Social Enterprise IS Social Change

I was struck by the recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review claiming that Social Enterprise is Not Social Change . I believe social enterprise absolutely is a tool for social change. When a social entrepreneur has a big picture overview of society and the economy, including a power analysis, and is willing to work collectively across sectors then they can begin to create systemic structural change.

For the Australia reader the issue with the SSIR article,  is that it’s USA centric and takes no account of how SOCENT operates around the world. America is doomed due to its obsession with capitalism, evidenced by the apparent use free market methodology (not leveraging the power of markets, but blindly following its neo-liberal agenda) to create social change. I don’t believe this correlates with our local Australian experience and I briefly outline why below. Note – the authors use SEE for social enterprise and social entrepreneurship; I use SOCENT as the popular tag for social enterprise. 

“SEE is founded on neoliberal ideology: a belief that markets, not government, produce the best social and economic outcomes. SEE advocates construct social problems as knowledge problems that can be solved by technical innovation driven by competition among individual social entrepreneurs, operating through for-profit, nonprofit, or hybrid enterprises. “

This sentence couldn’t be further from the truth of the Queensland SOCENT sector that I know and work in. Queensland has a long history of cooperative models, and is the only state in Australia to have a peak body run by and for members. The Queensland Social Enterprise Council (QSEC) grew out of the New Mutualism group; which in itself was a small gathering of social and community workers engaged in social enterprise in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s in Brisbane. This group claimed the notions of reciprocity and mutuality to be of upmost importance in doing business.

So, the Brisbane scene at least was not built  on neoliberal ideology: a belief that markets, not government, produce the best social and economic outcomes. And certainly not on competition among individual social entrepreneurs. We have long advocated for collaboration over competition and an acknowledgement that the government, private, and community sectors should work in collaboration to achieve social impact.

“SEE’s incompatibility with collective, democratic political action is clear in the way its proponents frame their approach. First, they claim that “heroic” individuals are the key to broad social change.”

The above paragraph is why QSEC was formed, as a way for collective, democratic political action (and as support for colleagues). This has been a success in the way the organisation has helped change social procurement policy at a local and state level; which is a very real and tangible social change.

“Third, SEE promoters seek to minimize government. John Whitehead, a former Goldman Sachs chairman who funded Harvard’s Social Enterprise Initiative, was explicit: “I’m always looking for opportunities to expand the nonprofit sector of our economy to have nonprofits take over functions that are now performed by the government… In the work of public schools, charter schools are an example of how the private sector can do it better, or nonprofits can do it better.”

Again, I argue this has little relevance to Australia. However, of course in some cases non profits can do better than governments and vice versa. I would be wary though of promoting purely profit seeking private firms as a way to create social change.

There are some great points the authors make about Reclaiming public voice; how In a democracy, creating social change requires sustained interaction between the state and a vigorous civil society. 

I argue that we are each creating our own contributions to social change and civil society, and that in an Australian context SOCENT can and does play a healthy part in that narrative.

About stevewilliams1901

Social entrepreneur based in Australia.
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