Social economy at a glance
The history of the social economy in Italy is closely linked to the characteristics and evolution of its welfare system.
In Italy, social economy organisations belong to one of these 5 legal forms:
- Social cooperatives
- Associations and foundations
- Mutual aid societies
- Limited liability companies
- Traditional cooperatives (e.g., community cooperatives)
The estimated number of social enterprises in 2017 amounted to over 102,000 accounting for almost 900,000 paid workers and an annual turnover of 42,700 million EUR.
* 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
The history of social enterprises Italy goes back almost 40 years. Building on a rather undersized non-profit sector, traditionally focused on advocacy activities, social enterprise has developed in different stages. In the first phase, voluntary organisations and social cooperatives were the main actors. Then associations and foundations, moving towards a more entrepreneurial stance, began to play an increasingly important role. Finally, limited liability companies qualified as social enterprises because of their explicit social objectives and inclusive governance.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many activists became promoters of new bottom-up initiatives aimed at defending the rights of vulnerable social groups against the profound changes affecting Italian society. They set up new organisations - associations and "social solidarity cooperatives" - that relied heavily on volunteers to provide social services and integrate disadvantaged people into the labour market. The progressive recognition of voluntary organisations and social cooperatives, and the growth and diversification of the needs arising in society, have increasingly attracted public resources.
As a result, the number of such initiatives has increased dramatically over the years, stimulating a collective debate on the most appropriate organisational arrangement to ensure both a sufficient supply of social services and the use of civil society contributions.
Framework conditions and social economy ecosystem
Policy and legal framework
- In 1991, after more than 10 years of unregulated development, "social solidarity cooperatives" were legally recognised as "social cooperatives". This legal recognition allowed these organisations to establish cooperative relations with the political authorities and to spread and grow this model.
- A more general legal framework was introduced in 2005-2006, creating the legal category of "social enterprise" to harmonise the sector in response to the emergence of other types of organisations. It allows a wider range of legal entities to qualify as social enterprises and expands the permitted areas of activity.
- With the aim of bringing social enterprise under the umbrella of the "third sector", the new law, enacted in 2016-2017, introduced some important changes with a view to providing a common framework for both the third sector and social enterprise. The aim of the legislation is to make the social enterprise qualification more attractive to both potentially eligible organisations and investors.
At the present time, social economy host 5 different legal forms:
- The legally recognized social enterprises:
- Social Cooperatives
- Social enterprises
- The De facto Social enterprises
- Traditional cooperatives pursuing general interest.
Policymakers in the field of the social economy
Policymakers include government departments or institutions designing or implementing policy, support instruments and measures for social enterprises and infrastructures, as well as local authorities. Both at the national and regional levels, Italy has a long tradition of measures targeted at cooperative enterprises and the social economy. Social enterprises, especially when set up as social cooperatives, can access them.
At national level, the Ministry for Labour and Social Policies is responsible for social economy policies. On its behalf, the National Council of the Third Sector promotes, develops, and supports Third Sector organizations with activities, projects, and initiatives in the country.
Social economy is not equally supported in every region. Regional and local level Support modalities adopted have changed over time depending on the objectives pursued by each region. They range from start-up subsidies to measures supporting financial consolidation, from investment to training support.
Networks, federation and representative entities
The social ecosystem in Italy is shaped by the interaction of key actors who have played an important role in recognising the specificity of the various kind of organisations belonging to this sector, in developing support policies and measures for their replication and scaling up, and in making the social enterprise phenomenon visible.
These networks can be divided into 4 categories:
- Representative bodies (e.g., Federsolidrietà, Legacoopsociali, Forum of the Third Sector, Associazione Generale Cooperative Italiane (AGCI) )
- National, regional and local consortia (Idee in Rete; Consorzio InConcerto, Gruppo Cooperativo Gino Mattarelli-CGM, Con.Solida, Sol.Co consorzio di imprese sociali siciliane)
- Support networks (e.g., Misericordie.it | Confederazione Nazionale delle Misericordie D'Italia
- Networks running entrepreneurial activities and social enterprise incubators (e.g., Impact Hub, Make a Cube3, SocialFare)
The work of research and training organisations is central to the recognition of the social economy in Italy. Below you will find the main organisations providing studies and publications:
- Network of Research Institutes on Social Enterprises (IRIS Network)
- European Research Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprises (Euricse)
- Italian Association for the Promotion of the Culture of Cooperation and Nonprofit (AICCON)
- Research Centre of the Italian Union of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Handicraft and Agriculture – Centro Studi Unioncamere
- Centro Studi Legacoop
- TIRESIA (Technology Innovation and Research for Social Impact)
- National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT, Industry and Services Census)
- UBI Banca Observatory (Osservatorio UBI Banca su Finanza e Terzo Settore)
How to get involved in the social economy in Italy?
