A return to Mutualism for Social Enterprise

In Queensland in the early 2000’s  a group of community development workers running small local community enterprises (the forerunners of today’s explosion of social enterprises), heavily influenced by the cooperative movement and owing much to the philosophies of organisations such as Foresters-ANA Friendly Society, came together to form the New Mutualism Group (NMG).

The original members wanted to help define their work; to articulate a position, and to record the outcomes they were creating, particularly with long term unemployed people. NMG also critically provided peer support at a time when there was little understanding and hardly any public discourse on community and social enterprise; the narrative running through the group was self-help, mutualism, and reciprocity.

Two of the founding members, Ingrid Burkett and Dave Langdon wrote a series of booklets under the banner of New Mutualism, aimed at, amongst other things influencing and persuading governments to procure socially.

The New Mutualism Group consists of a number of people who are experimenting with a new way of addressing unemployment that changes the role of government from funder and grant giver to opportunity opener and employment investor. We believe, and have demonstrated, that there are ways to address long-term unemployment and  underemployment through creating real job opportunities and supporting people excluded from mainstream employment to hold on to these opportunities so that their employment becomes meaningful and sustainable.

Burkett and Langdon 2005

Social Enterprise and Social Tendering

As well as writing booklets, many of the members took part and were funded via Australia’s first social enterprise hub; not a physical hub – more a collection of organisations funded to work with Social Ventures Australia by the Federal and State Governments to develop social enterprise in  Brisbane. Many of these members have gone onto drive the sector in Queensland over the last decade, and two, in consecutive years won the Australian Small Social Enterprise of the Year Award (2014 & 2015).

A decade after the birth of NMG, myself and Amelia Salmon of Spiral Community Hub began talking about forming a new body to represent social enterprise in Queensland. We recognised that social enterprise intermediaries held the power in the sector; they were being funded to work with social enterprises, and they were talking to governments on our behalf. They mostly did good work, and we are now reaping some of the rewards from their work during the early 2000’s. But, we wanted to take power back for us, the practitioners; we wanted to be a democratic body that would represent our members and lobby for the sector’s interests. This was a radical change in the power dynamic, as up to this point, individual social enterprises (mainly) only received support and representation if they had been funded via an intermediary.

We gathered a group of like minded people running social enterprises (listed below) and formed Australia’s only peak body for social enterprise, the Queensland Social Enterprise Council (QSEC), launching in 2013 in front of a large crowd at the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Non Profit Studies at the Queensland University of Technology.

In under three years, and without any funding, QSEC now has over 100 members, get’s a seat at the table to influence policy at local and state level, and has held numerous workshops, forums, and events assisting and guiding new entrants to the field as well as supporting more established enterprises. A highlight was co-hosting with the State Government’s Department of Housing and Public Works the largest social procurement event ever held in Australia.

This article though, is a call for the social enterprise sector in Queensland to return to its roots of mutualism and reciprocity. These are old fashioned terms and are centuries old, but they truly offer a radical way between the neo-liberal free market, and the ineffectual left in Australia.

Bob James in a paper for the Australian Friendly Society Association’s
National Conference,  discussed the historical concept of mutualism and friendly societies:

the British Parliament passed the first piece of legislation recognising ‘friendly societies’. Just over 200 years ago, the 1793 Rose Act is the first legislative use of the word ‘mutual’ that I know of. It defined a ‘friendly’ as:

a society of good fellowship for the purpose of raising from time to time, by voluntary contributions, a stock or fund for the mutual relief and maintenance of all and every the members thereof, in old age, sickness, and infirmity, or for the relief of widows and children of deceased members.

Latham describes contemporary mutualism in a paper for the Third Way Conference in 1999:

“(mutualism) concerns the relationship between people.  Not the relationship between economic players in the market.  Not the relationship between government and its citizens.  But the relationship between people: acts of trust and cooperation; the reciprocated bonds of a mutual society”.

Latham 1999 Mutualism: A Third Way for Australia

So, you can see that mutualism is about people, and for me social enterprise is fundamentally about people. It’s been said many times that society is not the economy driven by a market, society is a nation’s citizens interacting and living with one another. Mutualism came from the bottom up, a way for the working classes, the poor, to organise and insure themselves against unemployment and ill health, to save for the future. Social enterprise is also a way of organising labour and conditions to benefit the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.

What we have seen over the last decade has thankfully been a blooming of social enterprise, B-Corps, and a way of thinking that challenges the dominant market driven economic paradigm. We have seen Gen Y stand up and say ‘we don’t want to work for XYZ corporation that has bad business practices. We want to work for businesses that give back, that create something good’. Many of our best and brightest young people have started their own social enterprise (Thank-You Group), or  new charities (Orange Sky Laundry). But, the shift away from neo-liberalism economics isn’t quick enough, and it just isn’t enough.

