Time for Informed Debate on Pros and Cons of Social Enterprise

Article excerpt

The idea of social enterprise as a mechanism by which we can generate new solutions to complex societal problems has garnered increasing attention in recent years. In the Australian policy context, there has been a particular emphasis on social enterprise as a means of generating employment opportunities for those disadvantaged in the labour market. Yet, social enterprises - that is, organisations that exist for a public or community benefit and trade to fulfil their mission--are much more widely represented in Australia's economy and society.

Although social enterprises are diverse in their structure, purpose and business activities, they are variously engaged in: creating or replacing needed services in response to government and market failures; creating opportunities for people to participate in their communities; modelling alternative business structures through democratic ownership; and generating new approaches in areas of contemporary need, such as alternative energy production and waste minimisation.

Our recent research, Finding Australia's Social Enterprise Sector (Barraket et al. 2010), which we conducted with Social Traders, found that social enterprises are predominately run by not for profit organisations, operate in every industry of the Australian economy, and serve a very wide variety of missions.

Contrary to popular rhetoric that social enterprise is a new phenomenon, the research also showed that the sector is mature, with more than 60% of participating organisations in our survey indicating that they were more than ten years old.

This is consistent with the only available international data--from the Johns Hopkins Comparative Non-profit Research initiative in the late 1990s (The Center for Civil Society Studies n.d.)--which found that Australia's not for profit sector was highly enterprising, ranking fourth in the world on the component of its income derived from fees and subscriptions.

Social enterprise is also very much a part of European Australia's national story; as a traditionally agricultural economy, consumer and producer cooperatives have played an important role in our wellbeing, both nationally and at the level of particular regions and communities. Our wide geography and relatively sparse demography have encouraged community-led solutions to local problems and, throughout this country, there are examples of community owned hospitals, medical centres, pubs, newsagents, supermarkets, and tourism businesses.

Although social enterprise is not new, we are now beginning to see a revival of more traditional models of social enterprise as well as the emergence of new 'profit for purpose' businesses established by individual social entrepreneurs and new community groups. Some, but not all, of these new approaches, take advantage of the 'one click design solutions'made possible through online technologies to create new social business presences.

Debate about the value of social enterprise has varied from those who proclaim its wonder with almost evangelical fervour through to those who decry this activity as neoliberal cooptation of civil society. In my view, the reality is both more complex and more nuanced than these poles of the debate suggest. Part of the complexity of current ideas of social enterprise is that they are, indeed, underpinned by divergent discourses. These include those that focus on ideas about: commercialising the not for profit sector; transferring responsibilities of governments to the community sector; creating new opportunities for social inclusion, particularly economic participation; generating social innovations in response to new challenges; and transforming (or, at least, reforming) market economies.

While government policy in Australia has, to date, focused fairly narrowly on the role of social enterprise in employment services provision, social enterprise practice is much richer and much more comprehensive than such policy would suggest. …