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Meet the ESELA Team – Marleen Denef

Marleen Denef talks about the state of social enterprise law in Belgium, her personal career motivations, and what the future holds for social enterprise law.

By ESELA Posted 13/09/2016
  • What kind of social enterprise legal work do you do?   

I am specialised in all legal aspects concerning social entrepreneurs: such as non-profit associations (VZWs), foundations, international non-profit associations, professional associations, de facto associations, cooperative companies,… Together with my team I provide day-to-day assistance to non-profit and social profit organisations ranging from international federations and professional associations to fundraisers, NGO’s and CSI’s, research centres, care centres for the elderly, for children, for people suffering from disabilities, hospitals, sports federations, social economy enterprises… we advise these organisations in various matters such as incorporation in an optimal set-up, dealings with public authorities (licences, subsidies), competitors (business activities, name and trademark disputes,…), as well as all related responsibility and liability issues.

In recent years, we have been consulted in particular in assignments concerning partnerships, mergers and network organisations in the social sector, including variations of collaborations between not-for-profit organisations and corporate enterprises, CSR-projects, public-private partnerships, cooperative collaboration models, group structures and commercial subsidiaries. Our team also regularly deals with financial techniques inspired by classic corporate law. These include social impact bonds, crowdfunding, prospectuses….

I also regularly assist clients on in-house governance projects involving collaboration and involvement of the operational team, board members and advisory committees as well as the development of codes of conducts, monitoring & reporting systems, delegation of powers…

  • Describe one aspect of social enterprise law in your country which works well and one aspect which needs to change

Positive: Social welfare state in Belgium is well developed and allows individuals to start initiatives with social impact.

Work in progress:

  • Stability for social entrepreneurs: legislation in certain social sectors is currently changing the conditions for government licences and subsidies. This creates uncertainty and risks undermining long term initiatives
  • Legal framework for B corps and initiatives combining social impact with financial impact
  • What do you think the future holds for social enterprise law in Belgium?

In Belgium challenging and exciting times are ahead of us, especially building bridges between the not-for-profit sector and the for-profit sector. If both sectors manage to team up in the middle this will be leverage to create true social impact together.

  • How long have you been working in social enterprise law?

For 20 years:

  • starting in 1996: on a research project re legal forms for initiatives in social economy
  • D. in 2002 on “economic activities of associations and foundations”
  • 2003: start up as a partner in law firm Dewallens & partners
  • 2004: appointment as professor at KU Leuven – campus Brussels, up to now teaching a course on the legal framework in the social profit sector
  • 2006: founding partner of Curia law firm
  • Why did you decide to specialise in social enterprise law?

I find working with social entrepreneurs very inspiring. I do little litigation and a lot of consulting, transactional work, contracting and process management with my team which I find constructive and rewarding work.

  • Describe an interaction or encounter with a social enterprise that inspired you

It’s difficult to pick just one, I find them all inspiring, that’s why I love my job !

Close to my heart are my visits to NGO-projects in Tanzania, meetings in a care facility and enterprise for handicapped people, eating in a social restaurant with flavours of the world and debates with theatre actors & directors on the future of humanity…

  • If you could describe social enterprise law in one word, what would it be? 

In Belgium social enterprise law boils down to “peeling the onion”: there is a basic set of rules on the legal structure in the NPO-law and Company Code, but a lot of sector-specific legislation must be considered as well as to create an optimal setting: 1) licence regulations re hospitals, NGO’s, care facilities for children,… etc; 2) rules on subsidies, 3) on tax deductibility of gifts, 4) legal framework on public market appeals, 5) questions on competent public authority (federal, regional, local…), 6) recommendations on social governance and accountability

  • What advice do you have for social enterprise legal practitioners in Europe?

Dream big, work hard, keep your focus and…be surrounded by good people!

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