Holland strives for authentic social enterprise

The search for the authentic social enterprise is underway in the Netherlands as the sector grows slowly but surely, an electric taxi firm here, and a network for neighbourhood borrowing there. Mark Hillen, founder and director of Social Enterprise NL, is working tirelessly to raise the profile of Holland's social entrepreneurs.

Ellie Ward catches up with him after the launch of his latest book, Social Enterprise Unravelled: best practise in the Netherlands, which he co-wrote with Willemijn Verloop.

Initial impressions

Pioneers Post: Can you paint a picture of the social enterprise sector in the Netherlands?

Mark Hillen: The sector over here is still quite small. It started off two years ago and our guesstimate is that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 social enterprises in the Netherlands, although neither the government nor us has conducted enough research to state this exactly.

Generally, we have a lot of social enterprises that are focussed on labour and ethical business, for example fair trade. Some of the sub-sectors that you would find in the UK do not really exist here as of yet because government policies don’t really facilitate that – for example we have hardly any in care and social enterprises in renewable energy are very scarce.

PP: To what extent has the government shown support to Social Enterprise NL and the sector generally?

MH: The government is still in the process of understanding and recognising the whole thing as a concept and is not yet present in the EU discussions. So what we did was put forward some policy advice to get the government more interested and helped introduce a social-economic board, which is formed of employers and labour unions.

We went to the Prime Minister’s office with seven entrepreneurs from a broad range of sectors, from ecology to labour participation and organisations related to African issues. One thing became apparent – the Prime Minister is not very left wing so he really needed some inspiration. For us it’s important that he talks, writes and tweets about it because this triggers interest across the whole government and the civil service. 

PP: And how would you describe the level of public support for Social Enterprise NL?

MH: There’s no lack of interest, on the contrary even in big municipalities people want to talk to us. We have really spiked the interests of the whole idea that you can make an impact and make a living. We get a lot of interest from students about doing guest lectures and these kinds of things.

We can see some awareness is developing, but it’s not a normal word as such yet. You see fair trade and other social things but the idea of a social enterprise is still relatively new and the awareness is fairly low. 

The definition debate

On the Social Enterprise NL website social enteprises are described as: "Organisations that have the same objectives as a charity, but at the same time apply the management principles of the private sector, including the need to grow and the ability to achieve reasonable financial return. 

"A social enterprise is just like any other company. The company provides a product or service and has a revenue model. Money is not the main goal but a means to achieve and create social impact." 

Strong emphasis is put on how financially self-sufficient the social enterprise is – it must be independent from or or very minimally dependent on donations and grants. It must also be able to demonstrate its transparency as an organisation and that it is conscious of its environmental footprint. 

PP: Can you explain how you decided on this specific definition of social enterprise?

MH: We run a tighter definition of social enterprise than in the UK for example. That’s a conscious choice too because we thought if you start very broad then you can never go back to your core. We are really quite puritan in our definition and who we would allow into Social Enterprise Netherlands. 

We studied quite extensively the different concepts in Europe and the rest of the world and concluded social enterprises should be something quite separate from government organisations and charities. As we go down this path we are having more and more discussions about this. Who do we want to let in and who do we not want to let in? I can see it developing in the coming years, but for now we have quite a restricted definition.

Global perspectives

PP: The European Commission has agreed on an official standard for impact measurement across Europe, do you think this is a positive development?

MH: I think it is essential that social enterprises really provide evidence of their impact but I do not believe that its helpful to take impact measurement to a point where it is all put in the same number – whether its pounds, dollars or euros – and then make comparisons on that basis. In my view you cannot really compare a social enterprise working to decrease the levels of CO2 and another that helps people with disabilities find work. I don’t think it’s helpful to trade those kinds of things off.

I think you need to do it properly, show evidence, and be very transparent and this in itself is enough. You should also show your negative as well as your positive impact. For example, if you help disadvantaged people to have a better quality of life, but you also pollute a lot, you should demonstrate this. 

PP: How can the social enterprise sector develop internationally as a movement?

MH: I hope that more in the way of international discussion really starts to come along – people don’t know each other that well, for example Social Enterprise UK and the French advocates. There needs to be more international cooperation and then hopefully good social enterprises will start doing more things internationally. It is still a country-by-country thing at this stage but it would be much more helpful if there was more engagement and conversation. 

Photo credit: Flickr