Social economy at a glance
In Estonia, in 2016, the main types of structures considered as part of the social economy were:
82,6% non-profit associations (100),
7,4% foundations (9),
9,9% private limited companies (12),
And a commercial association (1).
In 2016, the social economy in Estonia employed 1603 employees.
Source: Social Enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe, Country Reports, Estonia, 2019
* For this website we included this overall assessment of the level of development, it is based on the data and information about the social economy ecosystem currently available and therefore has some limitations. However, we still considered it useful to include this overall assessment.
** Source: EESC/CIRIEC (2016) Recent evolutions of the Social Economy in the European Union, please note that this estimate is on the high end as it is based on organisation type and did not apply a more narrow check for all elements in the social economy definition.
For more details on the data quality see our note on social economy data.
Tradition and origins
Social economy in Estonia started to flourish carrying out work integration activities. The first identified social enterprises created in the 19th century were workshops for visually impaired persons. It further developed at the beginning of the 20th century with the apparition of cooperatives, especially agricultural and consumers cooperatives. Socialism put a stop to this movement.
After the re-independence, the accession of Estonia to the EU brought a new era to the social economy in the country. With the development of the civil societies, new entities have emerged: union or association-led initiatives, international subsidiaries, new welfare service providers, and the notion of social entrepreneurship has started to appear.
Framework conditions and social economy ecosystem
Policy and legal framework
There is no separate law laying down framework conditions for social enterprises. Some legislations however play a role in regulating social economy entities:
the Commercial Code.
Several Ministries recognise the interest to involve the social economy in their strategies to tackle the social and societal project they lead. Hence, social entrepreneurship and social economy have been included in:
The National Development Plan for Civil Society 2015-2020 launched by the Ministry of Interior,
The Well-being Development Plan 2016-2023 of the Ministry of Social Affairs,
The Youth Programme 2018-2021 of the Ministry of Science and Education,
More recently the national development strategy "Estonia 2035" as well as the Cohesive Estonia Strategy 2030 involve social entrepreneurship as a fair, innovative and responsible model of business.
At stakeholder's level and targeting the social economy, the National Foundation of Civil Society and its partner organisations (Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Social Affairs, Estonian Social Enterprise Network, Võru County Development Centre, and Tallinn University) are finalising a social innovation vision document "Vision 2030 for social innovation". It aims at creating new and more unified ground and goals for the social economy, and at providing input for national policy making in the coming years.
Policymakers in the field of the social economy
The Department of Citizenship Policy and Civil Society of the Ministry of Interior is the main responsible for the social economy. Together with the Ministry of Social Affairs it contributes to policy making in support of the social economy. National Foundation of Civil Society (finances calls for application).
Other ministries (the Ministry of Economy and Communications, the Ministry of Education and Research, and the Ministry of the Environment) are also involved in topics related to social entrepreneurship.
Networks, federation and representative entities
The work of civil society organizations, including social enterprises, is supported through the National Foundation of Civil Society (NFCS), a state financed civil society fund focusing on capacity building. The NFCS supports over 100 projects and initiatives annually. In cooperation with county governments and development centers, NFCS offers expertise and consultations on a variety of topics, including on how to start a non-profit organization, how to apply for funding and how to become a sustainable organization.
On the local level, the NFCS intervenes via the Network of County Development Centers (NCDC). These centers are present in each of Estonia’s 15 counties to provide dedicated consultancy to Civil Society Organizations.
How to get involved in the social economy in Estonia?
Young people can try out social entrepreneurship in Estonia thanks to initiation programs. Changemakers offers discovery programs to 14–19-year-olds, including a summer academy where youngsters collectively create a social enterprise with the support of a mentor.
The Junior Achievement Estonian Foundations offers training programs in entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship starting in primary school to give young pupils the opportunity to try the creation of a mini company.
Several actors run incubators to support the development of social economy entities and social innovation projects:
Nula Incubator was created by the National Foundation of Civil Society,
Tallinn University has established the Tallinn University Social Entrepreneurship Incubator
Civil Society Organisations, including social enterprises can obtain support through the County Development Centres, thanks to dedicated consultancies. They support them in developing their activity, legal aspects, business development, management, or access to financing thanks to advising services.
Other supportive services offered by umbrella organisations to help social economy entities to develop include:
Community meetings and networking,
Pro bono expert advising.
The National Foundation of Civil Society offers financial support to social economy entities through publicly funded grants.
Limited companies must turn to the governmental Agency Enterprise Estonia to obtain grants.
There are several private funding opportunities for social economy entities as well, especially foundations that offer grants based on the activities carried out by the non-profit organisations that can benefit from it. The MTU abi portal references the different foundations reachable.
Another source of funding can be to participate in competitions. The Ajujaht, Estonia's largest start-up competition hosts a special 'social enterprise' category.
Learn more about the social economy in Estonia
The MTÜ abi offers a roadmap for Civil Society Entities to help them establish themselves, navigate legal and accounting issues, find funding opportunities. Website : https://www.mtyabi.ee/en/about/
The Estonian Social Enterprise Network provides tools and materials for social enterprises to run their business successfully. Website : https://sev.ee/en/useful-materials/tools/
Social Enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe, Country Reports, Estonia, 2019: https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jspadvSearchKey=socentercountryreports&mode=advancedSubmit&catId=1307&doc_submit=&policyArea=0&policyAreaSub=0&country=0&year=0
Estonian Social Enterprise Monitor, Euclid Knowledge Centre, 2021-2022: https://knowledgecentre.euclidnetwork.eu/2023/02/14/7185/
Boosting social entrepreneurship and social enterprises development in Estonia: In-depht policy review, OECED LEED Papers, 2020: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/industry-and-services/boosting-social-entrepreneurship-and-social-enterprise-development-in-estonia_8eab0aff-en
Recent studies carried out in Estonia about the social economy include: