Social Enterprise Gets Political
21 August 2013 at 11:40 am
In this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise, political passion in post-apartheid South Africa has inspired a young Melbourne social entrepreneur to engage the ‘disengaged’ in Australian politics – but innovation and originality have been almost as much a hindrance as a help.
Newly-launched social enterprise, Policy Booth will be put to the test in the coming weeks as it seeks to engage Australians in the policy-making process in the lead-up to the Federal Election.
It is a long way from South Africa where its co-founder, Bec McHenry, was inspired by the fervour of Coolpolitics, a dutch youth empowerment initiative keeping political and social awareness alive in the country as Apartheid faded into history.
With co-founder Hugo Lamb, McHenry developed a business model where clients such as local governments pay Policy Booth a fee to provide community consultation through online or physical interaction.
“With the upcoming election a lot of people talk about the decline of politics in Australia,” McHenry says.
“People are almost allergic to the word ‘policy’.”
“Our social mission is to work with local government to put the ‘public’ back into ‘public policy’.”
The intent is to engage the disengaged, she says, by facilitating community connection in the process of consultation.
“It’s really about how we can create meaningful experiences,” she says.
McHenry and Lamb stepped into the social enterprise arena from a business background, having collaborated on McHenry’s business The Projection Room. The company is Australia's second certified B Corporation, recognised by the US scheme designed to spotlight businesses committed to solving social and environmental problems.
It was this notion of business used as a tool for change that inspired McHenry to explore a social business approach.
“The social enterprise structure was formed out of my B-Corp roots. Being a B-corp also gave me the legitimacy,” McHenry says.
“Through the Projection Room we have always wanted to do something. Policy Booth is our first independent project.”
Ticking the boxes on impact
The need to demonstrate measurable social outcomes has been a challenge that Lamb and McHenry had not faced in their previous business ventures.
“We’re not sure where we’re going in terms of quantifying social impact moving forward”, Lamb says.
“Proving our social purpose has been a difficult thing. Social enterprise is understood by a minority but it doesn’t cut across.
“Before our success was measured on a case-by-case basis. We’d consider what a client wanted and whether we met that demand.
“You can’t say how much value you have had across the whole industry.”
Income has allowed the duo to invest time, expertise and financial resources into the development of educational projects that strengthen community participation in the creation of public policy.
Yet while Policy Booth has concrete projects to show for its profits, demonstrating the outcomes of these projects is another challenge in itself.
Lamb and McHenry’s first impact project is Pre/Poll, launched earlier this month. The free online educational tool allows users to compare the policies of the major parties and practise voting.
The project, Lamb says, has opened up the possibilities of click tracking and Google Analytics as an evidentiary base for impact and reach.
“We’re able to get some great metrics by tracking this online,” he says.
Policy Booth has been forward thinking in other areas as well, employing innovative approaches to staffing and resourcing their organisation and improving the consultation process.
Policy Booth is offering employment opportunities to Australian youth volunteering in the Not for Profit sector. The Policy ‘Boosters’ Program takes young advocates away from ‘bar jobs’ and gives them meaningful and relevant employment, McHenry says.
Lamb says they will be a core asset looking forward.
“It’s a free space for them to be innovative. We can resource them in terms of our networks and our skills. These guys are going to be the ideas generator for us,” he says.
“What we’re hoping to achieve is to understand why people are disengaged. They’re already wired into what the sector needs.”
Another key way to tackle disengagement, McHenry says, is to find the optimum means of connecting with people.
McHenry says the team has developed what she calls ‘slight expertise’ in the concept of pop-ups, where a physical space is temporarily transformed for a purpose such as sales or marketing.
“We see cross-pollination between industry trends, for example, how retail is trying to engage people,” McHenry says.
“For us the next thing will be to merge online and offline experiences. We’ve got an online platform in development.”
The Government hasn’t streamlined public consultation in that way before, McHenry says, creating an opening.
“But you come to realise that online doesn’t solve everything,” McHenry says, suggesting a balance has proven best.
“For us, the next thing is how we can merge these online and offline experiences,” she says.
The Election and Beyond
For now, Lamb and McHenry have pre-election priorities firmly in their sights, but are cautiously looking to future possibilities.
“What we’re trying to push is to be the driving force behind the hashtag #auspolicy on Twitter,” Lamb says.
“Through social media we’re now seeing some great organic user-generated stuff.”
“If we can create that, that creates an appetite”.
McHenry, deferring to long-term goals, has scaling in her sights.
“How social enterprises can get to scale is an interesting concept that is not captured in the Australian market at the moment,” she says.
“The way we see it, yes we can scale, and that’s the goal. But it’s about how we can scale impact as well.
“We work with other contractors and try to enhance opportunities but there’s a lot more to community consultation than that. Federal contracts require a lot more weight behind them. It’s really about how things evolve over time.
“The reality is that high level policy making helps determine public engagement. So, people recognise its power. That’s the kind of impact we want to have. Policy needs to take a more prominent role at a local scale before we can get to world domination.”
A Changing of the Guard
World domination may have to wait for now.
Much of Policy Booth is atypical – its founders are experienced beyond their years, its approaches off-beat, and it straddles the polar worlds of policy and design.
Yet thinking outside the box in the social enterprise world has not always been to McHenry and Lamb’s advantage.
“It’s been difficult being the youngest people in the room again,” Lamb notes.
As a young innovator people see you as unproven and untested, he says.
“We’re not a traditional social enterprise, which affects our ability to attract corporate investors and grants. Presenting ourselves in ways to get those traditional forms of funding has been difficult,” he says.
“There are very generous people but to be honest it has been one of the key issues. Many grants are not as versatile as they need to be.”
McHenry cites a recent City of Melbourne Grant for social enterprise. “We didn’t fit a lot of the criteria,” McHenry laments.
“There are lots of unconventional social enterprises out there and we need to support them.”
For the future, the Policy Booth team is hopeful to see more advocacy-based organisations engaging with government.
And McHenry hopes her team can prove its mettle.
“In terms of new methodologies and new technologies Policy Booth is really innovative,” she says.
“I’d like to see a greater level of respect an understanding of what we can achieve in the community.”