European foundations have a long history of supporting knowledge exchange to further the social economy, in Europe and increasingly in other parts of the world. A window of opportunity has now opened up to build a global movement of developing social economies.
FutureBuilders, the loan fund supporting third sector organizations in England to bid for and deliver public service contracts, was established in 2003. Initially feted as the panacea for social enterprises, the fund has received a somewhat mixed reception. Despite a highly critical 2009 National Audit Office report, a recently completed evaluation by Sheffield Hallam University finds that the fund has had a positive impact.
So why focus on varying assessments of one particular UK government intervention to support the social economy? Obviously there are lessons to be learned in the UK, by government and social enterprises alike. But there is a bigger issue at stake, namely the development of the social economy in a myriad countries across the globe. Individuals and delegations from at least 20 countries are expressing interest, through repeated trips to the UK, in exploring what has and hasn’t worked in the UK. The recent Skoll World Forum in Oxford had delegations from Canada, China, the US and New Zealand engaging with the likes of Volans and UnLtd to better navigate the maze of social economy support in the UK.
Support infrastructure is beginning to emerge. The British Council has recently allocated £2 million to assist around a dozen countries (including Thailand, Indonesia, Croatia and Turkey) to explore the UK social economy. But a unique opportunity appears about to be missed. Any semblance of coordination is lacking. Sharing mechanisms are not in place. Information is flowing in one direction – from the UK to the visiting ‘beginners’.
We can continue in a ‘business as usual’ manner with uncoordinated groups from all over the world descending on the UK to be given a less than complete picture of the UK’s social economy. Or we can expose the whole story of social enterprise development here, and the growing pains, successes and failures experienced on the way.
The UK social economy has a huge amount to share with the world – both good and bad. Many of the interested countries are less well off than the UK and simply don’t have the resources to make the same mistakes we’ve made. They may have just one chance to make their social economy work.
So come on foundations and long-term supporters of the social economy, let’s fund this new support infrastructure properly and help the rest of the world to take their best shot at getting it right.