The Editors’ Post: 'Are we changing the system or is the system changing us?'

Important questions asked amid the enthusiasm of this week's Social Enterprise World Forum, where a new global social enterprise brand is launched. Plus, our columnist calls for closer scrutiny of impact event sponsors everywhere.

Yesterday afternoon, the Social Enterprise World Forum 2023 ended on a high. In an enormous regenerated factory on the edge of Amsterdam’s rainswept waterside, where massive ship engines were once manufactured, several hundred members of the global social enterprise community whooped and cheered under the bright lights of the main conference hall as they celebrated the achievements of the previous few days.

So what had been achieved? It’s certainly exhilarating to be sharing a space with so many people who are all working towards similar goals. From the stages, social entrepreneurs shared their inspiring stories: we heard how Dutch social enterprise Roetz Bikes had designed bicycles to last a lifetime; Petro Damoris of Social Economy Ukraine assured us that the social economy would help Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction; Awerangi Tamihere highlighted how New Zealand’s indigenous families are leading change for themselves, drawing on their traditional wisdom.

There was acknowledgement too that social enterprise as a concept hasn’t yet reached the mainstream. Too few people understand it, and not enough consumer and business spending is yet directed towards it. In response, SEWF launched a new ‘common identity’ – a brand which aims to unite the movement as ‘people + planet first’.

Some conversations in the programme tackled difficult issues, such as why social investment isn’t reaching all the entrepreneurs who need it, how social enterprises must act to become more inclusive and whether the concept of the impact economy can ever deliver the systemic change that is so desperately needed. 

The delegates were wonderfully catered for with tea, coffee, lunch and snacks provided by purpose-led brands. SEWF founder Gerry Higgins praised De Kromhouthal as “the best venue in 15 years of the Social Enterprise World Forum”, particularly for allowing the event organisers to bring in a range of social enterprise suppliers rather than being bound to the venue’s preferences.

Higgins also rightly acknowledged some of the event’s shortcomings. Some who had planned to attend had struggled to get visas. Conflict prevented others from travelling. While the balance of the SEWF audience always leans towards its host country and continent, the lack of representation from the global south was noticeable. As DJ and community centre founder, Chmba Chilemba, said: “If we want to make tangible change, we need to make sure everybody who should be in this room is here.” As a Malawian, she said she missed at least 50% of the events she was invited to attend because of visa or travel issues.

As a movement, we have to get our shit together - Peter Holbrook

Our columnist Michael Solomon asks in an article we publish this week: “A key test of the worth of a conference or an event must be: what changes as a result?”

To be sure, the estimated 2,000 people who attended in person and online will surely have been inspired by what they heard and saw at SEWF. And Pakistani social entrepreneur Azima Dhanjee pointed out that finding “your tribe” can be a powerful galvanising force. 

At the opening of the event, Stefan Panhuijsen, director of Social Enterprise NL, pointed out that his ambitions for the movement were big, radical change was still needed and people shouldn’t be complacent. “To what extent is our movement really reaching people?” he asked. “Are we changing the system or is the system changing us? We need to ask ourselves big questions too.”

And at the event closing, Peter Holbrook, CEO of Social Enterprise UK, posed a similar question. “We’re too often seen as an enterprising part of civil society rather than a challenge to the fundamental principles of capitalism,” he said. “As a movement, we have to get our shit together.”


This week’s top stories:

‘People and planet first’: SEWF launches new brand to unite social enterprises around the world

Opinion: Impact events promise the world. What if their sponsors are helping to destroy it?

‘Finance is the monster in the room’: SEWF stage sees call for economic revolution not evolution


Top image Roos Trommelen Photography / SEWF

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