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Centre Opens Doors to Open Minds

3 September 2013 at 10:18 pm
Staff Reporter
Charities are increasingly turning to social enterprise to achieve their social objectives and this week Nadia Boyce looks at a Sydney Not for Profit putting people with mental illness on the hospitality frontline.

Staff Reporter | 3 September 2013 at 10:18 pm


Centre Opens Doors to Open Minds
3 September 2013 at 10:18 pm

Charities are increasingly turning to social enterprise to achieve their social objectives and this week Nadia Boyce looks at a Sydney Not for Profit putting people with mental illness on the hospitality frontline.

A Sydney social enterprise is putting people with mental illness on the hospitality frontline and tackling the stigma associated with psychological disability.  

A bold investment by mental health Not for Profit RichmondPRA has seen their employment program recently expand to a million dollar conference centre in Sydney Olympic Park.

For over half a century, RichmondPRA has provided support programs and accommodation for people with a mental illness.

Figtree Conference Centre is their latest venture, providing work opportunities for people suffering from a variety of psychological conditions.

Workers are trained and mentored in the areas of conference, event, exhibition and catering management by industry experts. Vocational services give workers training, mentorship and access to TAFE courses.

The ultimate goal is that workers at Figtree will obtain the needed stability, skills and experience to move on to jobs in the open labour market.

Breaking down barriers

Pamela Rutledge is the CEO at RichmondPRA.

She says that the illnesses of those working at the centre tend to be severe, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression.

Most notable, Rutledge says, is the disruption they have experienced in study and employment.

“Their lives are thrown into disarray,” she says. “They face the challenge of having the confidence to get up and face the world every day.”

The potential for these illnesses to disrupt the lives of sufferers does not result in less success in this workplace, however.

“The hospitality sector is a space where there are some inherent values for people with an interrupted working life, such as flexibility. There are some natural benefits to grow new paths back into the workforce.”

“Our workers pour their hearts and souls into it,” she says.  

Keith Christiansen, one of the first workers to be engaged by the Figtree Conference Centre. He has since become a role model for other trainees, providing in house mentoring and training to colleagues.

“This is a facility where I and many other people with a lived experience of mental illness can earn some serious employment and career stripes,” he says.

“The atmosphere here is incredible. You get an instant sense of the potential and the support available as soon as you step inside.

“I’m pretty sure that a lot of workers will look back at the Figtree Conference Centre and say ‘this is where my life changed for the better’.”

The benefits have extended to Figtree’s client base, Rutledge adds.

“So many people are fearful,” Rutledge says.

“There is so much distortion in the way issues are portrayed in the media, and people think you can’t talk about these things.”

“This provides fantastic insight into life and how hard it can be.”

“For customers, the nature of the experience is that you actually meet someone who’s life has been much different. The feedback has been fantastic. Their needs are met and people say they don’t want to go home!”

“In our marketing, we’re promoting it as value added. Not just on the level of contributing to a Not for Profit but also in terms that the staff and venue provide a different perspective on life and break down some of the stigma and stereotypes about mental illness.”

Rutledge says leading with social impact as a marketing tool has produced some interesting results.

“There has seemed to be a bit of a stereotype about how we place ourselves in the market. We think our pricing is quite fair and  comparable to others but when booking we find that people say they’re Not for Profits and expect a discount.”

“It’s not universal. We’re getting some great return business from NFPs.”

A Not for Profit in transition

Figtree has emerged from a period of change and restructure at its parent Not for Profit, one that provided an ideal time to put the project in motion.  

Costs have been minimised, Rutledge says, by aligning the launch of the centre with other changes in the organisation, including a merger with another mental health Not for Profit and the need to renovate and refresh office spaces.

Figtree complements a suite of existing employment enterprises and programs delivered by RichmondPRA, supported by the Commonwealth Government through the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

The organisation currently has over 300 supported positions across the Sydney metropolitan region, but the conference represents a move in a new direction.

“We were picking up on an international trend to grow social enterprise rather than offering supported employment,” Rutledge says.

“Both I and the CEO of our merger partner – we were both driven and excited about the idea.”

And so began the process of getting board approval to invest in the ambitious project – one that proved a success.

“Our board is very tuned in to investing in people’s lives. They were prepared to invest in this and were understanding that it could make us less reliant on government money in the long term but that the process would take time,” Rutledge says.

“They’re prepared to see we won’t be sustainable for a few years.”

Currently the program is partly supported by employment funding from government, and the aim will be to slowly recoup invested funds during the ten year lease period, Rutledge says.   

Looking forward

The ambitious CEO is optimistic about the centre reaching long-term viability.

Moving trainees out into the mainstream is set to be one of the most important measures for social return for the organisation.

“We’re very interested in SROI and social evaluation, and for trainees to move into the open labour market – that’s a real social return,” she says.  

“Our mainstream employment market has a lot to learn. There is this whole untapped workforce.”

A future partnership with a hospitality provider, Rutledge says, could be the way forward in achieving this, providing ways for trainees to move seamlessly out into mainstream employment.

Rutledge says that to date, corporate partnerships haven’t been of high priority.

“We’ve been putting out feelers for people to come and use the centre. That’s the best way organisations can support us,” Rutledge says.

“We’d be delighted to get other forms of corporate support but what we really want is a flourishing centre.”

“We’d like more bookings. It’s a tough marketplace to be in.”

Rutledge sees a bright future for the social enterprise movement, having developed a personal interest in the growth and reach of the model.

“I look at places like Italy – they have more of a social co-op model rather than social enterprise, but its the fastest growing part of their economy.”

RichmondPRA has already begun branching out and now also owns a franchise of Kwik Kopy in Surrey Hills, providing more employment opportunities for the mentally ill.

Yet the experiment positioning the mentally ill as faces of the hospitality business has had a social impact arguably more important than any business success.

“People can have very narrow views about mental illness,” Rutledge says. “There is more stigma than with other disabilities.”

“This can open up hearts and minds to it.”

Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

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