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Other groups, such as the Yes Network, offer mentorship and development programmes for new start-ups. The government is getting involved pumping millions of dollar into the sector, while businesses are showing a willingness to sponsor emerging enterprises. The result of this work has been to spark rapid development within the social enterprise sector.
“The Good Lab was founded in September 2012. At that time, there were few social enterprises started by individuals in Hong Kong, and most were started by big NGOs,” Yet says. “But since then, we've witnessed a growth in social enterprises started by individuals.”
The annual Social Enterprise Summit has grown from a small gathering to a showcase of social innovation. International organisations are also sitting up and taking notice.
Unlimited, one of the leading supporters of social enterprise in the UK recently launched a Hong Kong branch and the city is also competing to host the Social Enterprise World Forum. From only a handful of start-ups a few years ago, there are now 457, turning over $HK 1.1 billion a year.
It's promising growth, but there is plenty to do. Only a small number of enterprises have been able to reach real scale, with most still reliant on donations and corporate sponsorship.
Sindy Chow, of Happy Grannies, which works to improve the lives of people in later life, says sustainability is a key issue.
“Only one or two big scale social enterprises could be regarded as successful models,” she explains. “It takes some time for SEs to germinate among the community. Among all ages, most of us would prefer to get a stable life first before we are confident enough to start up our SEs.”
The emphasis is to move towards a financially sustainable business model – one which can attract substantial levels of social investment. Speaking after the announcement of a cash injection into the sector, Kee Chi-hing, a government advisor on social enterprise, said social enterprises should aim to turnover $HK10 billion a year.
Sustainability will be truly achieved when social enterprises learn to progress from reliance on sponsorship and voluntary work and to generate a genuinely sustainable income in their own right.
Social enterprises may be short of that goal so far, but in just a few years the sector has already achieved a great deal. As well as the social benefit, they are also serving as a source of inspiration – an alternative way of doing business. They've helped spark a renaissance in corporate social responsibility and a recognition that business can work in a more socially sustainable way.
The wheels, then, are turning. Although the road ahead may be long, the potential within this sector is enormous. It's an area of exciting growth and one that can offer plenty of lessons for business in the rest of the world.
Tom Cropper is a freelance social enterprise journalist based in the UK