Is Social Entreprise the New Black?

Some months ago when I started my current research program into social entreprise as a possible driver for open employment for people with a disability, a colleague in the USA stated he hated the use of the term “social entreprise” because it could be bastardised and used to dress up a sheltered workshop or Australian Disability Entreprises (ADE) as they are is Australia, without making any changes to how they operate or the outcomes that they achieve. I could see his point and it gave me pause to think what I might find.

Afterall we’d already moved away from the “sheltered workshop” terminology to Australian Disability Entreprises to make them more acceptable and to a degree this was successful in part due to the lack of community awareness of what an ADE is. Social Entreprise is a whole new term with a trendy proposition – a business aimed at community benefits! For ADE’s and their not for profit owners, it fits with an enlightened community, particularly for not for profits who have religiously engaged in a war on the “for profits” entering their sector, you know the one – charities. How dare they make a profit from community service work!

Not for profits of course make a profit, the difference is that all their profits must go towards furthering their stated cause rather than paid out in dividends to shareholders and in the event that they are wound up, the assets go to a like minded not for profit. Now a number of our not for profits if they were listed companies would rank right up there in the top 100 companies, so lets get away from the fallacy that they’re little businesses.

Social Entreprises have been around for the better part of thirty years serving a variety of causes, but lack a clear definition of what a social entreprise is. Efforts have been underway for some time to create a common definition, but I wonder if this will simply be an exercise in semantics?

When I started my research I looked at a variety of lists of social entreprises in Australia to see if there was a common thread. Disappointingly what I’ve found is thousands of sheltered workshops or ADE’s now listed as social entreprises that appear no different in how they operate today to when they were largely formed. This sadly confirms some of my colleagues suspicions about social entreprise and to a degree is consistent with much of the language that exists in the disability employment community in that terminology is adopted to describe practice with no relationship to real evidence based practice.

What would you expect to see in a real social entreprise that operates in the disability space? Well for me that would include evidence based practices, a community benefit focus, full award wages, career options, training and development, choice, on the job support and a profitable business. Oddly that’s not too dissimilar to what we’d all expect in a respectable employer.

Will we see real social entreprise evolve in Australia or will we continue to see the rise of faux social entreprise? Me, I’m an optimist, so I think that with full support from the boards of ADE’s, a move to change the culture and the utilisation of all the service providers assets, including lifestyle services, supporting the social entrepreneur within, we can move to true social entreprise models of open employment.

Where do you start? Why not start by having a look at what exists within your organisation and contrast that with successful social entreprises.

I’d like to see social entreprise not be the new black or this season’s fashionable entity, but simply an entreprise that quietly goes about changing society, the lives of the people that work within them and be seen as a valuable community partner.

This is something that I think we might explore at our Disability Employment retreat in October.


About Peter Smith

Disability practitioner at Praxis Disability Consulting, PhD researcher - Sydney Medical School, Research affiliate - Centre for Disability Studies, Sydney. Lecturer in Counselling and Case Management - ACAP. Counsellor and Psychotherapist at Praxis Counselling and Therapy. Interests: Disability employment, person centred practice, self determination theory, existential therapy, personal counselling
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