Two Decades of Publishing Resourcefulness
10 September 2014 at 11:13 am
A bit of extra cash allowed a social enterprise, that has quietly churned out its operations for more than two decades, to revolutionise the human services sector without a cent of government funding, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
St Luke’s Innovative Resources produces a range of therapeutic card sets, books and stickers used in a human services and social work context.
Founder Russell Deal has an academic background in social work, psychology and education. In 2013, he was the recipient of an Order of Australia Medal for services to social work education and the community.
In the early 1990s, Deal became interested in the use of hands-on tools for building conversations with St Luke’s clients. This led to the creation of Strength Cards – a set of 48 illustrated cards that name possible strengths people might identify as resources for facing challenges in their lives.
Since that time Innovative Resources has created and published over 50 products, used by counsellors, social workers, psychologists, educators, managers and supervisors who work with adults and children worldwide.
The social enterprise, now with a staff for ten, operates out of the regional Victorian city of Bendigo through an online platform – designing, printing and shipping its resources from scratch.
After two decades, the enterprise is still going strong – with the claim to fame of never having needed to rely on government or philanthropic funding.
A Shift in Human Services
The cards produced by Innovative Resources were the product of a rethink about ways to engage individuals in a human services environment. In turn, the product has carved out its own niche.
“In our language, we would say our card sets are conversation building props,” Deal says.
“They give people some head start in terms of being able to talk about how they’re feeling, to name their strengths.
“For counsellors that traditionally rely on use of words verbally, it can act as a different way of inviting people to tell their story. Storytelling is the fabric of therapy and counselling.”
“We kicked off in the early 1990s prompted by a couple of things. The most immediate was a new way of rolling out family services for those in Victoria subject to child protection allegations.”
“That program caused us to think about the way we ran our services and ways we could engage with families so we could create change within a 4-6 week period.
“We’d been hearing about some of these ideas, coming out of the US in particular, other models of working with families…we produced our first cards at a conference in Ballarat we hosted in 1992.”
“”We simply had a bit of spare cash so we invested in publishing 500 sets of these cards for our family workers, and discovered that many of our clients really loved them and found them quite liberating. And other people were intrigued at what we did.”
“Around 1994-5 we were starting to experience significant sales and had to make a decision as to whether we killed off the idea or made it into a business framework. All that came two to three years after our first naive start!”
Use of the cards is no longer confined to Human Services workers, with the client base expanded to include schools, teachers, counsellors, nurses, psychiatrists and therapists.
St Luke’s Innovative resources has proven a remarkable rarity in its ability to create a financially sustainable model.
“From the outset we wanted to be independent financially and we wanted to run it as an income generating stream for St Luke’s. We’ve been able to maintain that for 22 years,” Deal says.
“For me having been the founder and creative director, having been financially independent, it’s something I’m pretty proud of. Wéve made a return back to St Luke’s every year.”
“St Luke’s has got about 60 different government funded programs but in a number of those programs government funding always falls short. We’ve been able to use Innovative Resources to add to some of those programs that are underfunded.”
“We’ve never sought government or philanthropic funding. We’ve simply made a business model built solely around the ability to create, publish and sell conversation-building materials.
“We can create anything that we want to create if we think that we can do it with financial integrity.”
Deal puts the organisation’s success down to a few key factors.
“Being free from dependency on government funding gives us total autonomy, but it means we have to process every idea in terms of sellability – to be convinced that we can at least break even and preferably make a profit on anything that we produce.”
“There are some other community sector publishers who lock themselves into dependence on government funding, which can fluctuate enormously. We’ve had to maintain a creative edge that keeps us on the ball.”
In part, Deal says, this ‘edge’ has included the development of products with tremendous versatility, able to be used traversing cultural, geographic, sectoral and language barriers.
“We’ve done a lot of community connecting,” he says. “Our cards are used by practitioners coming from many different professions and programs. [They are] used by facilitators and trainers, often rolling them out to other groups.
“Because we’re a Not for Profit, because we’re embedded in community services and cross over a whole lot of professional practice domains, we’re able to step into very broad territory, and because Australia is a relatively small market, that’s been very important.
“We sell through a network of retailers and agents, some bookshops, and others that retail on our behalf. We’ve certainly built a broad customer base that we service with our monthly online newsletter, so we’ve built up a pretty substantial list of customers.
“We’re selling to well over 30 countries now, and some even have their own retailers.”
The Challenges of Independence
The dramatic changes in the publishing industry since St Luke’s Innovative Resources first launched have proven both a boon and a bust for Deal.
“There’s been a whole sequence of challenges,” he says.
“Over the 20 years we’ve been operating, the publishing and printing industries have seen changes, for example, the arrival of Amazon and online purchasing. It has meant that a lot of our retailers have disappeared.
“Self-publishing has become much more accessible. There are people who can access the technology and make their own card sets. It means there’s a lot more material out there.”
Deal and his organisation did not benefit from the same head start in the 90s. Grappling with the technology and the scope of the process proved difficult, he says.
“We’re simply another small independent boutique publisher. We’ve worked a bit through our publishing connections. We’re self taught,” he says.
“When we started off we were incredibly naive. We had to learn how to talk to printers, get sales, build a website.
“We don’t print ourselves, we haven’t got a press. But we use local printers. We have an inhouse graphic designer and an inhouse managing editor.”
A review process helps ensure the products on offer remain relevant and contemporary.
“We obviously use sales as a pretty good indicator so we’re constantly looking at our top sellers, the ones that are a bit slow. Because we have to deal with relatively small print runs compared to mainstream publishers, every time one of our sets comes up for printing, we evaluate how it’s gone and whether there need to be any changes.
“We inform what we do in terms of our publications through input from best practice, from practitioners all over the world.”
The social enterprise has also taken another turn – expanding to incorporate a new arm based around educating clients on the use of the cards.
Deal has just returned from the Northern Territory where he hosted a series of five back-to-back workshops with human services practitioners, built around the use of the materials. Deal says the workshops have become a significant part of the organisation’s marketing but also a mini-business in itself.
He is optimistic about what the future might hold for St Luke’s Innovative Resources.
“[The publishing] will hopefully keep going fairly steadily. We’re always looking for new partnerships to co-publish with other people.
“We’re one of the very few social work publishers anywhere. We’re unique.”