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Quasar - chambers open their doors to social enterprises

This case study by Dorotea Daniele was presented at the EQUAL conference Social economy - a model for inclusion, enterprise and local development in Warsaw on 10-12 May 2006. Full documentation is available at http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/equal/activities/200604-se-etg2_en.cfm

Business is changing: how best to update business support services? Italy’s chambers of commerce emerge from the QUASAR project with a brand new service in their portfolio, tailored to the needs of the fastest-growing section of their membership, social enterprises. Social enterprises emerge with a stronger identity, legal recognition, strengthened manage-ment skills, and a steadily growing regional support network.

A representative partnership

QUASAR’s central aim was to improve the quality of social enterprise, but in the end it has achieved much more than that. It has built a national partnership between the third sector and the country’s key business support organisation, the Chambers of Commerce; trained chamber staff and social enterprise managers in eight regions; set up eight observatories; and made a crucial difference to legislation on social enterprise.

The project was led by AsseforCamere, the national training branch of the chambers of commerce. Its key partner was Aster-X (Agenzia di Servizi del Terzo Settore) the strategic arm of the Permanent Forum of the Third Sector, which is made up of 16 national organisations representing the various families of cultural and voluntary associations and social co-operatives.

An important role was also played by CENSIS (Centro Studi Investimenti Sociali) a national research institute, and G Tagliacarne Institute, a foundation of Unioncamere promoting economic policies through research, information and advisory activities.

A broad range of activities

QUASAR worked with the chambers in eight participating provinces: Milan, Treviso, Forlì-Cesena, Florence, Cagliari, Potenza, Bari and Palermo. Co-ordinated by a central unit, the project’s work was based around seven specialist working groups combining experts from the third sector and from the chambers. These tackled issues such as social services reform, social quality, training, finance and local development, and produced an impressive series of guidance manuals. Meanwhile the research partners carried out preparatory studies of the socio-economic conditions in each of the pilot areas and the strengths and weaknesses of the social enterprise sector. The result was partnerships that involved between eight (in Treviso) and 22 (in Bari) organisations.

QUASAR nominated a co-ordinator in each of the eight regions taking part, who took on the job of organising enterprise check-ups, running local training courses, and creating the local ‘Civil Economy Observatory’. The observatories typically involve a triangular partnership between the third sector forum, the chamber of commerce and the local university. The project delivered eight local and one national training courses, equipping some 180 people from chambers and social enterprises to collaborate effectively in local QUASAR committees, and subsequently in the observatories.

The project exceeded its own expectations by checking the health of 240 enterprises, of which 45% were social co-operatives, 32% permanently trading VAT-registered associations, 15% committees and clubs, and the remaining 8% foundations and social enterprises of other types. The check-ups were carried out by a specialised agency attached to each chamber of commerce. They went through the topics of mission and vision, strategic planning and social marketing, and on to image and competitiveness.

A stimulating context

Italy is home to 240,000 ‘third sector’ organisations – associations, social co-operatives, foundations and others – which turn over €38 billion a year, employ 630,000 people and absorb the voluntary energies of some 3.3 million people. During the last decade, the sector has structured itself by creating different kinds of umbrella organisations and support structures, such as federations and consortia. The co-operative movement has created a broad network of local consortia whose main role is to:

  • provide services to their member co-operatives (accounting, legal and tax advice, financing, training, etc.)
  • represent members’ interests towards local authorities
  • act as general contractor (tenders are submitted by consortia and implemented by member co-operatives)
  • ensure that users’ interests are properly taken into account in contracting procedures
  • foster innovation in employment and social policies

In their turn, local consortia have formed national consortia to act as strategic agencies in order to promote social co-operatives and to support local networks supplying qualified and advanced business services. Among national consortia of social co-operatives, CGM (Consorzio nazionale della cooperazione sociale Gino Mattarelli) is the most representative one. CGM associates 83 local consortia representing more than 1,300 social co-operatives throughout Italy.

Owing to its scale, CGM also negotiates at national level to improve conditions for social co-operatives. It thus provides technical support for the lobbying work carried out by federal bodies such as Federsolidarietà or Legacoopsociali (the main umbrella organisations for social co-operatives) and the Third Sector Forum.

This well established support system is almost completely self-financed and does not have strong connections with “traditional” support structures such as chambers of commerce. Italy’s system of chambers of commerce, industry, handicraft and agriculture (CCIAA) is well-established. Yet till recently there has been a mutual lack of understanding between the two sectors. Historically the chambers of commerce have tended to write off the non-profit-distributing sector as an uninter-esting niche. Hence, while social enterprises have been legally obliged to pay subscriptions to chambers of commerce, the chambers have not provided services tailored to their needs. Moreover, social enterprises are often suspicious of the conventional business world.

QUASAR aimed to build a bridge from both ends, by making the culture of social enterprise managers more businesslike, and at the same time making the chamber of commerce culture more sensitive to the benefits of social enterprise.

