SEUK’s Director of International and Sustainable Development, Dan Gregory shines a spotlight on our work around the world, learning from other countries and sharing knowledge to grow the global social enterprise movement.

Here at Social Enterprise UK we do a lot of international work but don’t always like to talk about it. Partly because it doesn’t immediately sound like the kind of work that benefits our members here in the UK – and they must always be our primary focus. But also partly because no-one really likes stories of other people swanning around the globe, visiting exotic locations. So even though the reality of our work overseas is far from glamorous and even though we know it does benefit our members, we tend to just quietly get on with it.

But as the Social Enterprise World Forum lands in Scotland this month, as our work around the world continues to build, and as – perhaps now more than ever – we must not let domestic concerns blind us entirely from a more international outlook, this is a good time for some global reflections.

What have we been doing? Well, we’ve been editing multiple revisions of 80 page reports into the social and solidary economy in Greece. We’ve discussed the definition of social enterprise in Kyrgyz hotel meeting rooms. We’ve been analysing 400 responses from a survey of social enterprises in the Philippines. We’ve been ushered quickly out of our meeting with the Governor of the Bank of Bangladesh before the IMF swept in with their more conventional economic medicine. We’ve tried and failed to explain Social Investment Tax Relief in French to a baffled audience on a provincial Moroccan university campus.

So this isn’t really all that glamorous. But it is important work. Because, quite simply, we are helping build a global movement that can rise to meet our global challenges.

While most of our work overseas has been fuelled by the view that the UK is a global leader in social enterprise, it is far from the only country which has a strong social economy. Italy probably leads the way in social co-operatives; Canada and India have made huge advances in social investment; South Korea’ social enterprise policy is ahead of the game; 45% of Kenya’s GDP is generated by co-operatives; Ethiopian village lending circles go back centuries; and Guyana is even a co-operative republic. The UK has much to offer, sure, but also much to learn.

So everywhere we go, we try to bring modesty, also conscious of the UK’s problematic history in countries like India and Kenya and Jamaica. We always learn more than we share. For instance, we never seek to impose the UK’s own definition of social enterprise but rather, help build a global understanding that also recognises local context. Indeed, it often turns out that after hours of debating definitions, we have more that unites than divides us.

Nevertheless, the UK has earned a reputation as a global leader in social enterprise, thanks to the courage and commitment of our social entrepreneurs over decades and more. But also thanks to some hard fought policy wins: going back to the creation of UnLtd around the advent of the millennium through successive government social enterprise strategies to social investment, the Social Value Act and now the Scottish government’s leadership. So every month we are asked to speak at events all around the world or receive requests for overseas delegations to visit. We put on tours, sharing experience of policy and inspiring visitors as they see social enterprise in practice.

Often, this experience lights a spark and fuels enthusiasm. So we have now been invited to work in dozens of countries around the world, often thanks to our fantastic partnership with the British Council. With a network that reaches around the world and significant clout in many countries, the British Council help us develop partnerships and exert influence we would struggle to achieve on our own – in Ghana, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sudan and beyond. We do also work with others too though – in China, Poland, in Turkey and elsewhere.

The first step for many countries where social enterprise is a new idea is often to build the evidence and understand what exists. At SEUK we run the largest social enterprise survey in the world  and we have also worked with the UK government for years on their estimates of the scale of the sector. So we have been well placed to help the British Council build the evidence of emerging social enterprise sectors, mapping research in around 15 countries, always with a local partner, from Sri Lanka to Morocco and Indonesia to Ethiopia. What we’ve unearthed is remarkable – in every country without exception, social enterprise is thriving and expanding, creating jobs and enterprise, with women and young people at the helm, diverse and optimistic.

This emerging evidence is now helping fuel the development of more supportive ecosystems for social enterprise in many countries, including more sympathetic government policy. We co-designed the first Skills for Social Entrepreneurs programme in China and helped design and facilitate policy development in Pakistan and Bangladesh and in the MENA region. We’ve been asked to provide technical support on replicating specific aspects of the UK policy landscape, such as the Social Value Act in India or Canada’s version of the Community Interest Company, and advised the Greek government on a new social investment fund. We’ve been invited to help shape a social enterprise strategy for the government in Ghana, and we’re now working with the Ethiopia and Pakistani governments on the development of their own social enterprise strategies. When domestic UK policy sometimes feels so hopeless, it’s so uplifting to see politicians around the world grasping the idea that social enterprise really is part of the answer.

So this is a global movement. Buy Social is spreading to Australia, Canada and Jamaica and we’ve supported the development of fledgling SEUK equivalents in a number of countries. Now our Social Enterprise Places are going global too. This programme recognises areas which are hotspots of social enterprise activity, acknowledging their local impact. There are now 26 in the UK, each committed to using social enterprises to address local challenges, reduce inequalities and support the local economy.  Now the Italian region of Veneto has become the first International Social Enterprise Place swiftly followed by Auckland in New Zealand. Taipei is potentially in the pipeline and we are now receiving more interest from places around the world keen to support social enterprise, help raise awareness and increase the capacity and skills. If you’d like to find out more about the Programme and apply to be the next SE Place contact Karl Belizaire –

So this emerging global movement stretches from rural hamlets in the UK to the suburbs of Chinese megacities, and from mountaintop villages in Pakistan to the new African tech hubs. In this context, we’ve worked with friends at the British Council and the World Bank to highlight how social enterprise can help deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, now translated into French and Korean with a foreword from Professor Yunus. We are now working on a related report to feed into the upcoming Global Parliament of Mayors on how city leaders can shape the creative social city of the future.

All this work, which we earn, has helped SEUK itself become a true social enterprise and this builds our own capacity to serve our members back home. But we do acknowledge the greater responsibility we feel to serve the movement more widely, beyond our members. So we are delighted that social enterprises from around the world will be gathering here in the UK at the SEWFin Scotland and we look forward to the next ten years.

We should remember that the social entrepreneur’s motto – be the change you want to see in the world – has a global dimension. If we want to be that change, then we need to keep thinking global and trading social.

Dan Gregory, Director of International and Sustainable Development – Social Enterprise UK