Pham Kieu Oanh, Founder of the Centre for Social Initiatives Promotion.

You are considered by many as a pioneer of social enterprise in Vietnam, founding the Centre for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP) as the first organisation to officially promote and assist development of the social enterprise model here. What led you to decide that business could play a major role in Vietnam’s social development?

Before I started CSIP I worked for 15 years for several non-governmental organisations, and I realised that one of the most challenging obstacles for development organisations in making a lasting, sustainable impact was the dependence on international funds, which imposed significant constraints on the NGOs’ strategies and operations. I was inspired by the social enterprise model of Mr Declan Ryan, an Irish businessman and co-founder of The One Foundation. I saw great potential for this approach to solve development issues in Vietnam. By using a business model, social enterprises could achieve social goals and values while still maintaining their autonomy and sustainability, a huge advantage over the NGO model. Therefore, I found it was timely for Vietnam to promote this model to address social issues.

CSIP’s goal is to build a strong community of social enterprises in Vietnam through inspiring, empowering and connecting those who wish to solve social and environmental issues. What does CSIP specifically offer social enterprises and entrepreneurs?

We inspire, connect and empower social entrepreneurs and social enterprises to improve their chance of success. We offer different kinds of support to social enterprises and entrepreneurs: providing training courses to social enterprises on business skills; leadership, etc; and connecting them to specialists, consultants and investors. Social enterprises at the early stage are also incubated, and given initial seed funds to kick off their ideas.

Your recent book, Redefining Success, looks at 27 inspiring social start-up models. Which models are finding success in Vietnam and what scope do you think there is for innovation in the models themselves?

The social enterprise models in Vietnam have undergone some changes. Before 2010, social enterprises were grouped together with other types of charitable organisations established to create jobs and support vulnerable groups, mainly people with disabilities and street children. During this period, some typical social enterprises appeared and actively operated under various forms, such as Hoa Sua School, KOTO Restaurant in Hanoi, and Mai Handicraft in Ho Chi Minh City.

From 2010 to date, social enterprises have grown up in different groups including NGOs, businesses pursuing shared values and inclusive businesses. Some typical social enterprises, such as Dichung, Tohe and Vietherb, have successfully combined their economic and social objectives, in which social objectives are key goals to address the most pressing issues including environmental protection, psychological health and community health care.

Vietnam is an emerging market for social investment and innovation. Do you think the social entrepreneurship ecosystem and opportunity is fully understood by potential investors?

The capital market for social enterprises in Vietnam is still young and not yet developed. This under-developed social entrepreneurship ecosystem, with small-scale, separate and discrete operations, is a barrier for potential investors to actively involve and invest in social enterprises.

Social enterprises have only been recognised as legal entities in Vietnam recently. What other challenges do you think face the emerging social enterprise sector as a major impactor in addressing social issues in Vietnam?

The market for social enterprise is still niche and needs a lot of education, which is costly. Most founders lack business acumen. Social enterprises are also facing other challenges to create the financial markets they need, such as a lack of channels for disbursement of funds, intermediary organisations, mechanisms of flexible state management, and transparency.

Although Vietnam faces its own unique challenges in terms of social issues, how do you believe social entrepreneurship differs here from other countries?

Social enterprises aim to solve social problems. As Vietnam has our unique challenges, our social enterprises focus on different issues than in other countries. For example, extreme poverty in remote area is still a problem in Vietnam. Although the Vietnamese government and social organisations have a lot of programmes to provide social services and employment for these disadvantaged groups, the efficiency of these activities is still questionable.

From that point of view, CSIP promotes a social entrepreneurial spirit in these communities to help local people actively improvie their living standards by creating sustainable social initiatives rather than considering them receivers or beneficiaries as in the past. However, social enterprises in Vietnam and other countries share similar challenges such as finance, business capacity, and market development.

As social entrepreneurship grows as a viable model for addressing social issues, how would you define an agenda for engaging government and the business sector to recognise and support the social enterprise sector?

Although the Vietnamese government succeeded in building the legal framework to certify the criteria of social enterprises, these organisations still need more assistance from the government, the private sector and civil society organisations to support their development.

Developing networks and facilitating connections between social enterprises, intermediaries and social investors in and out of the country will help social enterprises grow. For CSIP, building a comprehensive ecosystem for the development of social enterprises, not only in Vietnam, but also in the whole ASEAN region is one of our core activities to help promote social enterprise. We also consider the business sector an important force in supporting the social enterprise system. We need to advocate for further business initiatives to bring social benefits and also find partners/donors for social projects.

The case studies used in your book, Redefining Success, are varied, inspirational and address a broad spectrum of social issues. If there is a common message that the people featured in the book would like to express, what do you think it would be?

Go for impact! Creating values in the interest of the community represents the most common message from social entrepreneurs in this book. No matter how their enterprises are organised and operated, they are always the soldiers in their battle for a more humane and justice society. The ultimate purpose is neither for-profit nor not-for-profit. What really matters are the values they create for the community!