Problems to overcome

On one hand the heterogeneity of the third sector, which includes cultural and sport associations, advocacy organisations, voluntary organisations that deliver social services and social co-operatives, in the beginning made it very difficult to reach common positions. On the other hand it was very hard to make the chambers’ officials conscious of the need to take a different approach when dealing with representatives of the social economy. The problem was overcome thanks to integrated working groups.

Institutional obstacles included distance and inflexibility of the EQUAL Managing Authority. In particular, the effort to create synergies between QUASAR and other EQUAL initiatives in the eight provinces did not receive any formal recognition. Only “informal” relations were allowed.

A major economic obstacle was the need to advance money in order to guarantee project continuity and the extremely slow reimbursement mechanism. The financing system caused a great deal of stress, in particular to social economy organisations.

Benefits all round

What does the third sector gain from the partnership? First, the project clarified the sector’s identity, by obliging social enterprises to define what they stand for and to be less self-referential.

Secondly, it means that social enterprises can call on the services that the chambers provide to all their members. But over and above that, they can expect the chambers to represent their interests within government: the chambers are after all public bodies with a formal role in local economic development. Sometimes there is a direct relationship: all the chambers have a co-operative representative on their governing council, and in three regions – Basilicata, Sardinia and Emilia Romagna – that representative comes from the social co-operative family. In political terms this gives social enter-prises the formal status that craft firms have by virtue of their federal bodies.

Thirdly, the Civil Economy Observatories are a means of ensuring that in the future social enterprise is not forgotten. The observatories are formally constituted as organs of the chambers of commerce, which guarantees the revenue needed to survive. They are led by a president, who is a member of the council of the chamber of commerce, and who is supported by a co-ordinator and a secretariat. They are overseen by a committee bringing on board the combined strengths of the chamber of commerce, university, voluntary service, social associations and social co-operatives. Their tasks are:

  • to carry out research and supply information in support of the chambers’ policies
  • to represent the third sector
  • to offer social enterprises tools, information, and skilled technical assistance to support their consolidation and development; these are delivered jointly by the Special Agency of the Chambers of Commerce and local third sector organisations
  • to assist social enterprise start-ups, by giving them the possibility to become part of a system which has high quality standards and shares best practice.

The observatories also play a role in transmitting the social enterprise culture, to everybody’s benefit. “We often forget the prodigious laboratory that the social co-operative sector has been over the last 20 years,” says QUASAR co-ordinator Francesco De Rosa. “We were the first to talk about ideas such as corporate social responsibility and social accounting that are now mainstream.”

And what do the chambers of commerce get out of the deal? Primarily, it is a marketing plus, as the project has equipped them to serve more effectively this rapidly growing section of their membership – a section that stands to grow ever faster as voluntary organisations take advantage of the new law to convert into social enterprises. “It was as we were developing the tools to carry out the enterprise check-ups that they realised how different social enterprises are,” says Mr De Rosa. “They finally realised they had a lot to learn from us about things like networking.”

Key aspwects

Horizontal mainstreaming

Quasar’s results certainly seem impressive enough to the chambers of commerce in Rome, Benevento, Pisa and Perugia, which have started observatories off their own bats. Other chambers are joining. With legal recognition on one hand and a widespread and professional support network on the other, social enterprises are in a fortunate position, thanks to EQUAL. And 40 social enterprises more that the 200 initially envisaged asked for the organisational check-up.

Vertical mainstreaming

The project has improved the regulatory environment by establishing legal recognition of the concept of social enterprise. “When we started the project, hardly anyone talked about ‘social enterprises’,” says Livia Consolo, President of Aster-X. “As the project ends, the Senate has just approved a law which defines social enterprise nationally. QUASAR made a real contribution to the definition the law has adopted: that social enterprises are non-profit distributing, independent and accountable both economically and socially. Following the law establishing social co-operatives, this law is another building block in the edifice of better living and working conditions for disabled people.”

Local development

At local level QUASAR created a permanent partnership between chambers, social enterprises, universities, and in many cases local authorities. Each observatory, as an organ of the local chamber, finances its activities aiming, among other, at raising awareness of the social economy, identifying local people’s needs, and improving connections between social enterprises, citizens and public authorities.

Local Civil Economy Observatories not only ensure institutional representation of local organisations, but also participate in local development planning, increasing the impact of the social enterprises in creating an “equal” opportunity for all and a socially and environmental responsible model.

Last but not least, new markets for the social economy result from business partnerships between social enterprises and conventional businesses.


The idea of sustainability was the basis of the creation of the QUASAR partnership. The Civil Economy Observatories are constituted as organs of the chambers. Their president is a member of the Council of the Chamber, that every year allocates resources to each organ. The mechanics of delivering the project relied on the use of a type of hybrid organisation called an azienda speciale – a sort of semi-public company formed under the wing of the Chamber of Commerce. These agencies can act more flexibly than the chamber itself, as they are not public bodies and their staff are not civil servants. They are the perfect tool to carry out a time-limited project.


DP name: QUASAR – Qualità per i sistemi a rete di imprese sociali
Contact: Francesco De Rosa
Via Montebello, 8
00185 Roma
Tel: +39 06 47825107
Fax: +39 06 47882345