Social Enterprises and Government: a match made in heaven?

imageAh it feels great! My first new post since we restarted The Social Deck in Brisbane, Australia and already we’ve been to some awesome events and met some really passionate people in the start-up and social change scene.  One of the highlights was ‘Politics in the Pub’ run by the New Farm Neighbourhood Centre and held at the Brisbane Powerhouse. Just the name does it for me – I like politics and beer! But it wasn’t just all about the current political controversies, as you’re probably thinking. Instead, the night’s event focused on a far more interesting topic – ‘A hand-up not a handout. Is social enterprise the answer?’

I wasn’t really surprised to hear some negativity from people regarding recent changes to government and government services. But one of the key points of discussion I found most interesting – and concerning – was the relationship, or lack of, between the rapidly growing social enterprise community in Australia and Government at all levels.

I’ve just come back out of working in the public service in Canberra for the past 15 months. It’s always a great experience; lots of new people to meet and really important issues to sink my teeth into. Issues I believe can improve people’s lives – even when run in the Federal Government dealing with changing politics, uncertain policies and plenty of bureaucracy.

But while Australia has been experiencing so much change politically, some fundamental things about the way our government does business never seem to change, and that’s where I think the greatest barriers are to how much social change we can achieve in Australia.

In my first few blog posts after relaunching The Social Deck, I thought I’d cover a few of these issues. And the first is one of the most discussed topics at the Politics in the Pub earlier this month:

The relationship between Social Enterprise and Government – does it exist, really?

In 2011-12 we spent a year working as ‘The Social Deck’ in New York City. We focused on working with social good start-ups (including social enterprises) and not-for-profits. In this time we saw and heard a lot about the growing relationship between the U.S. Government and the social enterprise and start-up sectors. For example, a joint presentation at the UN Foundation Social Good Summit , one of our first events, highlighted a fantastic partnership in the form of a public awareness campaign between USAID and the AdCouncil to address famine, war and drought in the Horn of Africa. This is a fairly obvious partnership but not uncommon in North America, and it highlights the collective impact a social enterprise and a government agency can create together.

When my partner and I returned to Australia in July 2012, we immediately noticed a fairly big difference in the relationships between Government and social enterprises here.

Firstly, going back into the public service and working in social policy, I quickly remembered how much control the Government exercises over its investments, its programs and services. Well, at least a perceived level of control. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  We all want to make sure our tax dollars are being spent appropriately and Australia’s relatively small population means that government can still exert that control without too many issues.

Another difference I noticed is an absence of innovative social businesses (or enterprises) working within the social policy areas and funded by government. A large portion of the social and environmental services and programs funded by government are delivered by large conglomerates, businesses or associations, and generally only a few of our larger NGOs.

There are more grant programs that attempt to provide some funding and support to the little guy, but really it’s a one-off and many social enterprises either aren’t interested in government grants or miss out because their idea may not have been tested, they don’t have the required governance and risk strategies in place, or the resources to apply for the grants in the first place.

It’s not all about the money, what about mutual respect?

But for this post, I don’t want to just focus on government funding. I think too often social enterprises think of government only as a potential funder – after all, what would public servants know about creating social change, right? Wrong.  On a large scale, public servants are some of Australia’s most experienced in bringing about social change. It’s part of the job for many public servants to constantly innovate in their own way, albeit with restrictions, to achieve the type of change Australia has experienced over past decades.

On the other hand, governments often think of social enterprises as a group unable to deliver large-scale social change; that they’re a useful group to include in future forums and think tanks, but not as partners in policy development or service delivery! Or from an even more naïve perspective, “they’re really just a way to make money from a social problem and take away from what a not-for-profit can do.” Yes, a quote from a real public servant!

The fact is that social enterprises have the unique ability to be a true partner to Government. Why?

  • Because at the core of every social enterprise is a mission to do good things, create social or environmental change, ‘serve the public’.
  • And most social enterprises do this in a sustainable way, which includes the requirement to make money from their solution, to keep the solution going. Because the business model does not rely on ongoing hand-outs (though some start-up investment is always key) social enterprises have the ability to scale, increasing their social impact through their drive to succeed.
  • Furthermore, the staff in a social enterprise are generally those with a passion for social and environmental issues and a deep understanding of the issues they are addressing.

Really social enterprise and government are a match made in heaven!

So why doesn’t government in Australia use social enterprises as much as some overseas governments do?

Of course, it’s partly due to the control factor I mentioned earlier. Government agencies are sometimes limited by the rules around tender processes and procurement, and can be risk adverse when it comes to trying new businesses. Unfortunately this often means that new and innovative ideas don’t get a foot in the door.

Many public servants are completely unaware that social enterprises exist, meaning they are unlikely to go searching for the next big idea from an emerging social enterprise, and currently, government employees and social enterprise change-makers don’t tend to mingle in the same space.

There is also a general lack of understanding within government of what a social enterprise is, what they do, what opportunities they bring, and what impact they can have in society.

What can we do to change this?

We need more case studies about what can be achieved to improve people’s lives as the result of government and social enterprise partnerships.

When it comes to convincing broader Government of the value of social enterprise, we have to think beyond money and beyond being a service or program delivery point at the end of the solution to a problem.

Working in Public Affairs in social policy for the past 15 months, at least twice a week I was approached by a small or large company, a PR or events firm, a startup digital news firm, broadcasters, designers and video producers. I cannot recall a time when I was approached by a business that I would have recognized as a social enterprise. And if I had been, I would have hoped the approach was about a partnership and not a service offering. There are so many opportunities to work together, to leverage the connections and weight of government with the ideas and community approach of many social enterprises. And in this way, money doesn’t even need to change hands for there to be a mutually beneficial partnership.

Social enterprises need to sell themselves to Government, not for money, but as a true and worthwhile partner to tackle some of Australia’s most difficult social issues.

I won’t play down the very big challenge that unless you’ve worked in Government, it’s hard to find the right connections and get your foot in the door. But with the innovative, ‘out of the box’ brain power of the social enterprise community, a lot more could be done to make these connections.

After all, the key to a public servants heart can be as simple as a good social meet up, or an event where they can contribute and do-good. Pitch competitions are emerging (hint: stay tuned in our blog for our pitch at the IPAA National Conference on 21 November), and these are also a great way for social enterprise start-ups to pitch an idea, not just within their own community but to target public administration. It’s easy to find out which conferences and events public servants attend most, so why not ‘pitch’ a pitch comp to the conference organisers?

Above all, the social enterprise community needs to band together on this one. Improving awareness and understanding of the industry amongst the hundreds of thousands of government officials and public servants in Australia needs the backing of a collective. Which is why I was really pleased to see the co-sponsor of Politics in the Pub was the fairly new Queensland Social Enterprise Council.

So in light of the comments I’ve heard more recently, when I think about how government and social enterprise can co-exist – to not interrupt or replace one another – I think it all comes down to better communication, building relationships and engaging people in a great idea. But then I think that about most things

Politics in the Pub is put on by the New Farm Neighbourhood Centre, soon to be our own local neighbourhood. 

If you’re a social enterprise that needs help with outreach and engagement, we have inexpensive monthly and one-off packages that can be tailored to suit your needs and budget.


Kate Bowmaker is Co-founder and Director of The Social Deck: Social Marketing for Social Good.

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