Resourcing Community Cohesion
28 January 2015 at 10:41 am
A popular recycling social enterprise operating for nearly a quarter of a century is emerging as the glue holding together a community stricken by disadvantage, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Great Lakes Resource Recovery Park is a multi-award winning waste reduction and recycling social enterprise based on the mid-north coast of NSW, maximising the reuse and recycling of steel, green waste, concrete rubble, bric-a-brac, batteries, polystyrene, e-waste, oil, mattresses and poisons.
It is headed by John Weate, a community development veteran with 25 years experience as CEO of Great Lakes Community Resources, the community development Not for Profit behind the original Resource Recovery enterprise.
In 1991, driven to find new ways of assisting the local indigenous population into employment, Weate approached the Great Lakes Council and convinced them he could offer an enterprise solution for their maintenance requirements – one that would provide environmental outcomes on par with the professionals and the social outcome of targeted job creation.
To Weate’s surprise, the Council agreed, and that initial contract has since been developed into a business with a $3 million turnover.
With the recent development of a consulting arm and a planned expansion to new sites, Pro Bono Australia News spoke to Weate about scaling, social capital and the value of employment, which he labels as “the ultimate in social inclusion.”
Building Social Capital
“We’ve had various social enterprises over the year, some of which have worked really well, some of which have failed, some of which we’ve sold and some of which we’ve kept,” Weate said.
“One of our most successful is Resource Recovery.”
The idea underpinning Resource Recovery is to identify each waste stream and turn it into a wage, employing people from target groups and then building support around each worker. In Tuncurry, the local indigenous population faces significant disadvantage.
“Inevitably a worker will come with difficulties – from literacy to substance abuse, to homelessness and a criminal record – you build the support for each worker to ensure they remain in your employment,” Weate said.
“One man came to us having made multiple suicide attempts. Now his children have just finished their HSC. We set about bringing generational change to the Aboriginal community.”
The organisation has developed into more than a simple tip. The Great Lakes Resource Recovery Park is the showcase site at Tuncurry and now includes the Green Shop, Green Bikes Program, Green Community Garden and the Wallis Lakes Men's Shed. The programs on offer have drawn members from all demographics of the town, building community spirit and cohesion.
“At a tip site, there are all sorts of opportunities for employment, for training and also for social capital building, so we’ve built as business park around waste – just as you would build one around computing,” Weate said.
“We felt it could be a real social workshop for the town because we had space, tools, administration, supervision support and buildings. That social capital building is important, having old people and young people and black people and white people and rich and poor spending time together.
“Your old, conservative navy-type blokes and your hippie-type blokes get to spend time together, men and women get to spend time together – it’s a real social workshop for the town.”
The Green Bikes project sees bikes repaired by young males with school attendance or behavioural issues in the company of older volunteers who provide support.
“Just one-on-one, repairing the bikes. The bikes are an opportunity for the young person and an old person to spend time together, and then of course we sell those bikes,” Weate said.
Aiming for Sustainability
Weate says some key strategies have enabled the enterprise to remain successful after many years of operation.
“It’s about partnerships – we manage the site but we work very closely with the TAFE, schools, probation and parole and private waste contractors and the roads and traffic authority,” he said.
“It is all about collaboration. Make sure you’re continually engaging with the other groups in your town. Try to model collaboration rather than competition.
“When you consider modern business and how fickle it can be, local governments are a nice partner. They’re very risk averse and quite conservative, so you have to do a lot of work to take them along the path.
“Young aboriginal men come out of jail, we put them to work with the aim that they’re not going to back to jail. That took a lot of work with council [so they weren't saying] ‘hang on, we don’t want jailbirds collecting the fees!’
“You have to break down that risk aversion and explain to them what social procurement is and how it can help them get more value out of operations than they’re getting now.
“I’m an absolute devotee to social procurement. I think the benefits we have ahead of us looking to the next generation, as [people] look to get more out of their dollars in terms of local social and economic outcomes, that’s an enormous frontier.”
Weate says the organisation has transitioned to a model of lower reliance on external funding.
“We work on the 80-20 rule – we like to see 80 per cent of our income coming from trading and 20 per cent coming from grants.
“That means that you’re mostly trading and you’re mostly a serious business! If governments or philanthropists change their fashion you don’t have to panic, you can stay with your own mission.”
If Weate could do his time over, he says he would make some small tweaks in his approach.
“I think I would probably less risk averse, I would be less ‘under the radar’,” he said.
“We sort of just got on it with it. I had the view that we were very local, we were all about what we were doing for the town, not worrying about what others were doing nationally. We were probably a little bit introspective, hiding under a bush a bit.
“I don’t know that that matters really, but maybe we could have been of more help to others earlier.”
Replicating for Impact
Resource Recovery has proven a help to other organisations as it experiments with a new consulting arm, Resource Recovery Australia (RRA). RRA builds capacity in communities Australia-wide to assist them in implementing similar models.
“For years we’d been talking about our successes and learnings at conferences, and we’d won prizes for social enterprise and landfill operations,” Weate said.
“The idea of replicability is what led to RRA. Westpac funded us to offer our experiences to councils and communities and to help them set up.”
Moving into consulting forced a period of self-reflection for the organisation.
“When you have to teach, you learn so much about yourself and what you do and that’s the benefit for us. It’s been great to examine how we do things and why we do things – which would have been previously intuitive,” Weate said.
Moving forward, Resource Recovery will experiment with two forms of scaling and replication to see which has the greatest impact. Some communities will benefit from the capacity-building approach the consulting arm has on offer, while other communities will become new sites where the Resource Recovery tenders for contracts directly and sets up operations.
Ultimately, it will require the delicate balancing of time, resources and community needs.
“It’s a real strategic issue for us,” Weate said. “We identified in the beginning it was going to be. If we just coach and advise, theoretically we can have greater impact over a greater number of communities, but that’s slower as you have to build the capacity in those communities.
“If we go into those communities and set up ourselves, that’s faster, and we did that last year in Gladstone.
“What will be interesting is to try and put some measurement around which has the most impact, the coaching and consulting or direct replication.”
As expansion proceeds, Weate is optimistic about the future for social enterprise in Australia.
“It wasn’t terribly well understood when we started, though there were other models in other parts of the world. It’s much better understood now and the whole sector is much more mature,” he said.
“There’s a whole network of people who understand it and are working through the issues. I feel very fortunate that we’ve been doing something for a long time that’s now very fashionable.
“It’s come a long way, and it’s been a fascinating journey.”