Promoting Growth in the Malaysian Social Enterprise Sector

The Business Investment Readiness (BIR) Programme by the British Council supports social enterprises enabling them to be investment ready for growth and to reach its full business potential. Providing collaboration opportunities between intermediary organisations in the UK and their counterparts in partner countries, BIR is a programme that highlights the importance of knowledge-sharing between UK and the rest of the world. 

In its pilot year, BIR involved UK partners working with 9 countries (Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam). The work differs in each country and to find out what each country does and how the partnerships have progressed a BIR Workshop was conducted in Edinburgh, Scotland from the 18th to the 21st of January. Despite the bitterly cold winter weather, Scotland proved to be a perfect location for the workshop not only for its idyllic setting but also its richness in social enterprises. 

Each country partner involved was accompanied by a British Council Programmes Manager and they were able to meet their UK counterparts for this workshop. To start us all off, the first day participants were fully immersed in the social enterprise sector as we were hosted in the events space of Grassmarket Community Project. Skills development for the most vulnerable such as the homeless and those experiencing mental and physical health issues lies at the core of the Grassmarket Community Project’s social mission. The Project ran social enterprises not only in tartan and woodwork – but also a café business which provided us with catering throughout the day.

The programme itinerary included facilitated workshops as well as site visits to social enterprises in and around Edinburgh and Glasgow. Perhaps the highlight of the trip was the site visit as we were able to experience a wide array of social enterprises and understand the different issues each one wanted to address. Malaysia chose the urban social enterprise group which saw us visiting Edinburgh Furniture Initiative (EFI), Out of the Blue, Maklab, Glasgow Bike Station and The Experience. Each one unique in what it has to offer – Maklab was my personal favourite. Situated in Glasgow, Maklab is a social enterprise that encourages physical making through design and prototyping for social empowerment and economic growth purposes. The venue itself with its 3D printers and laser cutters was enough to hold our attention but the sheer enthusiasm from the founder who was giving us our tour pulled us in even more. His story and journey was truly engaging and what stood out the most was his humility to accept that he was becoming too attached to the social enterprise and that there is the danger of Founder’s Syndrome, a popular term among non-profits to describe a situation where one or more founders maintain disproportionate power and influence which could be detrimental to the organisation.

What truly stood out for me from the BIR Programme in Edinburgh were the many different shapes BIR took in different countries. It also gave me an insight into the different approaches to social entrepreneurship and the collaborations that took were designed to suit the needs of each country. Furthermore, the programme was an opportunity to understand the challenges faced for different countries, what was striking was that despite the different regions involved most shared the same issues faced with the social enterprise sector in Malaysia with lack of legislation being a huge part of this. 

Following from this, Malaysia kicked off its BIR programme in February 2015 with Social Enterprise Academy (SEA) as the UK partner and the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC), as the Malaysian partner. For Malaysia, we identified a gap in quality intermediary organisations to support the social enterprise ecosystem. We also identified that while the sector is still nascent, there are incubation programmes that exist to provide support to social enterprises at ideation or start-up phase yet isolate social enterprises which are semi-established and are looking at scaling up. To address these gaps, we ran two workshops back to back under the BIR programme, targeting industry professionals who are interested in contributing their skills and knowledge towards developing the social enterprise sector, who would be potential trainers and facilitators, and semi-established social enterprises who are moving towards becoming investment ready.

The first workshop for social enterprises introduced learners to key skills around social enterprise planning as well as developing awareness of leadership and social impact measurement skills required to be a successful social entrepreneur. Some of the key takeaways include exploring leadership styles, incorporating triple bottom line thinking in decision making and reporting on key metrics to measure social impact. This workshop, attended by 17 participants from 12 social enterprises found the participants engaged in peer learning and reflection, two ‘luxuries’ that are often overlooked due to the hectic day-to-day running of a social enterprise.

The second workshop for intermediary development was designed to help industry professionals develop non-directive skills in facilitation and co-coaching. As most of the participants would have little to no knowledge of social entrepreneurship, an introductory element and an overview of the sector with reference to social impact measurement was also incorporated for the participants to gain a better understanding of the skills required to be a social entrepreneur. This workshop was attended by 15 participants with various backgrounds ranging from employees of corporate foundations to freelance trainers. The workshop allowed space for these individuals to explore their interests to support social enterprises either by providing expert mentorship to social enterprises and civil society organisations, or to cascade and share the learnings back to their teams. 

Supporting trade opportunities between Malaysia and the UK

As part of the BIR programme, SEA saw an opportunity to expand their international presence by exploring a market for a franchise to be established in Malaysia. The franchise would be an ‘added value’, as by having a local presence, SEA could continue to provide local support and develop long term relationships with the UK social enterprise sector. Together with MaGIC, we facilitated SEA’s scoping activity to assess the support infrastructure and potential local partners for the franchise in Malaysia. Discussions with various stakeholders highlighted a need and demand for the establishment of a Social Enterprise Academy Malaysia, developing the skills of the sector from within. There is significant social enterprise activity and has growth potential, and the Academy could fill a gap by becoming a hub to develop social enterprises, train facilitators and connecting Malaysian social enterprises with other SEA franchisees globally, with the hub potentially becoming the sector’s ‘HQ’, by social enterprise, for social enterprise.