We can also be thankful that across the world young people are challenging the political status quo, evidenced by the youth vote for Corbyn, Sanders, and Varoufakis who have reignited a more compassionate form of politics. But they are not in power, and the market is still dominant.

For the last 30 years we have lived with the marketisation of the social sector, it came from Reagan and Thatcher via an ideological push by governments to reduce spending, and increase  the influence of the private sector in welfare provision. We have seen privatisation of social sector services worldwide, and commensurately a movement from within, to find alternative ways to fund the sector including the unproven social impact bonds.

One of my concern’s is that the MBA heavy, corporate refugees in management positions of the social enterprise intermediaries are pushing their market driven barrow, and do not understand the history and mutual nature of social enterprise. They are not working from a ‘lived-experience’ as espoused beautifully by   Daniela Papi-Thornton’s research on “Tackling Heropreneurship” published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. They do not come from lived experience of, for example living in poverty, or from being immersed in working with the people who’s problems we are trying to help solve. 

Since Reagan, Thatcher, and in Australia John Howard, community organisations have  increasingly become transactional providers to governments for specific services and no more. This is how the forces of neo-liberalism have shaped the ‘not-so’ welfare state, as silo’s of services with no developmental focus, lest we organise and get restless.

Ann Ingamells has pointed out that a “market discourse has entered every sphere of life

This means that not only are community organisations now required to see themselves as businesses and make at least part of their income in the commercial market, but also individuals and families are expected to meet their own education, training, health, housing and superannuation needs through the market. State welfare becomes minimal in this model and increasingly stigmatised. Responsible citizens, we are told, meet their own needs in the market.

Ingamells, Williams, and Dick 2014 Social Enterprise and Community Practice, in Generation Next, Becoming Socially Enterprising, Oxford University Press

On a structural level it is important to understand how mutualism works in relation to power. Latham talks about mutualism exemplified by horizontal rather than hierarchical power structures and uses Landcare and Clean-Up Australia as examples of organisations fostering mutual relationships, growing their support and building social capital. We could add Get-Up as a contemporary example. He goes on to say:

Hierarchies concentrate knowledge and authority at the top of the administrative pecking order. Know-how only ever passes downwards. Networks by contrast flatten out this pecking order and establish mutual relationships of trust, negotiation, and reciprocity. The wide spread and value of information in our society means it can no longer be hoarded at the top of an organisation. it needs to be dispersed, thereby opening up networks of cooperation and self government.

Latham Ibid


Mutualism offers a way out of the silo’ed, individualised, transactional, oligarchy of neo-liberalism and also away from big state bureaucracy. Mutualism at it’s heart is a communitarian form of working. Its a way that mimics nature in it’s understanding that we are all interdependent on each other for a healthy, peaceful society.

Ten years ago, I set up a citizen’s group, The Fruitful Suburbs to swap excess fruit and veggies grown without pesticides in local backyards. The group still meets monthly in a local park, money has never changed hands, and the group is a working example of mutualism and reciprocity. No one in the group is interested in competing with each other, or is jealous if someone takes a whole bag of mandarins, and that person has only brought a small, droopy bunch of basil; they understand that at the next meet-up the roles may be reversed.

In social enterprise I have often collaborated with other enterprises, helping them win tenders, or lending machinery for them to do a job, without expecting anything in return, but always gaining something in the long run. If we operate from a position of abundance and not fear, reciprocity grows.


Social entrepreneurs have traditionally worked like this, creating mutual networks, using open source models, and working together collectively when called for. This is why and how NMG was formed, and then morphed into QSEC. But, I have noticed a drift away from this style of working, to a more individual, hero approach; where competition for capital, and airtime is becoming prevalent. We are seeing new social entrepreneurs operate without a structural analysis of power, and / or happy to work within the neo-liberalism paradigm, only seeking to create change at an individual level.

I say, our power is in the collective, in mutuality and reciprocity, in true collaboration over competition, social over private capital; and I call for a resurgence of mutualism.


Members of the New Mutualism Group in the early 2000’s included  Ingrid Burkett, Dave Langdon (Nundah Community Enterprise Coop), Amelia Salmon (Spiral Community Hub and Just Earth), Susan Black and Steve Williams (Sandgate Enterprise for Economic Development – SEED), Belinda Drew (Forresters), Aleem Ali (Speak-Out), Marty Richards and Ali (?) (Ethical Property Maintenance), Paul Schmidt (Sustainable Gardening Services).

Founding members of QSEC 2010 – 2012 Steve Williams (SEED, SANDBAG), Richard Warner (Nundah enterprise co-op), Amelia Salmon (SPIRAL Social Enterprise Hub), James Boreham (Human Ventures),Marc Sims (Entekcom), Saba Abraham (Mu’ooz Restaurant).

Apologies to anyone I’ve left out. Please email me to revise the records stevewilliams1901@gmail.com

Clay Community Image by www.serafinhealth.org/community-matters/

About stevewilliams1901

Social entrepreneur based in Australia.
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