly due to their belief in embeddedness and their focus on innovation, as well as the need to understand the increasingly challenging social and environmental contexts that we all live in.

However, one of the things I have noticed recently that seems particularly true in South Africa, but is also a challenge elsewhere in terms of social economy, is that although this sector preaches collaboration it often fails to live up to true collaboration in practice – especially with respect to its support systems (funders, incubators, other ecosystems players, etc.).

Potentially the reasons for this are multifold. One of the reasons may simply be a lack of capacity – we know that many entities in this space are often both busy and under-resourced and so asking them to collaborate, with all the complexities that brings, is much harder than just going out and doing.

Another potential cause is that although social economy teaches us that we all know we should collaborate, the reality is that we are often competing for the same funding sources as well as the same pipelines of social entrepreneurs and both of these are still areas of constraint. This naturally sets up an everyone-for-themselves situation.

At the same time, the costs of not collaborating are significant and among these are: similar initiatives happening in parallel; waste of funds; inefficiencies in terms of organisations “chasing the money’’ instead of speciliasing and focusing on what they are best at and what they truly believe creates change; too much noise preventing the telling of true success stories and effective initiatives.

For some of these reasons, it is clear to me that we need more neutral players in the space to provide convening, regulatory, and exchange of information roles. It is important that these neutral parties map the key players in this sector and ensure that there is a better understanding of initiatives, better proof of impact, and decreased barriers to effective collaboration which will help the sector move forward. This is in part why I applaud the recent work of the ILO, Economic Development Department of South Africa, and the Flanders government in creating dialogues with key players around the social economy and how we can work better collectively. However, making sure that these dialogues are then taken forward into actions, and that formal structures are created around this, is a role for all of us working in this sector. It may not be easy, but we need to walk the collaboration talk if we are to really take the social economy into that truly innovative and disruptive space which it has the potential to become.

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