Anne Lennon On Building A Thriving Social Enterprise Ecosystem

Anne Lennon (Co-Founder) - Headshot.jpg

Anne Lennon is passionate about social enterprise and its potential to deliver widespread change. Having experienced firsthand the difficulties facing Australia's social entrepreneurs in starting and growing a social enterprise, she co-founded Social Change Central, Australia's first dedicated online hub for social entrepreneurs. Its mission to connect Australia’s social entrepreneurs with the critical support they need to convert their ideas for social change into real social impact.

Anne is also General Manager of Social Enterprise Development & Investment at Fitted for Work. In this role, she led the development of award-winning social enterprise, SheWorks, which helps women experiencing disadvantage get work and achieve financial independence.

Prior to moving full time into the social enterprise sector, Anne spent eight years working as a corporate lawyer in a leading international law firm. In 2015 Anne was selected as a leader for social change by the Centre for Social Impact and in 2016 was selected as an ANZ Nexus Innovator of the Year Finalist.


Anne shares her experience in social enterprise, providing insights, inspiration and ideas to help create positive social change.


Highlights from the interview (listen to full details on the podcast)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to work in the social enterprise sector? [2:23]

[Anne Lennon] - I was born in Ireland and I came to Australia 5 years ago. I grew up in Dublin and am the eldest of 3 children. Growing up we had a family manufacturing business which my sister, brother and I worked in during school holidays. My Dad is incredibly creative and entrepreneurial. He was and still is always finding new and more efficient ways of doing things, sketching and designing on the back of napkins. I think that's where I got my creative flair and interest in business from.

I went to a State School and did really well there. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I finished school but I guess as well as a strong work ethic my family had also instilled a strong sense of community and social justice. A career guidance councillor who suggested law to me. I kind of just went with it.

I did well in Uni and got a place in a top international law firm where I worked for 8 years. I really enjoyed the people I worked with but the work itself didn’t fulfil me. 

I tried to find fulfilment outside of work - getting involved in a number of NFP and social enterprise boards, a pro bono law centre and some mentoring programs of disadvantaged youth. 

I met my now husband in 2009. We arrived to Melbourne in September 2011 and found that the kind of anonymity that comes with moving continent gave me a great deal of courage to start a full time role in social enterprise. For me social enterprise is the perfect sweet spot between the business brain and the charity heart. It has such enormous potential to deliver widespread and sustainable change.

Could you please explain more the online hub called Social Change Central which you founded with Jay Boolkin? [6:02]

I met Jay in April 2016 at the Nexus Youth Summit in Sydney. 

We had both experienced firsthand in working on our own social enterprise projects just how difficult it is in Australia to find the support needed to start and grow a social enterprise. The ecosystem is very fragmented. The information is all over the place - in closed Facebook groups, or organisation-specific websites and newsletters. Many of our most promising social entrepreneurs don't find the support they need. They have potentially life changing ideas that stay just that - great ideas.

We decided that we wanted to solve this problem so we launched Social Change Central in November 2016. Social Change Central (SCC) is Australia’s first dedicated Online Resource Hub for social entrepreneurs. Our mission is to connect social enterprises with the support they need.

It’s a really practical resource - we research and aggregate the most up to date social enterprise opportunities available both in Australia and around the world. From funding to awards, competitions, programs exposure and more.

It’s a self service portal - members can log on create a personal profile and filter opportunities by various categories, track deadlines. We do the research so our members can focus on their core mission.


Where do you see the most potential in Australia for social innovation? Are there any particular social or environmental challenges that you’re passionate about? [8:08] 

The potential for social innovation is everywhere. Personally I'm really passionate about social innovation to tackle unemployment.

Australia’s low headline unemployment rate of less than 6% which masks the growing issue of long-term unemployment, particularly for specific cohorts in the community such as people with a disability, newly arrived refugees, people exiting prison and so on.

Since the GFC the number of people experiencing long-term unemployment has risen. Now almost 2 million Australians are either without work, or without sufficient work.

Jobs are one of the best social programs. When someone has a job so many of the other important parts of life fall into place, such as secure housing, food and social connection.

I strongly believe that we need to be working closer with private sector employers to develop pathways to employment for disadvantaged groups. This is an area which I have worked in for the past 5 years as General Manager of Social Enterprise Development and Investment at Fitted for Work. 

As General Manager of Social Investment and Social Enterprise Development at Fitted for Work, could you please tell us more about the work you do helping women experiencing disadvantage get into work? [9:44]

I joined the organisation in 2011 and the mission is to help women experiencing disadvantage get work and keep it.

The focus on women is about impact. There's strong research and evidence to show that women are catalysts for change. By helping women get work we also help their children, families, communities and benefit the economy. The impact is transformational.

The women are referred to us by 300+ community organisations. They come from many different backgrounds e.g. survivors of domestic violence, newly arrived refugees, single mothers, early school leavers, mature age women, women with a disability and ex- offenders. The one factor all our women have in common is that they are determined to find to work.

