The Curious Case of Social Enterprises

The Curious Case of Social Enterprises

11 Nov, 2017

Last September, I was privileged to travel to New Zealand under the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Young Business Leaders Initiative to attend and run a workshop at the Social Enterprise World Forum 2017 (SEWF). The workshop was called Farming for the Future and this was a great opportunity to share more about AGREA and provide advice and anecdotes on my experience engaging with farming communities in Marinduque, Philippines.

Established in 2008, SEWF is an annual conference that seeks to advance social enterprise development globally. SEWF brings together social enterprise practitioners, support agencies, investors, public, private and government representatives to collaborate, share best practice and plan future developments.

This year, SEWF brought nearly 2000 people together from all corners of the globe. As someone who is fairly new to the ‘social enterprise’ world it was an incredibly eye-opening week and it has really fueled my passion to see businesses infuse social justice into the core of their work.

I was able to engage in great discussion about the meaning of ‘social enterprise’ and the various legal structures existing around the world. Just like in many other countries, the Philippines has no legal definition for social enterprise and therefore those of us in the field find ourselves in somewhat of an identity crisis. How can we be a for-profit entity that also does good?

There are a number of definitions floating around, however, the Akina Foundation in New Zealand provides the following:

Social enterprises are purpose-driven organizations that trade to deliver social and environmental impact. With social enterprise, it is less about the “who” and more about the “what”. A wide range of organizations can and do deliver social enterprise.

Imagine a spectrum: on one end are traditional businesses that exist to make a profit often without consideration of the impact on the environment and people. On the other end are charities, not-for-profit entities that we understand exist to do good. Social enterprises fit somewhere in the middle.

OPENING REMARKS. Pictured are Fiona Natusch, Rachel Empig (AGREA's Director for Engagements and Negotiation) and Adam McConnochie who organised and facilitated the workshop.

Interestingly, I and other Southeast Asian-based colleagues agreed that in our region many social enterprises are trying to run away from the term. Unlike in New Zealand where social enterprise is a relatively new movement, in Southeast Asia the concept has existed for a while and has become distorted.

There has been a mushrooming of new self-proclaimed social enterprises that unfortunately are just jumping on the bandwagon without actually or genuinely seeking social justice.

It is funny to hear the war stories of the older generation. Those who simply saw a need in society and decided to meet it through the platform of a business. Whether that’s connecting marginalized farmers to the market or providing employment opportunities to those with access needs.

READ: Strategic Partnerships: vital in creating sustainable solutions to social problems

These practitioners never sought to start a social enterprise however the term has been slapped onto their respective businesses in order to fit our need for labels. I have come to the conclusion that the term doesn’t really matter; what matters is whether our business genuinely operates in a purpose-driven way. It is a good challenge to have and to keep at the forefront of all we do.

One thing that blew my mind was the caliber of some of the businesses. Sometimes, social enterprise sounds like zero money making. However, I heard the learnings of some very big businesses with people and the environment at their core. For example, Javara in Indonesia works with over 50,000 farmers and 2,000 food artisans, selling over 600 premium artisan food products and exporting to 21 countries. DC Central Kitchen in the USA has a total annual revenue in the USD millions.

Social enterprise does not mean small fry and it is time government and policy makers took notice. As people become more socially conscious, policy makers must keep up and understand what these social and environmental impacts are. Governments must be willing to work with social enterprises and see them as viable contributors to the economy. As these social and environment concerns turn into non-negotiable elements of business, government departments may miss out or lag behind on good opportunities if they don’t decide to start learning and engaging now.

INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY. The Social Enterprise World Forum 2017 convened 1600+ delegates from more than 45 countries.

I appreciated how the Forum was not just focused on the ins and outs of purpose and being a purpose driven business but the Forum also provided practical insight on organizational management, starting a business, and navigating the changing labor market. Speaking at the Employers of Tomorrow session, Jan Owen CEO of the Foundation for Young Australian’s stated that the average 18 year old today will have 17 jobs in five different industries in their life time. She also noted the top five skills that employers are now looking for:

  1. Digital literacy,
  2. Bilingual skills/cultural intelligence,
  3. Critical thinking,
  4. Creativity, and
  5. Presentation and communication skills.

Owen then pointed out that these employee skills are very much enterprising skills. That in the modern day, regardless of your title or position, enterprising skills are required by all in order to tackle many of the world’s issues.

Putting aside the labels and the figures and all the learning, ultimately I saw how social enterprises really could tangibly change lives and the environment. I heard about at-risk youth who, through the social enterprise Messy Bessy, were able to get an education and gain employment. I heard about Anteater who are exploring new sources of protein (insects!) that promotes environmental and health benefits.

There is a real case for social entrepreneurship. And while social enterprises aren’t perfect, the cumulative good they produce is something that cannot be ignored.