In Summary

  • This article featured in Swinburne’s new ‘Research Impact’ magazine, produced in association with Nature Publishing Group

World-leading analysis by Swinburne University of Technology sociologist, Professor Jo Barraket, is providing valuable insight into Australia’s large and rapidly growing social enterprise sector.

The sector comprises organisations that seek to engineer social impact through commerce, from Fair Trade groups to community-based recycling and labour-market operations, and charitable business ventures. It employs an estimated 9 per cent of Australia’s working population across 20,000 separate operations, but until recently little was known about its purpose, scope or impact.

To address this, in 2010 and 2015 Barraket used online surveys, focus groups and data-mining to map where, why and how social enterprises operate. The initial report, Finding Australia’s Social Enterprise Sector (FASES) 2010 provided the first academically produced evidence related to the field and the first Australian definition of what social enterprise is (see box).

“It helped explode a few myths such as the idea that social enterprise was something brand new,” says Barraket, the Director of the Swinburne Centre for Social Impact. “In fact the research showed quite clearly that social enterprise was a mature and sustained sector in Australia. It also provided credibility for governments to make investments.”

The work was done in partnership with the Melbourne-based national social enterprise support agency, Social Traders, and has provided a wealth of evidence for policy makers, the public and those working in the sector for planning and investment purposes.

“It’s been a critical piece of work in terms of social enterprise in Australia,” says Social Traders managing director, David Brookes.

The Finding Australia’s Social Enterprise Sector (FASES) 2010 work was quoted by the Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion, Ursula Stephens, at the 2010 launch of the $40 million Social Enterprise Development and Investment Fund.

The report has shaped policy frameworks at federal and state levels, as well as internationally. This includes initiatives in New Zealand, Tasmania and in Western Australia, where a $10 million fund has been established. Barraket has also advised researchers in Germany and Switzerland, along with multiple government agencies within Australia over the past year.

FASES 2015 focused on the challenges and opportunities facing the sector. When the interim report was released in June 2015 it pointed to particular difficulties in balancing the governance requirements of social enterprise organisations against the flexibility required in a business environment.

The results also indicate increased opportunities for social enterprise in the disability and aged care sectors, as well as markets where ethical consumption is becoming more popular. In the meantime, Barraket is studying the impact of social enterprise initiatives on individuals and in the communities where they operate.