[Anne talks in detail about the different services which Fitted for Work run as well as her role as General Manager. She talks about how the organisation was heavily reliant on grants which wasn't sustainable as well as the development of SheWorks social enterprise which saw 40 women gain contracts in tram driving roles for Yarra Trams.]

How you have seen the the social enterprise sector transform and change over the last 5 years? [14:03]

There's a real energy about the sector - social enterprise is definitely on the rise.

The 2016 FASES report showed that there are now over 20,000 enterprises now operating in every sector of our economy. 24% of organisations surveyed in that report had been in operation for less than 5 years.

Despite the growing interest, I think overall there is still low public awareness and it is still seen as somewhat niche.


We’ve recently seen the Victorian Government launch Australia’s first social enterprise strategy to improve sector support. Looking at social enterprise from a policy perspective, what do you believe are the key steps government need to take to help foster and support an innovative social sector? [15:02]

It's great to see the Victorian Government creating a social enterprise strategy. But we really need a cohesive national agenda.

There has not been the level of strategic support for social enterprise seen in the UK or some other parts of Europe.

We need initiatives that support the growth of an ecosystem for the good of the social enterprise sector as a whole rather than just individual enterprises.

3 key areas to focus on are:

1. Access to finance particularly at entry level – ensuing that there is a range of finance available, from startup, to the growth of large and established enterprises. This means a range of financial instruments from non-repayable investments through different kinds of debt finance to equity. There's lots of talk about social impact investment but so many organisations are simply not at the stage where they can receive growth. 

2. Opening access to markets – we want to see public bodies implementing social procurement strategies and ensuring that these are open to social enterprises to participate and deliver social value, and for private business opening up supply chains. Great work has been done by Social Traders (Mark Daniels and David Brooks), the Queensland Social Enterprise Council and Jo Barraket at the Centre for Social Impact.

3. Getting the legal and regulatory framework right. This could mean creating a new legal model for social enterprises like the highly successful Community Interest Company in the UK or introducing tax reliefs like the new Social Investment Tax relief in the UK - what that does is incentivises private investment into social enterprise.

Are there any countries you believe are really leading the charge when it comes to social innovation? What are they doing that you think Australia could adopt? [17:44]

The UK is widely regarded as the international leader in social enterprise – 70,000 social enterprises contributing over 5% to British GDP.

Successive governments in the UK have for more than 15 years taken a consistently proactive approach in creating an enabling environment for social enterprise.  Starting with the Blair government in the 90s with the appointment of a Social Enterprise Minister.

Key factors which have contributed to the development of the UK’s thriving social enterprise sector include:

  • the creation of a distinct community company legal form for social enterprise, the Community Interest Company, which enables social enterprises to access donations as well as private equity;

  • the introduction of a widespread public procurement policy through the Social Value Act in 2012 which requires that public authorities take into account wider social and environmental value when they choose suppliers;

  • and the establishment of a range of funds including a £600 million social enterprise capital fund, to invest in social enterprises at different points in their lifecycle, including the start up phase where it can be very difficult to secure financial support.  

  • Also interesting is the introduction of social enterprise into the education system where it is now taught to students in secondary school.

What advice would you give to businesses which would like to use their business models as a way to generate positive social impact? [19:58]

It must be part of your company’s culture. It must not be an afterthought. It has to be lead from the top down. 

The best organisations are those that have embedded social good throughout their business - they are doing the right thing for their community, customers and environment.  

You need to be able to clearly define and communicate to stakeholders your social impact.

You need to be clear on why you are doing what you are doing and if successful what impact will you achieve.

What do you believe are the fundamental ingredients a budding social entrepreneur needs to get out there and launch something which makes an impact? [20:50]

At Social Change Central we talk about the three C’s:

  • capital  - (even if it’s just time) to make it tangible/test it,

  • counsel  - advice to fill in their skills/knowledge gap. You are not expected to have all the answers and there is no shame or failure in admitting you were wrong about something.  I think social entrepreneurs need to be open to criticism early on. You may end up needing to alter your original plan significantly, so be flexible. It’s essential to remember that your journey is ultimately about creating lasting social impact.

  • the courage to do it - this is a big one. For me with my background in law I was trained to be very very risk adverse. The concept of the lean startup and MVP are so alien to the law. I think if you ponder over something for long enough anything can become a bad idea. At some stage you just have to take the leap.

I love the poem called 'the DASH' by Linda Ellis which talks about how on your death notice there will be two dates; the date you were born and the date you died and these will be separated by a small dash. A simple dash, that tiny punctuation mark represents your entire life. The poem forces you to ask the question of how will you spend your dash?

Don’t sit too long on an idea and take the leap.

What other inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently which are creating positive social change? [23:02]

[Anne talks about three inspiring initiatives: AbilityMate, Hello Sunday Morning and GG's Flowers.]

To finish off, what are the top 3 social enterprise books you’d recommend to our listeners? [25:33]

[Anne discusses the books listed below which she found very inspiring. She also includes a brand new resource from SCC which is Australia's First Social Enterprise Ecosystem Handbook.]


Recommended books


You can contact Anne Lennon on Linkedin or facebook. Feel free to leave comments below.

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