Duncan Osler looks at how SEWF can transform lives

Duncan Osler looks at how SEWF can transform lives

Posted by: Jo Seagrave / 02 March 2018


Transformational is an overused term, but the 2017 Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) in Christchurch really was transformational.

Christchurch was hit by a major earthquake in 2011, killing 185 people and destroying buildings all across the city. After years of work, the city is very largely rebuilt, but not as a replica of the past. New ways of living, and a re-invigoration of the city centre by young people, have been born of necessity and choice and social enterprises played a key role in the community – all in all an inspiring but at times chilling backdrop to SEWF 2017.

SEWFs bring together social entrepreneurs with great experience and expertise to tell their stories, and a great strength of SEWFs is in featuring local social enterprises. As David LePage, Chair of the SEWF Board so memorably put it in his address to SEWF 2017, social enterprise is ‘putting your values into trading’. Thanks to the Māori iwi, values today in New Zealand are closely connected to the land on a day to day basis, making the earthquake tragedy more acute – SEWF 2017 transformed my awareness of how fundamental land use is to communities.

So, looking on from Christchurch to the Social Enterprise World Forum in 2018, which will be in Scotland, I’m looking forward to social enterprise reflections on community and land use in Scotland, especially in the Scottish Highlands, given our history.

As with other SEWFs, Christchurch was a great opportunity for national and regional Governments to engage with counterparts from overseas and learn what public policy options work well and not so well in support of social enterprise.  Globally there are some clear leaders here, and it is tremendous for SEWF 2018 to be in Scotland because we are so well-regarded internationally. However, I wouldn’t ask anyone just to take my word on that. Instead and for example, students at Victoria University of Wellington NZ, when researching and studying overseas social enterprise ecosystems in other countries of their choice, are told they cannot study Scotland because Scotland is ‘kind of the gold standard of social enterprise’. Internationally, Scotland has been paid numerous other compliments – then again I do accept as a Scot I could be a bit biased.

Also, I should say that until last year I was on the Board of Social Enterprise Scotland, which promotes Scotland’s social enterprise movement and acts as its collective and campaigning voice. That led me to travel for SES to SEWF 2013 in Canada. The public policy interest that SEWF generated was a catalyst for provincial legislation at the time to create Community Contribution Corporations (CCCs) for social enterprises.

In their different ways, all five SEWF’s I’ve attended generated their own positive social enterprise legacies for the host country, as well as for overseas delegates attending and their organisations.  For me, the best single outcome from SEWF 2018 was a real confidence across international delegates in the importance and potential of social enterprise to achieve major social impact – confidence that will carry over to Edinburgh I’m sure.

Social Enterprise offers a number of positives for governments. For example, they free up resources by creating jobs and an income for those otherwise in need of public sector support. They contribute tax revenues and upskill the workforce by providing training and qualifications. And as social enterprises, they generate social impact through what they do. It can be hard to quantify the social benefits of transforming the lives and potential of vulnerable or disadvantaged individuals by enabling them to start a professional career.

In return, sometimes social enterprise simply asks for a simpler regulatory environment. Just as CCCs emerged with SEWF 2013 in Canada, SEWF 2018 heard loud calls for a legal entity suitable for social enterprises in New Zealand. This would not be a private company, nor a conventional charity but more like Community Interest Companies which are part of the UK regulatory landscape. I took part in sessions on legal structures at SEWF in Christchurch, legal structures may sound a dry topic, but there is soon a lively debate where social entrepreneurs find there are legal barriers to delivering impact as they want to. I had exactly the same experience when talking about legal structures in an Italian context, at SEWF 2015 in Milan (think of Italy’s long co-operative tradition). But back in New Zealand, the newly-established Labour-led government is aware of the calls for a new social enterprise legal structure, and it appears they are to review Charities legislation, so watch that space.

MacRoberts are really pleased to be a sponsor of SEWF 2018 in Edinburgh. We have long believed it’s just as important for trading social enterprises have access to sound commercial legal advice than for private sector businesses to do so, and some might say it’s even more important.  Also, social entrepreneurs are innovators, so they’re going to innovate, and that can mean working at the leading legal edge, in a variety of areas. For example, there is great potential for social impact from FinTech, Scotland is in the forefront of some ‘tech for good’, and I’m looking forward to SEWF 2018 picking up on that.

Important as legal and regulatory matters are, there’s nothing to beat hearing about social enterprises!  If SEWF 2017 is anything to go by, anyone who makes it to SEWF 2018 can be guaranteed inspiration and new ideas.  Hard to choose, but check out social enterprise Rekindle for example. In Christchurch they facilitated the Whole House Reuse project, turning a house destined for demolition post-earthquake into almost 400 objects, celebrating craft and design and showing that waste is a failure of the imagination. Christchurch’s social enterprises sprang into action post-2011, focusing on essentials like food resilience and mental health and well-being. Rekindle consciously includes working by hand with wood because of the mental health benefits, as do Scotland’s Social Enterprise of the Year 2017, the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh – small world!

The SEWF draws on social enterprise experience and inspiration beyond the host country, for example, there was a phenomenal reception in Christchurch for the way the Australian Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship’s Social Enterprise in Schools programme engages young people. It’s based on a similar programme that has been running in Scotland for 12 years, through the Social Enterprise Academy.

To say I am excited about SEWF 2018 is, to put it mildly. Scotland will be a great host but it is important to remember there is still lots and lots to do and plenty of tough questions to be asked.

Social enterprises put their values into trading, business with a mission – instinctively at home with a regenerative approach to the economy than an extractive one. But how should the social enterprise movement respond to the global and local challenge of meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals? Expect more on that and all things social enterprise in September – I can’t wait!