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Transforming Poland's Social Economy

Connor Friesen interviews Piotr Krosniak

The United Nations Development Programme, Project Office’s in Poland project Social Economy (Ekonomia Społeczna) goal is to create a solid basis for the development of the social economy, to increase its effectiveness and to provide innovative solutions for other Eastern European countries. The project aims to train 250 participants in building local partnerships and establishing social economy entities, create internships combined with targeted trainings for 250 participants, develop Polish partnership models for both urban and rural contexts, run international study visits and training courses for over 200 participants, generate 8 semi-annual reports on the progress of the social economy support infrastructure in the region, create a database of all products and services provided by social enterprises, create a social economy support infrastructure by establishment of the Regional Social Economy Center in Lublin, and finally, appoint 20 “Social Economy Angels” who will support at least 20 social economy entities in the region.

This work is being led by Piotr Krosniak.

CF: One of the goals of your work with the UNDP is to promote the issues surrounding the social economy and good practices within the social economy in Poland. How much public recognition do the ideas of social economy and social innovation have in Poland? Do you work with any particular networks/communities whose mission is similar to yours in Poland?

First of all, I would like to say that we really love the work that the Young Foundation is doing and we have been watching its activities from long time.

With regards to Poland, the situation is complex. Generally, our civil society is quite young and we are still learning how to organize and develop our activities. Now, most of the organizations working here are focused on EU funds, the implementation of concrete projects, and on preparations for those entering the labor market—so mainly vocational trainings and workshops. In the second phase of growth, organizations begin to think about how their projects could be better than other projects in the field, and then they think about innovations, so we can say that competition between organizations should stimulate social innovations in Poland. We have relatively few organizations working in this space, on one hand, but local government is focused on some new solutions and innovative approaches, such as Stocznia Association or the City of Gdynia.

CF: We would love to know more about your work. There is a big focus on training and capacity building – could you tell us a bit more about this?  What kind of training models do you use?

In the case of the UNDP, capacity building is one of the pillars of our activity so all our efforts aim to support local organizations and institutions in development - our presence in Poland is also focused on this. UNDP’s role in a medium-income country like Poland is to present good practice and solutions which can be used widely by local organizations and institutions. My training model is simple - no training in class rooms, only training in practice. I know it’s quite obvious but it’s really easy to write a guidebook or prepare some publications, and really hard to go to the community and develop some enterprise which will be recognized and stable on the market.
The only problem is that publications are very good PR mechanisms. Still, grassroots activity is generally more effective, although it is more challenging, we believe in it.

CF: You also aim to build the capacity of social enterprises working in Poland. How do you propose to do this, and what kind of organizations do you hope to see, following this capacity building?

Yes, we are trying to develop four-levels of infrastructure for social economy support in Poland. On the lowest level we have social enterprise, on next level generally covering few districts we have OWES (Social Economy Support Centers), on a regional level we have Social Economy Centers and on the top is the Ministry Of Labour and Social Policy. We in the UNDP are responsible for one of the Social Economy Centers—in our case covering three regions in eastern Poland. Our role is to support those OWESs and develop stabile infrastructure of social economy support.

I’m really willing to see organizations working like Sapling Foundation responsible for TED or websites like good.is - we generally need inspiration!!! In Poland most social enterprises are working in the most competitive sectors like catering or building services which are hard for standard companies to negotiate, let alone social enterprises.

Maybe that is why many people in Poland think that only way is to work closely with local governments and why government delegates some tasks to social economy enterprises.

CF: Could you describe the role of “Social Economy Angels” in your project?

Yes: this is our pioneer initiative to encourage business to support social enterprises. Generally, the concept is the same as business angels networks but we are working with social enterprises. I must say that this was one of the best ideas. It’s really working, we have few enterprises and with the help of people with business experience we don’t have to search in the darkness for obvious solutions. But that’s hard sometimes to see that our vision from market point of view is worthless but like in life we are still learning.

CF: Your project has been running since July 2009. What have been your most significant challenges and successes to date?

For me the most interesting things are our social enterprises and partnerships. First one is the cafe-bookstore “Cooperative” www.spoldzielniacafe.pl – this enterprise is now in cooperation with a private company which works with some of the biggest franchised brands; We are building the base for the first Polish social franchising model. Second is the great initiative of the Social Design Center – now we begin to implement the strategy which will help the Center to sell products in the biggest furniture and home details retailers. And, of course, projektstarter.org, a crowdfunding platform for innovative cultural projects is also social economy model because it’s managed by Open Door Association which is working with disabled people. So these are my diamonds. Next year the biggest challenge for me will be a social enterprise based on a British model—something like Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant. We are now finishing the preparation phase and I hope that we will open the restaurant in summer 2012.

CF: Your work also aims to create contacts between social economy entities at the regional and international level, as well as building a network of partnerships in order to create tailored teams to address specific issues in your region. Which issues are you hoping to address through the social economy? How do you think a more networked approach will help you address these issues? How can SIE help?

We really need inspiration from networks like SIE on how we can work and develop our ideas in the most non- standard and outsized way. From the beginning my goal is to combine social economy with the cultural sector in broad sense (design, art ect.) so maybe here we can find the opportunity for social enterprises development. Generally I think that we should rethink the model of economy. Social economy is one of approach which can be used—the answer is in ownership, in my opinion private ownership was good for economy in XIX century. Now we need a new model of ownership. There is a lot of interesting initiatives like Open Enterprises http://bettermeans.com/front/why.html or new enterprise models that were developed in US or fair trade movements. Generally we have to be ready to transform our model of economy towards more sustainable and fair system and for sure social economy is the pilot of this new order.