Starting the conversation: social enterprises and social entrepreneurship
March 30, 2014
This week we are taking a look at social enterprises and social entrepreneurship. We will look at some great tips for those wanting to get engaged in this area as well as looking at some of the underlying structural things that may possibly need to occur to allow social enterprises to flourish.
I have personally been engaged in social enterprises and social entrepreneurship for some time now and I can tell you that there are significant differences in how you go about getting people involved and engaged in your cause. Right down to how you convince people to provide support (both material and financial).
So, I wanted to start off with a story of a plane trip to Australia’s capital recently.
Whenever you tell someone what you do for a living they tend to go in two directions - either they will love what you do and want to know more (even getting involved in the conversation while telling you stories about why they are so passionate about what you yourself or doing) or they will be completely un-interested. You can also capture people’s imagination when you say you do something completely left field that they haven’t heard of before. So, its experiment time! Several weeks ago I travelled to Australia’s Capital on a flight that only takes around half an hour - this meant that I only had half an hour to get the pitch in!
I was travelling to Canberra in my role as a Director of Australia’s Peak Mental Health, Suicide Prevention Australia. Of course, my CEO and I were heading there to update some of our primary funders on what we had been doing the last 12 months because, you guessed it, Suicide Prevention Australia is, in many ways, a social enterprise. Now there two things about the flight to Canberra - firstly, the early morning flight has mainly public servants and sales people while the evening return flight can sometimes include key decision makers and even the odd captain of industry.
The experiment was to test whoever was sitting next to me on the plane if they knew what a social enterprise was - and of course, whoever was next to me on the morning flight was the guinea pig for what would unfold as my pitch during the meetings for the day. Boarding the 7am flight and I headed for my seat and after a few minutes it suddenly dawned on me that I might have the row to myself (which on any normal day would be great!). Finally a gentlemen joined me and after sitting down we engaged in conversation.
It turns out the man sitting next to me worked for a defence contractor and he was heading to meetings for the day and returning on the evening flight. When asked what I did I said I was heading to Canberra for similar reasons but I was on the Board of a Social Enterprise called Suicide Prevention Australia. Of course, he asked me very matter of factly what a social enterprise was. I said to him that we were in the business of saving people’s lives by looking at the problem from a business perspective without the need for a focus on profit.
Fascinated by the fact we had some kind of commercial lens looking over a social issue as suicide prevention he then relayed a story about his own personal experience in which a friend had passed away after a long battle with depression. For the next 30 minutes we discussed, back and forth, our various shared experiences of course exchanged business cards.
During the conversation we discussed different strategies of engaging with the crowd, starting conversations that lead to material change and new strategies for the traditional NGO sector to transform themselves into social enterprises.The plane lands, we disembark and head off to our various meetings. I take the cab to Parliament and my new found friend heads to Defence Headquarters. The first benefit of the experiment was to ensure that I had set in my mind what the conversation points would be for the unfolding day ahead.
More importantly, I wanted to see if the words social enterprise resonated with a complete stranger and, in doing so, would this engage them into a conversation. Well, in this case part one of the experiment was a success.Before moving onto the return journey it might help to establish what I believe to be a good definition of a social enterprise (there are others but this is the one that resonates with me): A social enterprise is an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximizing profits for external shareholders.
Social enterprises can be structured as a for-profit or non-profit, and may take the form of a co-operative, mutual organization, a disregarded entity, a social business, or a charity organization. When I get to parliament you always notice a few of the usual suspects - that is those people who ply their trade on a daily basis trying to convince or influence government. Ironically enough, we were not in Canberra to specifically seek funding - we were there to ensure our primary stakeholders had not forgotten who we were.
You see, primary funders of social enterprises are often Government agencies and departments and unless you are constantly reminding them of your cause, your endeavours and your outcomes they may forget you are there! So, the day progressed and both the CEO and I headed for the airport. The usual boarding process begins and I take my seat. This time the person sitting next to me is a relatively young lady in her mid to late twenties.
I attempt to engage in conversation but no sooner do I get my first name out of my mouth she puts her headphones in and ignores me (and everyone else) for the remainder of the flight. Disappointed? Not really - but that is the tale for this first blog on social enterprises - there are many who are willing to back your cause if they understand in the first few moments what the connection with you and the issue they have.
The defence contractor earlier in the day ended up emailing me over the weekend and we are having coffee in the coming weeks. It turns out the defence contractor he works for is a large multi-national corporation with a corporate social responsibility programme partly inclusive of employee health and well-being!The second question that I ask myself is if we are needing to undergo a big transformative shift in the way that we manage and administer a great many initiatives around any number of social issues.
The NGO and Not For Profit sector struggles with funding on any given day and I wonder if it’s not time for us to consider changing our mindsets to that of social enterprises and social entrepreneurs?
Let’s see how the conversation goes.
Matthew Tukaki is a Director of the Board of Suicide Prevention Australia and Chief Entrepreneur of EntreHub For more information on Suicide Prevention Australia see https://suicidepreventionaust.org/
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