- Many universities propose degrees specially focus on social entrepreneurship and social economy. To know more you can visit these 3 examples:
- Master di II livello - Impresa Cooperativa: Economia, Diritto e Management - Dipartimento di Economia (uniroma3.it)
- Master in gestione imprese sociali e Cooperative | BBS (unibo.it)
- Economia sociale e Imprese Cooperative | Corsi di Studio (unibs.it)
- Master GIS - Master Universitario in Gestione di Impresi Sociali (mastergis.eu)
- To dive into social economy, many newspapers share the latest news, innovative projects, and the current debates. The main one is probably, Vita.
- The Italian social economy ecosystem is growing fast and many job opportunities are available with all types of competences (e.g., research, management, social work) in a flourishing quantity of sectors (catering, care service, social and professional integration, Manufacturing, Construction, Wholesale and retail trade, Motor vehicle repair, transport, and storage). Get motivated and try to apply to the opportunities that fits best with your skills and professional aspirations.
If you would like to create your own project and participate in enriching the range of social economy activities, many of the organisations mentioned above can provide support. Please note that this list is not exhaustive and it's highly recommended to research the main actors at your local level.
- ItaliaCamp: ItaliaCamp is a well-known social innovation platform that provides support and resources for social enterprises. They offer mentorship, training programs, and access to a network of experts and investors. Italiacamp - Insieme per il Paese
- Make a Cube³: Make a Cube³ is a social enterprise incubator and accelerator based in Italy. They provide comprehensive support to social entrepreneurs, including mentoring, access to funding, and assistance in scaling their ventures : a|cube - incubazione, accelerazione, impatto (avanzi.org)
- Banca Etica: Banca Etica is an ethical bank in Italy that supports social enterprises and projects with a positive social impact. They offer financial services tailored to the needs of social entrepreneurs and prioritize investments that align with social and environmental goals. Homepage - Banca Etica
To access to fundings and leverage your social economy activity, you can target public or private funds:
In terms of national interventions, the most significant support measures for enterprises in Italy are focused on investments. These measures take the form of fiscal incentives or the provision of public guarantees, such as the "Guarantee Fund" governed by Law 662/96.
As a recent and notable intervention, the Ministry of Economic Development gave to Invitalia (National Agency for Attractivity of Investment and Development of Enterprises) the mission to support the growth of enterprises carrying out mission of general interest or impactful activities. The allocated budget was €223 billion. To know more, don’t hesitate to visit the website here.
In addition to national support, there are also regional measures specifically designed for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). These measures aim to assist start-ups and investments, and they often take the form of contributions accessible to all types of enterprises, including social enterprises. The specific amount and methods of intervention vary among the different regions of Italy.
Italy has a longstanding tradition of implementing measures specifically targeted at cooperative enterprises as well as the social economy sector. The support methods employed have evolved over time based on the specific objectives pursued by each region, ranging from subsidies for start-ups to measures that promote financial stability and provide support for investment and training.
Overall, both at the national and regional levels, a range of support measures are available in Italy to facilitate the growth and development of enterprises, including social enterprises, with varying focus and approaches depending on the specific region and objectives.
To reach private funds, you will have to design your need and present it to the relevant supplier. Many Banks or other financial intermediaries can provide support:
- Traditional banks (e.g., Unicredit, UBI Banca Gruppo Intesa Sanpaolo)
- Banks with a social orientation (e.g., Banca Etica Homepage - Banca Etica)
- Specialised banks (e.g., Banca Prossima Terzo settore e No Profit: Banca Prossima diventa Intesa Sanpaolo)
- Cooperazione Finanza Impresa (CFI) is a private institutional investor in the form of a cooperative.
- Innovative instruments for social finance (e.g., Oltre Venture Oltre Impact, UBI Banca social bonds Green, Social and Sustainable bonds (ubibanca.it))
You can also look at other types of funding, such as crowdfunding or microfinance, which can be very efficient early-stage solutions to scale-up! For microfinance, Banca Etica is very active, read more here. Eppela can help to realise a crowdfunding campaign, more info here. Please note that these examples are indicative and that the market is very rich and evolving.
Learn more about the social economy in Italy
The networks mentioned beside will help you find many information about social economy in Italy (e.g., articles, publications, mapping, latest news, upcoming events)
- RIES - Rete Italiana Economia Solidale | Rete Italiana Economia Solidale (rete-ries.it)
- | economiasolidale.net
- It is also highly recommended that you visit the web sites of all the networks and research organisations mentioned above (see Networks, federation and representative entities)
These 2 reports provide a comprehensive overview of the social economy in Italy.
- Social enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe, Country Report, European Commission, 2019 https://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=16380&langId=en
- L’economia sociale in Italia, Dimensioni, caratteristiche e settori chiave, EURICSE & ISTAT: L'economia sociale in Italia (istat.it)