• Jane Chen

Using Business for Good Not Good Enough to Tackle Social Challenges

This post was originally published on Pro Bono Australia, as part of a monthly series, Youth Matters — a collaboration between Pro Bono Australia and Youth Affairs Council Victoria.

As a young person, I’ve always been fascinated by the shake-up in the social purpose sector that social enterprises represent — many of which are run by or cater to young people.

Often serving the same purposes as charities, social enterprises are increasingly attracting praise and attention as innovative solutions to age-old social problems. From start-ups training young people in job-ready entrepreneurial skills, to enterprises funding meals for families experiencing food insecurity, these organisations have disrupted and built upon traditional approaches to providing services, often with fantastic results. They seem to prove that business can be used as a vehicle to deliver social outcomes – and perhaps more effectively, sustainably, and efficiently than governments and charities.

Despite this optimism, social enterprises cannot truly “change the game” without engaging in policy advocacy for broader systemic change. This is because social enterprises usually address the symptoms of social problems, not the causes, which are too often policy failures. Take for instance, the rise of employment-focused social enterprises lending a helping hand to young people, training them in customer service and offering them work experience. While individual participants certainly benefit, many others will continue to struggle to find work, because unemployment today is less about people not having the right skills or experience, and more about conditions such as a shortage of secure entry-level jobs with sufficient hours, and punitive and under-funded employment services.

Though organisations can scale up their activities, and more enterprises can be established, the reality is that it is impossible for social enterprises to reach every single individual in need. For example, even if Westpac Foundation achieves its goal to support the social enterprise sector to create 10,000 jobs by 2030, there are more than 2.4 million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed today, with over 100,000 jobseekers classified as “disadvantaged”. Unemployment will persist and rise given COVID-19, unless there is broader intervention from governments and other stakeholders to remove the systemic barriers keeping people out of work.

Few social enterprises would refute this or claim to be a panacea for all of society’s ills, but few also explicitly note the limitations of their impact, or the government decisions that drive the community needs they respond to. And while the importance of advocacy is relatively well-recognised among charities and “traditional” community services, many social enterprises are still working to prove that the “profit for purpose” concept is effective at creating social change. What often results is claims that social enterprises are delivering results more efficiently than organisations reliant on state funding, and providing better support to more people than what current governments have been able or willing to cover. This almost strikes me as the opposite of advocacy, the (unintentional) suggestion that governments are off the hook because ultimately, the social enterprise sector offers more effective solutions anyway.

Without engaging in advocacy, social enterprises risk becoming band-aid solutions to pressing social challenges, instead of being influential players in a team effort to eliminate them altogether. They miss opportunities to utilise the lived experience and insights of the people they interact with to agitate for structural change. In fact, by neglecting to call upon governments for change, and hold them accountable for policy failures, social enterprises may even allow the very problems they apparently aim to eliminate to perpetuate.

There’s no doubt that the model of social enterprises – using business to do good – has effectively created more equitable outcomes for young people. However, participating in advocacy ensures that governments address the policy failures which, if rectified, would likely have a far greater effect on social challenges such as youth unemployment and homelessness. So, as a young person, I want to see more social enterprises reach beyond the impact they can create for individuals who engage with their activities and lean further into advocacy – and not just advocacy for more funding to the social enterprise sector, either.

I want to see more businesses like Clothing the Gap, a Victorian Aboriginal-owned and led social enterprise that doesn’t just use its profits to fund health programs, but is also leading the campaign for the Australian government to #FreeTheFlag. I want to see more ethical fashion businesses calling for anti-slavery legislation, more “green” social enterprises lobbying for climate action, and more organisations employing women from refugee backgrounds speaking up about Australia’s asylum seeker policies. Because if your mission is to create a future where a particular social problem does not exist, it is essential to recognise its root causes, and to call out the actors who are responsible for them – particularly when they are factors you don’t hold the levers to change.

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