A new partnership on social enterprise launched in Brisbane today. The Queensland Social Enterprise Council (QSEC) is “the first council of its kind in Australia to democratically represent and promote social enterprise throughout the state,” announced ABC Radio National‘s Nance Haxton at the organisation’s official kickoff this morning. While there are numerous groups promoting social enterprise across Australia, the recently formed QSEC is the only one that is driven solely by its members—each one an active social enterprise.
QSEC broadly defines ‘social enterprise’ (a term in constant dispute) as ‘a business operating for a social purpose’.
“You can have endless debates about definitions, in fact we probably had seven years of debates until we settled on this one,” explained Steve Williams, QSEC chair and manager of SEED, a cleaning, gardening and landscaping business that employs people who struggle finding work in the traditional labor market.
But Williams attempted to elucidate the meaning more stating that “Social objectives should be core and there should be a limited distribution of profits.” Furthermore, he argues that a social enterprise should have a mixture of capital inputs (a combination of earned income, grants, and philanthropic funds, for example) and have not only financial returns from the goods or services it sells, but a blend of social, ecological and cultural returns as well.
QSEC, a project Williams says was ten years in the making, aims to promote social enterprise, carry out research into the sector and provide a forum for discussion and collaboration between social enterprises. It also seeks to work with governments, nonprofits and the private sector to help the development of social enterprise across the state. And encouraging social procurement—using purchasing power to create social value—is another key goal. The Brisbane City Council, for example, has been doing this for years, awarding maintenance contracts to social enterprises that mow the lawns of a number of parks in the city.
“So when the Brisbane City Council buys mowing from social enterprises, not only are they getting their service at the same price as they would from any other mowing service, but they’re creating social value because those organisations are employing long-term unemployed people,” says Williams.
State MP Tarnya Smith, who spoke on behalf of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, congratulated the establishment of QSEC. “Using [social] enterprising means we are able to achieve high quality social impacts for not only business and industry leaders but also for every Queenslander,” she said.
But amidst all the excitement and congratulatory remarks, Josephine Barraket, an associate professor at The Queensland University of Technology Business School, reminded everyone that “70 percent of collaborations fail.”
She warns that there are three reasons for this: “Not knowing why you’re collaborating, not having governance arrangements to support the collaboration effectively and not building the culture of collaboration amongst the various members that are a party to the collaboration.”
That QSEC has the governance in place greatly heartens Barraket, who appears optimistic the council will succeed.
“What really strikes me about this council is that you’ve started by looking at and identifying what you have in common instead of starting by looking at what sets you apart,” she says.
Still, she offers some advice: “What I would encourage you to do, if you aren’t doing it already is to find those mechanisms by which you can develop not just shared value but shared culture amongst the member organsations of QSEC.”
The social enterprise sector is “such a broad church,” Barraket points out. “What is a social enterprise? Is it about creating efficient service delivery among nonprofit social service organisations? Is it about innovating in response to complex social and environmental problems? Is it about generating profit to return to charitable purpose? Well, it’s all of those things. The social enterprise sector is as diverse as the economy itself.”
“Finding those points of commonality is the foundation of a social movement,” she maintains.
Although it is relatively small, the social enterprise industry is continuing to grow in Australia. And with the help of QSEC, chair Steve Williams hopes the sector will evolve to become a much greater force in the economic landscape.
“We think this a chance to be part of a movement that’s using business for change,” proclaims Williams. “It’s a movement that seeks financial self-sufficiency through trade; a movement that welcomes both for-profits and not-for-profits; it’s a movement that rewards hard work and entrepreneurialism; and it is definitely a movement that is changing the world.”
For more on the Queensland Social Enterprise Council visit qsec.org.au.