Impact hubs help social enterprises scale up into Europe

A pilot scheme from Impact Hub is helping social entrepreneurs expand into other territories. Scaling manager Devi Clark explains how it works and Open Cinema's Christoph Warrack shares his experience of the scaling programme.

An invaluable package of support for over 100 European social enterprises is being piloted by the Impact Hub network. Their scaling programme is running across eight European cities, helping social entrepreneurs to grow their business by pairing them with scaling managers across their network.

Devi Clark is one of those scaling managers. She works at the Kings Cross hub and is currently advising a number of social enterprises. She’s well qualified for this, having formerly worked as an enterprise development officer for Community Innovation UK, before spending five years as a business coach. Perhaps most importantly of all, she’s walked the walk, having set up her own social enterprise The Outsiders Network.

Impact hubs are one of the many unsung heroes operating in the social enterprise world. Describing themselves as ‘part innovation lab, part business incubator and part community centre’, with this scaling program, the hubs are essentially acting as enablers for social ventures to expand.

Although they seem like part of the furniture now, the first hub appeared only ten years ago in Islington, North London. They now have 7,000 members in 82 hubs operating in 49 countries around the world. Should the scaling programme prove successful, the idea is to expand it beyond Europe; hubs in the Americas have already expressed an interest in participating. 

The hubs themselves are social enterprises, with users paying membership for access to office space and business services. Additionally there is the opportunity to make connections, build networks and collaborate. Any kind of business can join but members are primarily social businesses.

They are nexuses for networks in the social innovation space so they are at the sweet spot for scaling social innovation

The scaling programme offers a wealth of services for free, although if it proves successful, that may change in the future. The current incarnation is being funded by four foundations in the UK, Spain, Greece and Italy with JP Morgan being the most familiar name among them. So what’s in it for the hubs themselves? 

Clark tells me the reason for this programme “is our desire to change the world through supporting social enterprise. We think that combining business and social or environmental impact is a powerful mix.

“Scaling is a critical time for a business. Like start up, it is a time when a business needs to examine its structures, aims, finances and team. You need to balance growth and realism and ensure both are done sustainably. We want to help those enterprises with potential to succeed to scale their impact and ensure that the social sector doesn't have to keep re-inventing the wheel.”

22 social enterprises from the UK have signed up and the European network is itself part of the attraction – half of them have ambitions to scale overseas. The hubs are able to put social enterprises in touch with scaling managers in the various European locations who can offer local knowledge. There is also the opportunity to access the expertise of business experts in other countries who mostly offer their time pro bono. “We have sales, HR, strategy, digital marketing, innovation, legal and accounting specialists, to name but a few,” says Clark.

The insider's view

Open Cinema are one of the social ventures in the scaling programme. They run a network of film clubs for homeless and social excluded people. Attendees get a chance to programme the films they would like to see and films are often introduced by the actors and directors who have made them. The homeless charity St Mungo’s Broadway has carried out research that concluded taking part in social and cultural activities such as Open Cinema provided mental health benefits. Isolation was alleviated and anxiety and depression were reduced as a result.

CEO of Open Cinema Christoph Warrack tells me that they have received enquiries from people wanting to operate Open Cinema in 69 other countries since they started in 2009. When he became aware of the Impact Hub scaling programme via a chance meeting at the RSA, he saw a way that he could make it happen. 

Initially their aim was to formalise a manual on a digital platform for people who wanted to operate Open Cinema in any given country to do so. As Warrack puts it: “If an Open Cinema at a community centre in Turin wanted to open, they could essentially go to the platform, find a manual and start using it.”

Impact hub helped him focus on territories where Open Cinema would be a good fit and where there would be a good chance of achieving traction and growth. Warrack was then introduced to scaling managers in Stockholm, Milan and Madrid. After extensive consultation their verdict was that Open Cinema have good grounds for developing a pilot next year. “Because we’re a tech platform we can scale fairly efficiently and quickly once the licensing and translation elements are in place; then it’s just a case of marketing and onward support," explains Warrack.

Impact Hub have offered a three month programme led by the International Centre for Social Franchising (ICSF) which is going to help formalise the manual. If all goes to plan, by Spring 2016 Warrack will have appointed officers in Sweden, Italy and Spain and Open Cinema will be piloting their first projects in those countries.

Warrack was already an admirer of Impact Hub before he got involved with the scaling programme: “My first port of call to try and build up a network of contacts in a given country was going to be the Impact Hubs because they are powerhouses of dynamic social innovators. They are nexuses for networks in the social innovation space so they are at the sweet spot for scaling social innovation whether it’s recruiting, operations, legal or finance.”

He is also effusive in his praise for the service he has received, particular when comparing it to his experience of other similar projects. “The key point to underline is that they have always sought to apprize, understand and then scale the particular characteristics of Open Cinema as a particular innovation rather than having a programme of funding, needing to find social innovations to fit their criteria and then, if they couldn’t find them, making them fit that criteria whether or not that’s good for the social innovation – and therefore compromising the integrity of that innovation along the way. There are prominent offenders in that respect out there.”

Warrack thinks that Open Cinema could have moved in this direction without the scaling programme but that it would have taken longer and their progress would have been less focused. “The value of this is that we haven’t had to go off and apply for things, perhaps writing 100 page applications to get the support. They get the support as an intermediary and all Impact Hub want is for us to be doing more of what we already know really works.”

Applications for the Impact Hub scaling programme are closed in the UK, however other countries are still accepting applications at this link. It includes blogs and webinar recordings from some of the training seminars already run, so anyone can make use of the resources. 


Photo credit: Impact Hub