A Social Enterprise with a Sporting Chance
Wednesday, 17th December 2014 at 11:24 am
A sports-mad social science graduate is touting social enterprise in the top end, bringing the promise of sustainability and self-leadership to community organisations in remote Northern Territory locations, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Karina Gray, the Director of Starwin Social Enterprises, came to the Northern Territory in 2007 looking to combine her passion for sport with her experience in working in community organisations and all three arms of Government.
What Gray found was a gap in capacity for community and sporting organisations, and the opportunity to change that through training in leadership and governance and meaningful education programs for young people looking to have a career in sport.
Operating under the tagline “champions change communities,” Starwin Social Enterprises is the result of Gray’s persistence to address this gap. From its humble beginnings as a one-woman consulting service funding sports camps for kids, the organisation has grown to comprise multiple arms, and is now finding new success working with community groups to implement social enterprise as a change model, equipping them for self-leadership and self-sustainability.
We spoke to Karina Gray as she quietly continues to work to grow the social enterprise movement in the top end, finding solutions to address the state’s remote locations, extreme weather and unique social fabric.
In 2010, Gray set up the first iteration of Starwin – a consulting service – on a part-time basis, to see if the market found that kind of service useful.
The service focused on business planning, strategic planning, business cases, sponsorship agreement. Gray worked with state bodies of sports and started taking on work with small organisations taking on tender applications.
The first social project run through Starwin was a camp for 16 young athletes. Gray says young people in the Northern Territory wanting a career in sport do not always have opportunities outside elite training and development centres like the Northern Territory Institute of Sport.
“We made it our mission to run one each year partnered with other community sports organisations,” Gray says. “We had some really great outcomes from working in that first camp. They think, If I can't necessarily have an athletic career, I can maybe work as an administrator or a coach."
Gray says it was after a couple of years when she realised there was definitely a market for her services.
“The problem for these organisations was having access to enough funds to pay people for what they needed,” she says. “It took me about three years to go full time, and then last year we started negotiating around a better way to help sports and community organisations raise income while still accessing the services they need and maintaining good governance and structure.”
In the interim, Gray’s model expanded as she sought to use her expertise in as many ways as possible. Her portfolio of services ballooned to include the provision of assistance with events management focused on sports industry, and she assisted with marketing and distributing the clothing of a social enterprise promoting indigenous employment by harnessing the image of local sports stars.
The latter project led to the development of The Starwin shop front. It now acts as a social enterprise exchange, with partner community organisations supplying goods which are sold and the profits reinvested into community through a program donating new sports shoes to rising local sports stars.
“At first we just had a few suppliers we started to work with, and now it’s just blossomed, and taken over! Now we’re up to about half-half in income from the consultancy and income from the shop front,” she says.
“It’s given us that stability of daily income and cash flow, compared to consultancy projects where it might be two to three months into a project before you have that regular cash flow coming in. We still provide some consultancy services, but we’re very selective about who we work with, taking on short term event facilitation, and strategic planning projects.
“It’s been a really organic action-research model. A lot of social enterprises are so reliant on ‘you have to generate this much income to do this much good', and are really stringent around making business plans with tipping points, for example. I have admiration for that, but if we’d worked that way about 50 percent of what we’ve done wouldn’t have happened.”
To date, Starwin has supported 40 suppliers, worked with 50 organisations to help improve governance or business through consulting, and has assisted around 150 people through work experience and leadership programs.
Building Capacity in the Top End
Much of Starwin’s current work through the shopfront centres around empowerment and capacity building for local social enterprises.
“It’s been a real test the market situation with the shopfront. We didn’t know if the shopfront would take off, but we get inquiries how we can stock their stuff. There’s been a lift in growth and professionalism with the current suppliers we work with in terms of range and how they promote themselves,” Gray says.
“The people we work with – I find it really positive and uplifting. The shop really focuses on engaging with women’s groups. Out of our supplier base I’d say 90 per cent would be remote indigenous women working in communities.
“What we’re trying to do is to provide and economic stream to showcase the work that they do and hopefully counter some the negative stereotypes around them. It’s all self-led – they’re doing what they love when they want and producing stuff they can sell for what they want.”
Gray sees great potential in the Northern Territory for social enterprise.
“There’s so much opportunity in the Northern Territory because it is smaller – a smaller population, communities are smaller, you have greater opportunities to have a social impact and demonstrate social impact. At the same time, that can also work in the opposite way, in that if something negative is happening, it impacts the community more severely. Your strength is also your weakness,” she says.
“I think social enterprise is creeping into Alice Springs quite a lot but definitely not here in the top end. The NT Government did a couple of sessions for October’s business month, but they were more around marketing and not actually promoting and developing the concept of social and community enterprise, which I find quite ironic because it’s something that’s been happening up here in remote communities for years and years and years.
“Most community enterprises are family owned or community run, and generally those profits have had to be put back into communities in some way, it just hasn't been defined [as social enterprise].
“Nobody engaging with social enterprise at a national scale is making Darwin and the top end a footprint site for them. I find it really isolating.”
Starwin is currently running a pilot with one of its suppliers whose products are made in remote communities – communities that will be shut off for the entire wet season.
Gray hails the pilot as important in the mission to help suppliers ensure their own sustainability.
“The difficulty I’m encountering is that a lot of these organisations that are established want to provide training, which is really hard to sustain on an ongoing basis because of remoteness, or they want to provide loans, but we don’t want them to go towards debt,” she says.
“Instead it’s about them generating enough income to put that income into something else and grow that way by self-funding , not go into debt so they can build more things or employ more people. They want to do it on a scale that it small but do it in a successful way.”
Gray says she sees 2015 as the year when the organisation will become streamlined. “We’ll be able to say ok, we provide consultancy, governance and leadership support, and work with social enterprises to improve their governance, leadership and value through the shop front.”
Some challenges remain.
“My biggest challenge is definitely funding and cash flow. We have never accessed Government or private philanthropic funds. It’s all been self-funded by myself, which is good in that its under my control, but at the same time it means I haven't necessarily been able to grow or access as many opportunities as have presented themselves,” Gray says.
“Another challenge has been about who we work with. For me personally, being an entrepreneur in that space and thinking that what we do is motivated by good has led me to work with some people and enterprises I thought would have those same values, but at times, that hasn’t come to fruition.
“While always open and happy for collaboration, it’s something I’d definitely be more structured about – who we partner with, what that means, and what happens when it doesn’t work out and values don't continue to align. I also think because people see that you do good, they sometimes think they can take advantage of that.”
Gray highlights four areas of future focus:
– Social Enterprise development in the Top End
– Young Women's Leadership programs (growing the Tiwi Bombers Football Club Youth Girls & TalentEd programs)
– Developing a program for Starwin to host school-based trainees
– Launch of an online shop and new website for Starwin Shopfront
“I’ve been actively over the past couple of months been trying to speak to some places like BCorp Australia, the School for Social Entrepreneurs and the Queensland Social Enterprise Council.
“At the moment we’re going through B corp accreditation so we can use that as a model to provide education and be an example for other groups to say ‘hey, this is a really good pathway, this is what a B Corp structure looks like’.”
“We can provide support for other organisations to go through it as well.”