Soft Landing in Social Enterprise
26 June 2013 at 12:09 pm
A simple idea to sidestep tip disposal fees has delivered a suite of successful social enterprises for charity Mission Australia.
Big Heart and its sub-enterprises Soft Landing and Featherweight are the products of an experiment with social enterprise that began long before the term became the buzz in the business world.
The need to create legitimate job opportunities for the disadvantaged prompted the charity’s initial trials with profitable models two decades ago.
For the first 15 years, their op-shop network expanded little, until four years ago a $340,000 grant gave them the resources to test an additional program.
Soft Landing would see a team of 10 or so employees pull apart mattresses to recycle materials and avoid disposal costs.
Soon tip expenses were rising again due to the sheer volume of mattresses processed by Soft Landing.
In response, Big Heart launched Featherweight, which used the mattress contents to stuff punching bags for Spartan Sporting goods, turning waste products into job opportunities.
Bill Dibley is the Operations Manager for Social Enterprise in New South Wales at Mission Australia.
The primary strength of the model, he says, is that it generates real and measurable job opportunities for participants.
“People previously saw this kind of thing as tokenistic, like planting trees. We employ people with high and complex needs and give them transferable skill sets. This includes Certificates 2 and 3 in Waste Management, and trucking licenses.”
The factory site in Sydney is now home to 65 employees, with approximately 40 on traineeship. The success rate is high, with 90% seeing their traineeship through to completion. Soft Landing has also been a recipient of a Green Globe Award for Environmental Excellence.
Many employees come from difficult backgrounds, including prison, literacy difficulties and other job barriers that make gaining employment impossible.
These are precisely the people Big Heart wants to take on, Dibley says.
He describes an employer looking for staff, separating piles of resumes. A pile of people who are rejected straight away is formed.
“We don’t go to the other pile,” Dibley says.
“We know the participants we’re working with are the forgotten group. They are so genuinely appreciative of us giving them a chance”.
Dibley says that for many of his employees the opportunity to work behind the scenes instead of at a counter in an op-shop is ideal.
“They’re able to work through the frustrations of life,” he says.
Social impact, not profit, is the primary aim. Dibley says he measures the success of Featherweight and Soft Landing with one simple indicator: the number of jobs created.
Yet the model has also enabled the charity to achieve some of its objectives in a financially sustainable way.
The enterprises can operate independent of government funding, and profits in the past have been diverted to gambling reduction programs in the Illawarra region.
“Social enterprise is the vehicle for us. You don’t have to have a huge company to have huge social impact. We have found our niche,” Dibley says.
He says many community programs are masquerading as social enterprise.
“The term social enterprise tends to be used to explain away those programs that don’t quite fit. It’s a square peg in a round hole situation,” Dibley says.
“There is no clear definition. We need to look at what the programs represent. We strongly believe in a self-sustaining model with measurable social outcomes.”
There is still considerable conjecture within Mission Australia itself about what social enterprise should be and what it can be, Dibley says.
The charity does, however, have basic requirements that their social enterprises must meet:
- The enterprise must have social meaning.
“It cannot be tokenistic. We’re not here to babysit people,” Dibley says.
- The enterprise must be financially sustainable.
Seed funding from the government may come for infrastructure, but Dibley says the uncertainty of co-dependency on government funding must be avoided.
- There must be a positive environmental footprint.
Charity enterprises like op shops have a significant waste footprint, Dibley says, and Mission Australia’s social enterprises work to offset that.
While social enterprise has proven an excellent way for charities to become more financially secure, the process of running profitable ventures is not without its challenges, Dibley says.
“People perceive Mission Australia as having tons of money. They ask, ‘why don’t you just do it anyway?’ But Not for Profit does not mean for a loss.”
“We have a lot more scrutiny as a charity. We cannot take any shortcuts ethically and morally. We are held to higher standards than corporations while still having to be competitive.
“People will give you the work if you price match but they won’t pay more for social impact.”
Mission Australia will continue to strip mattresses in the hope that one day, that might change.