The social enterprise tackling loneliness and connecting communities
19 August 2019 at 8:24 am
Nick Maisey is the CEO of Befriend, a Perth social enterprise fostering community connection and helping everyday Australians feel included. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
Last year, a report revealed that one in four Australians experienced loneliness, and nearly 30 per cent said they didn’t belong to a group of friends.
Maisey’s enterprise is trying to change this. Befriend was created with a simple purpose: connect people in a world where it’s increasingly easy to become disconnected.
Befriend runs programs, events, and workshops to give people the opportunity to feel included, and equip them with the skills to maintain friendships and connections in their community.
Maisey has now grown the organisation from a grassroots community group into a large-scale enterprise that has connected over 12,000 people and trained more than 800 community inclusion ambassadors.
In this week’s Changemaker, Maisey talks about his journey to becoming a social entrepreneur, why social inclusion is so important, and the challenges of running a social enterprise.
How did the idea for Befriend come about?
Befriend was started by a group of us who saw through our personal and professional experiences an increasing sense of social disconnection. We also had an appreciation for what a significant impact social inclusion has on our health and well-being, happiness, longevity, and our quality of life.
What was your first step to tackling the issue?
Our approach has always been this belief that the only real answer to this connection is community. That started with us hosting small social gatherings in parks and public spaces and extending the invitation to people that for whatever reason may be lacking opportunities to meet new people or develop new friendships and relationships. People would just have really easily accessible, welcoming opportunities to meet new people and share experiences with others and just see what goes from there.
You were an occupational therapist before you started Befriend, how did you manage the switch to becoming a social entrepreneur?
We launched the enterprise when I was in my final year of occupational therapy (OT) studies, and after graduating I worked as an OT for a few years in community-based mental health whilst Befriend was growing.
My OT studies and work equipped me with more of the knowledge and values base about the experiences of people who are marginalised or devalued and had a greater likelihood of experiencing social exclusion, but it didn’t really equip me for what would be needed to actually start an organisation and to grow it in response to the expressed need from community. So there’s been a whole host of other learnings that have happened since then.
And what are some of the challenges?
I think one of the biggest challenges has been establishing a viable business model to support a strong foundation from which our model can be based and then to grow and scale in response to the demand from community.
We’ve been really lucky in receiving support from local councils and community organisations who understand that the answer to so many of our social issues lies in strengthening community in local neighborhoods. They’ve been willing to take risks to invest in the foundation when others haven’t. We’ve also been really lucky this year in securing five-year tenders with the West Australian state government, which will significantly change the sense of stability that the foundation of Befriend has.
What’s the best part of your job?
Getting to meet everyday people who are willing to take some type of action to make their neighbourhood a more welcoming, safe, nurturing place for people to live in. These are people who aren’t doing that for any other motivation other than altruistic values. And I’m just getting to meet them and understand why that’s important to them and seeing the really creative ways that they make that happen in their own unique way, based on their own interests and their skills.
What does an average day look like for you?
It’s a mix of different things. I spend time with our team of community builders and consultants, supporting them with the work that they are doing with local organisations, groups, and local residents. I develop partnerships with social sector organisations that are interested in exploring strategic approaches to tackling social isolation and loneliness. I spend a lot of time facilitating workshops with groups of community sector workers, particularly support workers that are providing some type of one-on-one support to people experiencing social isolation and helping them to think through what their role is in supporting people to develop friendships and natural support networks beyond paid support.
Leading an organisation can be a busy task, how important is it to take a break?
We’re actually really intentional in creating space for our own lives because we know that the people who do this work the best are those that have really active involvement as citizens in their own local community. We intentionally employ all of our staff part-time, including myself, because we want to create space for people to live their lives as active citizens.
When I’m not at work, I volunteer at a mindfulness meditation hub and spend time with friends and family. I play social sports and volunteer at a community kitchen. I like to keep busy!