Learnings from the Social Enterprise World Forum 2017 #SEWF2017

Last week, along with 1,600 other delegates I attended the 9th annual Social Enterprise World Forum, which this year was held in Christchurch, New Zealand, proudly declared by the City’s Mayor as “the people’s republic of Christchurch”.

It’s a city rebuilding after two terrible earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 which decimated much of the city centre killing 185 people and injuring several thousand. According to today’s edition of the local paper The Press, 1 in 6 Christchurch residents have sought mental health assistance since 2011 as a result of trauma and loss associated with the earthquakes.

Here’s a summary of what I learned from SEWF2017 hosted in a city still rebuilding, and activating amazing community development, social enterprise, and environmental innovation. As expected SEWF2017 had high level international speakers and fellow delegates including Royston Braganza CEO of Grameen Capital; Andrea Chen ED of Propeller, New Orleans; Dr Mairi Mackay Head of the British Council’s Global Social Enterprise Council, and Australia’s very own fabulous Professor Jo Barraket of the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University.

At the opening ceremony I was not the only Australian thoroughly moved by hearing each and every opening address using Maori language and embracing culture. Maori culture was interwoven throughout the forum and was integral to its success. I was personally shamed by the way many non indigenous Australians treat Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. Even the theme for SEWF 2017, “Ka koroki te manu – Creating our tomorrow”, references Maori language and culture in the belief that the first birdsong of the day welcomes the potential of tomorrow.


Much of what I heard over the last three days echoed my own thoughts, which I have laid out before in this blog, however it’s good to know that I’m not alone and that there are many with shared views about power and competition.

A feature of one main plenary session was a call for collaboration over competition, and the recognition that neo liberals espouse competition along with privatisation as a golden ticket to better service at a better price. However experience has not borne this out, and we in the social economy need not copy the dominant economic paradigm in a misguided effort to gain approval from mainstream corporations and consultants. Collaboration and by extension collectivisim are hallmarks of a progressive way forward in business and towards a better world.

MJ Kaplan of Loomio reminded the forum that as a practitioner/social entrepreneur you must have a power analysis, and seek to address structural inequalities. According to the Hon. Alfred Ngaro the Minister for Pacific Peoples (and apparently the George Clooney of the Pacific – for he is handsome!), who opened the forum, social enterprise in New Zealand is about ‘putting power into the hands of the people’.

Practicing social enterprise after all is a political act. An act which should put people at the centre of power. There are many people doing great work in the sector, who are doing this work because they want to help people. But unless we bring an awareness of power, structural inequalities and racism; and how people at the top use power in insidious ways to keep the status quo operating in their favour we will never create lasting change.

David Le Page, a legend of the world social enterprise movement asked the forum to remember where we have come from, acknowledge and learn from our heritage of cooperatives and mutualism.

Mark Latham in kinder times wrote about mutualism and reciprocity as part of the much vaunted 1990’s ‘third way’. He talked about flatter structures and the need for dispersal of power: “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.”

When we launched Australia’s only peak body in the sector, the Queensland Social Enterprise Council (QSEC) in 2012, we did so with a power analysis front and centre; with reciprocity and mutualism as a guiding force. We wanted to take back the social enterprise narrative from intermediaries who were not representative of the hundreds of emerging social enterprises in Queensland; and we wanted to, as a new Maori friend at the forum told me his people have always done, ‘put people at the centre of decision making’. QSEC has a democratically board of social entrepreneurs, and is a member driven network of over 100 social enterprises, which seeks to do just that.

The forum made me reflect on what it means to be ethical not only in your business practice, but in all parts of life, and the difficulty of the path we follow. Tom Dawkins of Start Some Good, the Australian crowdfunding platform , caused some ripples with comments on the SEWF chat app about plastic bottle use during Thank You Water’s presentation highlighting the paradox of positively contributing to a social problem while negatively contributing to an environmental one.

On environmental care its good to note that the recycling and upcycling at the event was fantastic, for example even the drinks tokens given to delegates were simply offcuts of rubber used in a manufacturing process. And, the whole event was designed to be carbon positive.

Finally, Royston Braganza from Grameen Capital urged us to ‘drop the ego’. Our sector is no different to other sectors, ego is a human condition and there will always be some people who seek to undermine others and movements in a quest for their own power. I think its also important to talk about being compassionate to yourself and others here. We too often are critical of others efforts and as Peter Holbrook reminded us “small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world”.


To sum up, SEWF 2017 confirmed my love of social enterprise and validated my beliefs that essentially we need to develop better analyses of power, address structural inequality and racism, put people at the centre of decision making, and for all of us to drop our egos.

I was at the forum courtesy of my employer Marist180, a non-profit working in Western Sydney and with offices in Brisbane and Melbourne, for whom I manage Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Marist180 were contributors to the bursary fund which enabled 63 Australians to attend who may not otherwise have had the opportunity.


About stevewilliams1901

Social entrepreneur based in Australia.
This entry was posted in A Social Entrepreneurs Diary. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Learnings from the Social Enterprise World Forum 2017 #SEWF2017

  1. Robert Pekin says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this Steve. I feel as though I was part there


  2. Pingback: Learnings and Wise Words hit home - Goodsmiths : Goodsmiths

  3. Pingback: Learnings and Wise Words hit home - Goodsmiths Social Enterprise Marketing Platform

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