Different worlds

The culture of social enterprise varies across different countries. In the first of a series of articles, we take a quick look at Sweden, Germany and the UK


Social Enterprise UK’s 2013 report found that the UK has a well-developed and vibrant social enterprise sector with an estimated 70,000 businesses identifying as such, employing 1m people and contributing £18.5bn to the UK economy. Many are profitable (55%) and create employment. The largest, like leisure services organisation GLL, turnover more than £120m.

The bigger economic picture is tipping towards smaller business more generally. The government’s Business Population Estimates found last year that the majority of people now worked in small companies, not big companies.

As the state gets smaller, social enterprise is picking up work that was previously done by government, particularly around providing community services.

“Property guardians Dot Dot Dot have become accidental incubators of new projects”

Social entrepreneurs come from all demographics, and age ranges. SEUK found that women, young people and people from black and Asian backgrounds are all well represented as employees, founders and board members of SEs in the UK. 11% of social enterprises have 16-24s as part of their leadership team and 52% actively employ people who are disadvantaged in the labour market.

There is a huge opportunity for more social enterprise in the UK. The RBS/Unltd Enterprise Tracker estimates estimate that another 230,000 people want to set one up.

There’s a strong ecosystem in place for people with good ideas nationwide, particularly in cities, but also in rural areas, particularly in places with a strong radical community identity like Todmorden and Totnes. Social enterprises like property guardianship company Dot Dot Dot are becoming ‘accidental incubators’, inspiring and supporting grassroots social enterprise into existence.

There are lots of incubators and projects for clever people and graduates, including Year Here, Entrepreneur First, and The RSA. There is social status attached to being a social entrepreneur, something that also fuels the appreciative satire of a blog like My Impact Is Bigger Than Yours.

Photography: Dot Dot Dot


Things are changing in Germany. “I think younger people want to see purpose behind their work,” says the Marc Winkelmann, editor of leading social magazine enorm, “and that’s the same if they’re working for a big company or a small start-up. A big salary is not that important any more, they want a social impact.”

There are many different factors helping the spread of social enterprise in Germany, like the co-working spaces offered by organisations like Social Impact Lab and Impact Hub. Impact Hub have recently opened new offices in Munich and Berlin, offering workspace, training and networking opportunities for social start-ups.

“Demand has gone through the ceiling – we are fully booked in days”

There’s a strong demand for training and courses in more mainstream institutions, too. The SEAkademie in Munich had more than 1,000 applications for 35 places on their Global Entrepreneurship Summer School last year. “The demand has gone through the ceiling in the last three years,” says head of qualifications Oliver Beckmann. “Germany-wide demand for such early phase training modules is risen so much that we have started a program with the KFW Foundation this year in which we offer throughout social enterprise start-up weekends across the country. The courses are fully booked within days.”

The German social sector is still discussing and agreeing definitions – which helps explain the lack of research and data. The Mercator-Forschungsverbungd Report of 2011 showed that there was a balanced age distribution of people starting social enterprises and suggested that this is a young and growing area: a quarter of all self-identified social enterprises started less than five years ago. It also showed that social entrepreneurs were highly educated: over 80% had an academic degree.

As with the US, universities are starting to help develop Germany’s world of grassroots social enterprise. The SEAkademie in Munich has brought four universities together in a collaborative enterprise that comprises training and research. Uni Kiel, the EBS Business School and Zeppelin Universität are playing an important role in raising the bar.


In Sweden, like in most Scandinavian countries, there’s an expectation that social problems are solved collectively, and that this will be done by government. However, as with most post-economic crisis Western countries, the state is receding and Sweden’s Gini Coefficient, which measures inequality, is 25% higher than it was a generation ago.

There is a small social enterprise start-up scene and a growing number of incubators in Sweden, including Impact Hub and Inkludera Invest. Global social enterprise leaders Ashoka recently opened offices in Stockholm and this year are launching their Changemaker Schools programme to encourage social enterprises run by young people in their local community.

“We need people who are prepared to stand out… and that’s a thing because in Sweden, you take a decision in a group.”

One such project is Vi är Farsta, set up by Geert Van den Boogaard and Kathleen Asjes. It has a dual aim to promote the area of Farsta and to develop enterprises set up by young people, through their three month accelerator programme. “We wanted to see what we could to do improve social cohesion in Farsta,” he says. “It’s not the best area, not the worst. It gets a bit of the suburb issue, but not a lot. It needs an identity, needs to become visible. We wanted to focus on youth and potential – this place tends not to have all the opportunities the city has.”

“We want to create movement in Farsta rather than pushing everyone to the city where there is all the advice and support. There’s a mismatch between what young people need and what’s available. We might function as a bridge between them and the existing structures.”

There is, says Van den Boogaard a cultural barrier to setting up your own project. “You don’t often find that people want to stand out. With young entrepreneurs, you need people who are prepared to stand out… That’s a thing in Sweden sometimes because here, you take a decision in a group.”

Enterprise and social enterprise is very well supported by the state but this has not translated into a significant number of social enterprises in the country.

A number of existing Swedish social projects face outward, aiming to solve problems in developing countries. Many of the social enterprises dealing with issues within the country, like Vi är Farsta, are focused on social cohesion.

Photography: Geert van den Boogaard