Netherlands | Social entrepreneurship

At Fun Forest, employees learn from the work – and each other

21 January 2021 10:00

Fun comes first at the Fun Forest adventure forests: a chain of urban nature parks that provide a safe environment for climbing, clambering, or teambuilding. But as Forest Chief David Balhuizen explains,"Our social mission is at least as important.”

Two people standing in a tree at Fun Forest

The Fun Forest adventure forests – with locations in the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Almere, and Venlo – have been a source of entertainment and joy for visitors and employees for the past 13 years. The social enterprise offers training and job opportunities to young people who experience certain barriers to finding employment yet are eager to be part of their communities. Founders Ernst-Jan and Fieke have transformed their dream – “learning among the trees” – into a flourishing business. David: “They attract a good mix of workers: college students, young people just starting out in their careers, and disadvantaged job seekers who participate in social inclusion projects. They all learn a lot here, both from the work and from each other.”

“The more people we attract to our adventure forests, the more jobs we create”

Creating a greater impact

Born of a desire to make an even bigger impact on employees and society, Fun Forest positioned itself as a social enterprise back in 2016. The European Commission defines social enterprises as companies with a social mission (“impact first”) that have a revenue model, regard profit as a means rather than an end, and whose governance, management, and policies are based on balanced control among all parties involved. “Guided by the Code Social Enterprises, we incorporated this definition into our policies and business operations,” David says.

The company’s work environment has changed quite a bit over the years, and Fun Forest has made its employees even more of a focus than in those early years. In addition to investing a lot of energy in their development, it also aligns its efforts with two of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all; and promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. David:“We help find paid employment for participants in social inclusion projects who join the company as interns or work experience students, either at Fun Forest or another company. “In any case, we would consider both outcomes a success.”

Remote support

Having made growth its objective in 2017, 2018, and 2019, Fun Forest increased its total number of work experience placements (apprenticeships) during this time to an impressive fifty-three, and was planning to largely devote 2020 to supporting these incoming young workers. Fun Forest also created a mentoring program with financial support from Rabo Foundation. A total of 16 team members from the four parks were trained to become certified job coaches. Just as they were about to start practicing their newfound skills in the upcoming spring/summer season, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Netherlands and shut down virtually all economic and social life in the country, including the Fun Forest activity parks.

Growing and flourishing

Once the COVID-19 restrictions were eased after the first lockdown, the climbing season was off to a late start, but take off it did. While Fun Forest began the season with a negative cash flow, it was able to bounce back quickly and admirably, as playing around in the woods turned out to be more popular than ever during the pandemic. Fortunately, the mentoring program could also go ahead at this time. David: “We are seeing how our social inclusion project workers are growing and flourishing, and that the program is promoting employee retention. I, for one, am grateful that our parks are continuing to attract large numbers of visitors. Providing our guests with assistance and support is an important part of our work. The more people visit our adventure forests, the more jobs we create.”

Three tips from David Balhuizen for entrepreneurs

  1. If you’re a mission-driven company and are looking to make a bigger impact on society, why not become a social enterprise? Signing the Social Enterprise Code will take you one step further.
  2. Impact first: make impact a central part of your mission.
  3. Think carefully about how you would like to promote your company’s values. What impact do you intend to make on your employees and customers?

Enhance Fun Forest's impact by visiting one of the four climbing forests in the Netherlands. Social enterprises such as Fun Forest create fair employment opportunities for people who like to work, but have difficulty finding a job. We see social entrepreneurship as the norm and inspiration for other companies.