Notes from Mannheim: Working Together Through the Social Economy

Posted on
18 Jun 2021
by Emma Murtagh, European Programmes Manager
An image of three cartoon adults and two children. The text reads, "For an economy that works for people and planet."

The European Social Economy Summit (EUSES) was digitally hosted by the City of Mannheim in partnership with the European Commission on the 28 and 27 May.

This landmark summit included 3000 participants from 100 countries and 600 speakers in the most impressive feat of online event coordination I’ve seen in these COVID times. It was the culmination of the EU’s public consultation for their upcoming Action Plan for the Social Economy, and the last chance for social economy practitioners to have their voices heard and captured as part of the “Mannheim Declaration”, which will be key to shaping the overall action plan.  

Despite all of the recent social economy hype, some of you might still be wondering: what exactly is the social economy?   

In many ways it can be understood a synonym for the nonprofitsector as a whole. It refers to a diversity of enterprises and organisational models such as cooperatives, mutuals, associations, foundations, social enterprises, charities and other legal forms regulated at Member State level.  

What they have in common are shared values and features, including putting the needs of people and communities first, participative governance, and reinvestment of profits in supports and services.   

The social economy is a vital part of the overall economy, representing 10% of all businesses in the EU and employing 11 million people (about 6% of the EU’s employees). It is an integral part of the EU’s policy objective of delivering “an economy that works for people”.  

The goal of the EU Action Plan for Social Economy, which will be published later this year, is to determine initiatives that can boost the contribution of social economy organisations to a fair and sustainable growth, enhance social investment, and support social economy actors.  

This is a big step forward in terms of seeing our sector recognised and supported at EU level, and The Wheel has been working hard to ensure that the needs of the Irish social economy are taken into account 

Earlier this year, we joined with Social Economy Europe to submit a policy paper: Co-building the Social Economy Action Plan: for an economy that works for people and the planet.  It’s well worth reading the whole document, but our key priorities were:   

  1. A common understanding of the social economy in the EU   

  1. Improve the visibility of the social economy and its socio-economic contribution   

  1. Improve access to finance and EU funding for social economy enterprises and organisations 

  1. Boost access to markets for the social economy in the Single Market   

  1. Promote the social economy at global level as a driver for the implementation of the SDGs 

  1. Towards the participation of social economy employers in the EU inter-sectorial social dialogue   

  1. Coordination, implementation, and follow-up of the Action Plan for the Social Economy.  

This position paper has been submitted to a number of policy makers at EU level, including European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit, representatives from DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, and the UN Taskforce on Social Economy.   

At the EUSES, we saw all these priorities and more highlighted, all of which are presented in the Mannheim Declaration.  

We also heard again and again from the various speakers that the social economy is going to be the driving force in the just, green, and digital transitions, and in “building back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic.  

This is a sentiment echoed in The Wheel’s recent Summit 2021 session: “In Conversation - The Future of Social Enterprise in Ireland”.  

The session was moderated by The Wheel’s CEO Deirdre Garvey and featured four speakers:  

  • Dr Andrew Forde - Head of Rural Strategy and Social Enterprise at the Department of Rural and Community Development 

  • Víctor Meseguer - Director Social Economy Europe 

  • Sharon Fitzpatrick - Head of Development at COPE Galway and co-founder of award-winning social enterprise Meals4Health 

  • Claire Downey - National Executive with Community Resources Network Ireland (CRNI) 

Throughout the conversation, the speakers outlined the role of social enterpriseand the wider social economyin a “sustainable and inclusive recovery”, as well as in addressing the fundamental megatrends affecting our society, e.g. poverty, climate change, inequality, lack of service provision (Forde). Since the nineteenth century, civil society and the social economic sector have been at the “avant-garde”  leading social innovation, identifying key social challenges and solutions before any other sector: “finding collective solutions to collective needs, that’s our history, it’s about taking care of each other” (Mesegeur). Going forward, it is clear that there cannot be a just, green, digital or inclusive future without social enterprise or the wider social economy: “We are the future, there is no doubt about that (Mesegeur).  

However, to reach that potential, it is clear that more united thinking is needed within the broader sector.  

In Ireland at least, it can sometimes feel that there is a divide between “pure social enterprises” and the charity, community, and voluntary branches of our sector. This is despite the fact that many of the latter actually do engage in some form of social enterprise, and certainly have a key role to play in driving social innovation and achieving positive change. Andrew Forde highlighted that without more organisations recognising their social enterprise activity and “contributing to the narrative”, there is little that government can do to support and develop a thriving social economy We need to move from the mindset of survival to sustainability, of moving social enterprise from margins to mainstream, and really think about how we can ensure social enterprise can be part of creating a really inclusive, sustainable and thriving society and economy.”  

This issue was underpinned by the inputs of our two practitioners who participated in the panel. Clare Downey pointed out that even though social enterprise is often closely associated with the circular economy, there are still organisations within this space that don’t necessarily identify as social enterprises. Charity shops are an example of this. They often see themselves as solely existing to raise funds for traditional charities, and may be stymieing their own growth by not recognising themselves as legitimate social enterprises that make vital contributions to the circular economy and provide affordable goods to communities. CRNI is working with them to help change this narrative and recognise their full potential, as well as the true impact of their work beyond fundraising.  

Sharon Fitzpatrick shared the perspective of a very traditional social services charity, COPE Galway, and how engaging in social enterprise has been key to their organisation establishing a sustainable funding model; driving their strategic objective of providing affordable, high quality and diverse options to older people in their community; and achieving greater social impact. This is a prime example of how social enterprise need not be seen as separate from the traditional charitable, community and voluntary sector, but can be both complementary and symbiotic.  

So, how does this connect to the social economy?  

There is a clear need for more joined-up thinking in this space, and the social economy can be the overarching force bringing us together. It can encourage us to focus on the commonalities across the community, voluntary, charity and social enterprise sector, instead of our differences, and can keep what is really important at the heart of our work: maximising our social impact. As Víctor Mesegeur highlighted: “Let’s unite, let’s cooperate, let’s not replicate the mistakes of the past, the future is really ours”.  

EU endorsement, recognition, and – importantly – funding of the social economy will be a monumental step forward in achieving better social impact. We at The Wheel will continue to keep you up to date on social economy developments, but you can keep track of funding opportunities by signing up to our free EU funding support service, Access Europe.

Access Europe is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs.


Department of Foreign Affairs Logo. An image of a harp next to the name of the department in English and Irish.