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Sonja Vuković: It is important to connect actors of social economy in the region

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The Slap Association for Creative Development from Osijek, Croatia, works on development projects for promotion of social emplozment, socially responsible business, inter-sectoral cooperation, and works, through its training centre, on sustainability of civil society organisations. Over the past eleven years, Slap has worked and completed a series of successful projects. At the moment, the association takes part in implementation of eight projects financed from different components of EU's IPA funds.

We discussed the situation with social entrepreneurship in Croatia with Slap President Sonja Vuković, whom we “caught” for an interview at the International Social Entrepreneurship Conference organized by TACSO, the British Council and Turkish third sector Foundation TÜSEV, held in Istanbul at the beginning of this month.

Sonja Vuković (photographed here at the Croatian Social Entrepreneurship Awards Ceremony) has worked in the area of social entrepreneurship for more than 12 yearsSonja Vuković (photographed here at the Croatian Social Entrepreneurship Awards Ceremony) has worked in the area of social entrepreneurship for more than 12 years

It seems that Croatia has advanced furthest of all countries in the region in the area of social entrepreneurship, or at least the concept of social entrepreneurship that we saw discussed here, in the conference. What is your view of the current situation in social entrepreneurship in Croatia?
Well, the good thing about Croatia is that, in fact, a lot of work has been done on the development of social entrepreneurship over the past several years. I believe that it has further intensified over the last three years. It is good that we have established excellent and close cooperation with state and government institutions. Those are, above all, the Ministry of Labour and Pensions System, the Ministry of Social Care and the Government Office for Associations. I believe that we have a great understanding and that we have all realized that we don't know enough about social entrepreneurship, which is an achievement in its own right. It is important to say that, three years ago, we launched the creation of a national forum, a national network for social entrepreneurship, and the initially it was envisioned as a network of social entrepreneurs. To get the social entrepreneurs together so they could approach the state institutions in a joint effort and seek favourable and stimulating environment, legislation, whatever it is they need. And then, we noticed in the conferences, forums and gatherings in which we participated together with representatives of the institutions, that they share our ideas because, for instance, they have to programme the pre-accession IPA funding and want to secure funds for social entrepreneurship, but they don't know if social entrepreneurs have the capacity and if they are prepared to complete some work. So we tested each other and we realized that we actually worked on the same things and that we needed to support each other's efforts. So, the national forum grew into a national network of social entrepreneurs where we now discuss what we need. At the moment, we are working on a national strategy. The former ministry of economy was divided into three new ministries - the elections and the creation of the new Government slowed the process a bit - and it is the Ministry of Labour and Pensions System that is in charge of the matter and has already created a working group for preparation of a strategy for development of social entrepreneurship in Croatia.

When do you expect to see the strategy completed?
It is difficult to say. We hope to have at least some draft of the strategy by the start of next summer. The problem in Croatia is that we don’t have a clear term – is it social entrepreneurship, social economy, social business, etc. At the moment, we are using the term social entrepreneurship as a working version. We are defining the terms, we try to offer a definition and I hope that, come next summer, we will have something on paper. I don’t know if it would be the final version, but we will have something on paper for sure.

Is there an interest with associations and civil society organisations to get involved in that type of venture, something that could ultimately ensure their sustainability?
In fact, the bulk of social enterprise in the country originates with the civil society, mostly because of the fact that they work primarily on social problems and work with socially excluded groups. On the other hand, they do try to ensure some sustainability. As you know, at one point of time we in Croatia, but also all over the countries in the region, had a lot of foreign donors active. Unfortunately, that was because of the war and its consequences. Then, as integration into the European Union approaches, many foreign donors left and CSOs that depended on the donors were left in the dry. So, there were efforts to push the associations towards sustainability and income generation. On one hand, that is good. On the other hand, not all associations are predisposed, nor they should be forced to make their own money. They are here to solve some social problems and they also lack the knowledge or managerial skills. Nonetheless, a lot of CSOs emerged who have realized that it was a fine approach that would help them solve the problem of sustainability. They developed pretty much on their own, without any substantial support. There were some funds available from the USAID and from NESsT, very small funds for initial incubation, and many of them pushed through on their own, depending on their own energy and strength.

How is Slap involved in that story? What services you offer, in terms of support, stimulation...?
From the very beginning, our mission, and that is one of our specifics, was the development of social entrepreneurship and social economy. When we established the association 12 years ago, we set it as our mission to create a stimulating environment, develop good models and practices, connect people... We did, in fact, start earning our own income from the very beginning, providing consultations, trainings, and that helped us develop as an association, to be sustainable and not too dependent on external funding. It allowed us to do what we wanted to do and develop ourselves. At this moment, we have 11 employees, both in the association and in our enterprise, "Modra nit", a marketing agency we established about a year and a half ago. The agency provides marketing services to social entrepreneurs, but we also work in the open market, with local self-governments and all those entities that implement European projects. We specialized for project visibility and that is our form of income generation. In addition, we also offer consultation services. Almost by default, just because of the fact that we are the only organisation that works in that area in Croatia, we became a support centre for the other social entrepreneurs. We mostly secure funding from donations to be able to provide free-of-charge services, but even when there were no donations, we continued working, because that is what we do. We then realized that we can’t really cover the whole of Croatia from our base in Osijek, in eastern Croatian, and our services were sought all over the country. So we moved to create a network of resource centres. At the moment we operate five centre, and we are working to launch a new one in Dubrovnik. We try to connect with other actors and make those centres sustainable, on the cluster principle. There we offer services to social entrepreneurs – education, business connections, marketing services and, importantly, as of recently we try to connect them with financial institutions and secure for them access to sources of financing.

For the end, let me ask you about the regional network, which, as far as I know, your organisation initiated. Where does that stand at the moment?
We started, actually, in partnership with two other association - Zdravi Grad and ACT from Čakovec - and two years ago we launched that regional story, together with partners from Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo and Italy. We are working on SEESE regional network, a network of eco-social economy for Southeast Europe. For us it is important to connect the key actors in all the neighbouring countries. We are now involving Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, all the countries in this area, in the space where we can exchange experience, work on legislation and regulations, joint research, advocacy, everything we need to ensure the best possible conditions for development of social entrepreneurship in our countries. At the same time, we work on creation of support centres. It may be the Croatian model and it is not necessary for everybody else to adopt our model, but we can certainly learn from the experience of others. It means that at SEESE, we have what we call the incubator, a space that would help social entrepreneurs in their development, and we also work to establish a creative academy. We are currently working on development of education programmes intended, above all, for leaders in social entrepreneurship, but also for leaders in social development, knowing that we need a new profile of people. Here, at this conference, we also heard that the management is the biggest problem, the people who will lead those enterprises and who are now commonly recruited from the ranks of leaders of associations and NGOs. They may be good in the programming segment, but they are not business-people and they don’t know what position to take towards the market. We now want to help with the academy to create the new managers and leaders, using a completely different approach and methodology, to build into them the leadership skills, help them develop them and give them the wider concept of development of eco-social economy.

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