One of the areas that CSI is leading the way in high quality social impact research is in exploring the growth and sustainability of Australia’s social enterprises. This month, I’ve asked Professor Jo Barraket, CSI’s primary author of the groundbreaking Finding Australia’s Social Enterprise Sector 2016 report to tell you more about it. - Andrew Young
Back in 2010, I partnered with Social Traders on a major research project exploring Australia’s social enterprises. We named the project “Finding Australia’s Social Enterprise Sector (FASES)” because, frankly, we had no concrete idea what the sector looked like, where it was, or what it was doing. Very little existed in the way of real data and we knew nothing about the challenges the sector faced, the structure of the organisations, or the opportunities they encountered. Although they were by no means new, social enterprises were little known in many circles. Their value to society, and the diversity of their practices and purposes was largely overlooked, unexplored, or worse, misunderstood.
Along with my research partners at Social Traders, we recently launched FASES 2016, the latest wave of this research, and the results are illuminating. While both waves of FASES present a picture of a mature and sustainable sector, we have seen considerable growth of new entrants to the field this time round. Social Traders estimate social enterprises now contribute 2-3% to GDP and employ 300,000 Australians.
Some facts for you from FASES 2016:
In 2016, we moved beyond documenting characteristics, to ask social enterprises what major opportunities and barriers they face in achieving their missions and sustaining their businesses. Social procurement – or using the power of purchasing to meet a social bottom line – was the most cited opportunity identified by our participants, reflecting their entrepreneurial impulses to deepen their impacts by growing their markets. Ongoing challenges included a patchy ecosystem to enable social innovation through social enterprise and, related to this, lack of explicit public policy support. Organisational governance that can effectively support purpose-led business thinking was identified as both a key challenge and an important enabler of social enterprises’ work.
As in 2010, FASES 2016 highlights that Australian social enterprises are highly diverse in the societal needs to which they respond, the industries in which they work, and the business structures they adopt. The large majority of them are small to medium businesses, constantly adapting and responding to community needs. Growth is as often focused on scaling deep – into community to meet new and emerging needs – as it is on scaling up. Where next for social enterprise? FASES 2016 documents a dynamic and diverse field, which is benefitting from new entrants, new thinking, and the wisdom of experience. Social enterprise is just one of the many and complex facets in the drive towards achieving social change, but it’s one that’s having a groundswell. To truly reap the societal benefits of this work, more needs to be done to join the dots between policy, practice and the support ecosystem.