Reflections on the Social Enterprise World Forum

Common Good Solutions team members go to a lot of conferences, as you may have noticed by now. As active members of a growing local, national and global sector, it’s part of their job to both bear witness, and contribute to, development and conversation wherever it takes place.

At the end of September, CGS and Social Enterprise Institute Chief Operating Officer Stephanie Pronk hit the skies to make her way down to Christchurch, New Zealand, for the Social Enterprise World Forum. As the world’s largest annual conference on social enterprise, it couldn’t be missed. This year’s event boasted 1500 delegates, took place from September 27th-29th, and marked its 9th year running.

Steph’s introduction to the Social Enterprise World Forum came last summer, when she spent August of 2016 working for the Scottish social enterprise intermediary, Community Enterprise in Scotland. The UK country is a world leader in social enterprise, and CEIS CEO Gerry Higgins, who has more than 30 years of experience in community economic development, helped to inaugurate the World Forum in 2007. He was one of the hosts of the first conference in Edinburgh, in 2008. It’s been held successfully in a different location every year across multiple continents ever since (including Calgary, Alberta in 2013), and will return to Edinburgh next year for its 10th anniversary.

“Ka Koroki Te Manu” was the theme of this year’s conference, which in the New Zealand Maori Indigenous language means “Creating our Tomorrow.” Steph expanded on this, explaining that “social enterprise is a way to look at sustainably growing and developing business in a future where the social sector and the business sector must be very intertwined, and work together to operate business holistically within the confines of society and the environment.” Traditional business doesn’t usually consider itself as being constrained by the environment--rather, the environment is viewed as a cache of resources to be distributed and consumed. The conference suggested the creation of a tomorrow where the human activities of commerce and social services operate within, and with, the environment, without destroying it.

The event featured the format conference-goers are well familiar with: large plenary sessions, workshops, concurrent sessions. You could pick and choose what you wanted to attend, but the really cool parts, said Steph, were those aspects of the conference that made it a collaborative and co-creative process. “Participatory streams” were large informal sessions where anyone could share ideas and comments in an active, facilitated conversation. “Open streams” offered delegates the chance to get up and share on whatever topic they could offer advice on, or even ask for help in the form of coaching or mentoring.

What struck me as the most interesting, however, was the “transitional city stream,” which, at least to me, was an entirely new concept. Christchurch was affected by a series of earthquakes about six years ago, and is still in a process of rebuilding, which has led them to call themselves a “transitional city.” Marveling at the SEWF’s organizational proficiency, Steph explained that the transitional city stream “allowed for any business around that was interested or engaged in social enterprise to offer tours of their business or deals on food and the like, and post their offerings on a website attached to the conference.” This feature, which was also available as a phone app, allowed participants to schedule such visits alongside conference events; either before, during or after. By extent, the whole city of Christchurch became involved in the Social Enterprise World Forum--“you could make a whole tour of social enterprise out of your time there,” said Steph.

Although she got to do some touring of the city herself, Steph’s main goal at the conference was to showcase the newly redesigned website for the Social Enterprise Institute, one of CGS’s child companies. SEI offers online courses, tools and coaching for social entrepreneurs to succeed--and this would be their introduction to the global stage.

From a booth at the conference, Steph offered people the chance to test out the website, trying to garner interest in the services available. The World Forum “draws people from all over the world--I guess I was very nervous,” Steph laughed. “But it seemed to work out.”

Work out is right! Steph told me that feedback from other social enterprise intermediaries--organizations doing similar work to CGS--gave her “overwhelmingly positive responses.” For some potential partners, it seemed to be exactly what they were looking for. They expressed thanks that someone out there had taken the time to develop such a service, and that they were interested in getting involved.

That spells good news for social enterprise overall, SEI--and the province of Nova Scotia. A positive international reception like the one Steph received in New Zealand covers the first of the impact measurements projected for the Institute. Those are:

  • Putting Nova Scotia on the world stage in social enterprise policy development, showcasing the province’s dedication to healthy people and healthy communities.
  • Bringing 1,000,000 out of poverty through providing social enterprise education and supports to 100,000 users globally by 2030.
  • Another outstanding example of what Nova Scotia’s youth can do when given the opportunity to stay in Nova Scotia.

As for her experience, Steph felt, well, validated. “To find out that something you’re working on is wanted or needed in other parts of the world and other people are already thinking along those lines, they just haven’t found a way to do it yet, was super motivating. The realization that the scale of your business could suddenly grow or become international in scope was quite something.”

That international scope may be happening already. If you know Steph like I do, you’d know she works fast. We’re all looking forward to seeing the Social Enterprise Institute grow and partner with organizations around the world. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

To check out what resources the Social Enterprise Institute has for you, or just to learn more, click here.

If you have questions, contact Stephanie Pronk at steph@socialenterpriseinstitute.ca.

Written by: Sam Krueger

Sam is from Toronto and lives and writes in Halifax. He has spent the summer conducting research at Common Good Solutions HQ for the Social Enterprise Network of Nova Scotia, and is excited to bring a voice to the office, its people, and Nova Scotia’s social enterprise community.