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Exploring Social Enterprise in Australia – Colored by Art, History, and Geography

Travel disrupts, and sometimes affirms, the status quo by exposing long-held ideas to questions, alternative beliefs, and values. My thoughts about the role and value of social enterprise were expanded during a series of meetings with about 100 people from multiple sectors who are building Australia’s social enterprise community – essentially its ecosystem.

Afterwards, I spent a few weeks traveling. As with many who are exposed to Aboriginal art and culture for the first time, I found the visual art took my breath away, and the cultural history had a powerful impact. In a video, one artist noted that while elders pass on to younger painters specific stories and images of history and geography for reproduction, they also encourage them to express their own creativity and not simply mimic the forms or colors of the past. All of the artwork is done within a construct called “the dreaming” that connects spirituality with morality and place – the ecosystem – and encompasses a timeless concept of how we live in the world. Hard to translate or fully fathom, but it was there in everything I saw.

I could not imagine a better context as I began my journey to learn about social enterprise, which is changing form, connecting our values to our actions, and is rooted in specific places around the world. I was invited to share lessons learned from REDF’s 20 years of experience in the U.S. by Melbourne-based Social Traders (ST), and together to amplify our well-aligned message about the valuable and growing role of social enterprise. Like REDF, ST provides technical assistance and channels financial support to social enterprises, and like both REDF and the U.S. Social Enterprise Alliance, ST convenes, informs, and advocates for the whole field. REDF’s sharp focus on employment outcomes and measurement of results was of particular interest.

I had the privilege of being the keynote speaker at ST’s annual Social Enterprise Masters Conference, where they rolled out new data on the size, scope, and impact of the social enterprise sector in Australia and defined what is required to help it continue to expand.

At the conference, I had the chance to meet many successful social enterprise leaders. My colleagues at ST also set up gatherings with their ecosystem: about a hundred people from government, the business community, social enterprise, and philanthropy in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and two popular talk radio call-in shows in Sydney and Melbourne. They were gracious hosts, and their influence across sectors was evident.

Government representatives – particularly in Victoria, but also in the other states – seemed inspired by a fresh vision of how social enterprise could contribute. A key leader stated that government’s role is to: raise the sector’s profile by articulating that it matters and has value; build the sector’s business capabilities; and enable better market access. Businesses, from banks to real estate management firms, were intrigued by the potential to partner and contribute to social impact. Social enterprises themselves and the foundations that invest in them were fired up about joining together to build capabilities and grow. Listeners to the radio shows called in to share their positive experiences with social enterprise and express support for its potential.

Several people asked me about the U.S. public sector’s commitment to social enterprise, particularly because I emphasized the significant role that a unique federal government program – the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) – has played in developing the evidence base for social enterprise and other path-breaking programs; while enabling REDF to invest in growing social enterprises across the US so that 50,000 more people have the chance to work over the coming years. Despite the SIF’s vast reach and impact, the Congress has not yet put its’ full weight behind it. However, the good news is that a small but growing set of influential federal officials value the evidence based policy making and pay for performance funding that are at the heart of the SIF.

Bolstered by my inspiring visit, I return to that fight energized and more convinced than ever that social enterprise is moving toward a tipping point of integration into mainstream economies, and will play a growing role in addressing what are sometimes referred to as the most “wickedly” complex social problems.

To get the support necessary to make that happen, I believe we need to clarify three things: what social enterprise is, why it is important, and how we unleash its impact- important topics which I will explore in my next blog post.

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