Social Enterprises have been around for as long as mission-based organisations have run charity shops. They are the organisations that have business and social goals aimed towards making a difference.

It has been a successful operating model that can be found in almost every corner of Australia, some are relatively new but others date back well into last century.

So if running a social enterprise is not a new innovation, why is has there been such a focus on them worldwide over the past decade? And why should the community services industry put the spotlight on this way of operating when planning a sustainable future?

CSIA CEO Belinda Drew reflects on these questions.

From my perspective the answer lies in the possibility of getting beyond the discussion of the operating model of social enterprise and into their strategic value as disrupters to the current model of social change. This is something that we as an industry need to consider when looking to the future.

Right now, in Australia, the current model is largely reliant on finding a funder who is sympathetic to the cause and the model of intervention designed to help solve the presenting problem of the individual or community.

I imagine you might be sitting back in your seat, thinking that’s a little unfair.

Yes, you are right! It is a simplified explanation of a complex ecosystem and all generalisations are risky because they deny subjectivity, individuality and creativity for their existence.

However, when we take a hard look around it is the funder-to-provider model that dominates our approach to solving social problems in Australia.

I also think it is increasingly accepted that this is not, indeed cannot be, the only way to create change.

I have spent more than a decade in the field of social enterprise and social investment.

During this time, I was excited by the possibility that social enterprise and social entrepreneurship could be a challenge to the operating model of funder-to-provider.

I also hoped that we, the community services industry, could diversify our approaches to solving social issues by embracing innovation through these models. This is another way I see the industry building a sustainable future.

I also believe that social enterprise embodies a call to action for all the entrepreneurs lurking in the hallways of community organisations yearning for a different approach, and a move away from an overreliance on government funding. 

What captured my imagination and commitment to the growth of the field was the extent to which social enterprises could help us reimagine the paradigm, both because they existed as a challenge to dominant paradigm and because of the new behaviours they modelled.

I have searched (and will continue to investigate) for great examples of the development of the field beyond Australia.

One of the best examples is reflected in the policy work during the Governments of Blair and Brown in the UK, implemented through their Wealth Beyond Welfare Policy.

In 2000, Sir Ronald Cohen, the Chair of the UK Social Investment Taskforce delivered the UK Government a document that framed

“an urgent but considered assessment of the ways in which the UK can achieve a radical improvement in its capacity to create wealth, economic growth, employment and an improved social fabric in its most under-invested places, that is to say it’s poorest communities.”

Even as I quote this, I feel a sense of inspiration when he uses terms like radical, capacity, wealth creation and employment.  The objective in this work is set well beyond servicing needs through charity models, but is a bold attempt at economic inclusion that can in turn facilitate a range of social outcomes.

Although criticised in its implementation, this policy approach was a robust attempt to break the then dominant model that all things economic come from business and all things social come from charity – it challenged mental models and operating norms.

Hence, it was a challenge to the traditional providers of social services to think deeply about, not only the means of solving social problems, but the fundamental narrative – to one that is beyond welfare.

This was a policy with genuine silo melting potential and, among other things, had social enterprise as its beating heart.

It’s this kind of silo melting or reformist agenda that further sparks my interest in social enterprise and its near cousins – social procurement and social investment.

We must resist the temptation to see social enterprise as a bolt onto the existing model. The idea is to embrace it for what it teaches us about the future of social change set within an inclusive growth agenda. 

The Queensland Government, through the leadership of the Hon. Shannon Fentiman MP, Minister for the Department of Employment, Small Business and Training, has engaged the social enterprise field in a discussion about the future of social enterprise in Queensland.

We welcome this and encourage the Minister and the Government to be bold in their efforts to partner with industry to accelerate the development of social enterprise and explore a future where collaboration across traditional boundaries is central to successful social change.

Most importantly, where these efforts become one of many strategies to creating a Queensland that offers everyone a fair go at personal prosperity and an opportunity to contribute to the community in which they live.

Want to know more about our work in this space? Contact CSIA on 07 3180 1360 or email [email protected]