David Brookes On The Greatest Untapped Potential In Generating Positive Social Change


David was appointed Managing Director of Social Traders in 2009.  He is an Executive Director on Social Traders’ board and has responsibility for development and implementation of the organisation’s strategy, staff recruitment and engagement with key government, philanthropic, business and research partners.

David has been closely involved in the development of national social enterprise development initiatives in Australia, including the annual Social Traders Masters Conference and the Social Enterprise Awards.  Over the last eight years, Social Traders has provided support to over 3,500 social enterprises through the company’s tailored programs and services.  David is also an inaugural Director of the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) Community Interest Company (CIC) established in July 2015.

David brings to his role a background in senior management roles in the Australian corporate sector, including responsibility for strategic business-community partnerships at Rio Tinto, Toyota and Amcor.  He also has previous economic development and policy experience having worked for a major industry association and local government.

David has a Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) from the University of Wollongong and is a Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (GAICD).


David discusses key opportunities for social entrepreneurs & why social enterprise is on the rise. he provides insights into trends in the sector, the importance of social procurement and the role government should play to support social enterprise.


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

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to working in the social enterprise sector? [2:34]

[David Brookes] - Tom, I hail from Wollongong, in New South Wales. I went to school and university there. I worked initially for Wollongong City Council in Town Planning and Economic Development, and then moved to Sydney to work with a major industry association there for seven years. Big move to Melbourne with my wife and family in the early '90s and 25 years later, I'm still here. I'm now in my fourth Melbourne job here at Social Traders. Coming up for my ninth anniversary in January, having spent, I suppose, the other 15 or 16 years working with some similar, socially responsible corporations here in Melbourne.

The career change to Social Traders, I was looking for a new challenge, which brought me into the social enterprise world. I was exposed to social enterprise through my corporate roles where I led the community investment initiatives and more strategic partnership approaches between those businesses and corporate sector organisations.

social enterprise has got lots going for it. It brings the best of two roles together, business and community.

And so when this opportunity came along and was announced, I took the opportunity to apply and have been privileged to be the CEO of Social Traders, the inaugural and still ongoing Managing Director of Social Traders since early 2009 and haven't looked back.

Nine years is an excellent stint there. So how does Social Traders typically then support the social enterprise ecosystem? [4:13]

Social Traders has a nine year history now of supporting social enterprises. We were the first dedicated social enterprise development organisation here in Victoria, or in fact Australia.  Over this time, Social Traders has been, I think, quite groundbreaking. We've been a pioneer in a number of areas.

In the early years, we undertook a national social enterprise mapping project with the Queensland University of Technology and that has been quite, I suppose iconic research with being instrumental in getting social enterprise on the radar here in Australia. You know, recognised for its contribution to the economy.

In your introduction you mentioned that Social Traders has been running national conferences for practitioners and we have run a national awards programme that recognises excellence and diversity of social enterprise practise. We've also applied a direct support role to social enterprises in several ways around capacity building, providing business advice and coaching. We've run a leading social enterprise accelerator programme here in Victoria for seven years. We've offered a patient capital and business support programme through early stage social enterprises. And more recently, we've ramped up our work in connecting social enterprises to new market opportunities.

So in summary, Social Traders has played quite a broad, ranging and significant role in supporting the social enterprise ecosystem here in Australia over that period.

David, in a recent article you wrote, you described it as an exciting time for social enterprise in Australia. During your time at Social Traders, how have you seen the social enterprise sector transform and change and where do you see it heading? [6:07]

I believe it really is an exciting time for social enterprise and we've witnessed a tangible increase in interest in social enterprises across all sectors over the last five years; and it seems to me that's not dissipating, it's actually continuing to rise.

That interest is coming from government, the community sector, philanthropy, social investors, and the private sector.

I'm really pleased to be able to say that social enterprise is on the rise. It's really on a positive trajectory here in Australia, but also globally I think. Social enterprise as a term is still relatively unknown among the masses, but the awareness is much higher amongst most of the key players.

There's policymakers and investors, and community/private sectors, even young people studying in University now are looking to do social entrepreneurship courses and units.

This increased awareness has been accompanied quite recently with a more positive, more conducive policy environment for social enterprise, which is really pleasing.

There's still more to be done in that area, but perhaps most pleasingly and a really exciting aspect for social enterprise development, is the emerging opportunities and the more progressive approaches that have been taken in the social procurement area, which is really opening up. Some exciting new market opportunities for social enterprise growth and social enterprise impact here in Australia.


Recently we've seen the Victorian Government launch Australia's first social enterprise strategy to improve that sector support. So, looking at social enterprise from a policy perspective, what do you believe the key steps government needs to take to help foster and support an innovative social sector? [8:10]

I've always maintained a strong view that the government has an important leadership role to play in supporting the growth and development of social enterprise.

And I believe the Victorian Government needs to be acknowledged for its social enterprise leadership role here in Australia. It was after all a seed funder in the establishment of our organisation, Social Traders, over eight years ago in conjunction with the Dara Foundation, albeit, at that time, in the absence of any social enterprise policy or strategy.

That strategy has now arrived. It was launched by Minister Noonan, Wade Noonan, the Employment Minister here in Victoria, in February this year. I think it's a big step, it's a big milestone for social enterprise in Victoria. But not only Victoria, I hope for other states around Australia.

I see government can and should play three key roles when it comes to social enterprise:

  1. Government as an enabler, ensuring there is a conducive environment that recognises social enterprise as a legitimate part of the economy.
  2. Government as a buyer, providing opportunities for social enterprise. To be a supplier of the goods and services that are procured by government agencies and departments.
  3. And government as a seed funder for social enterprise, particularly in the areas of skills building and funding for start-up in the early stage of social enterprises.

So where do you see the most potential in Australia for social innovation? If the government is meant to be supporting the sector, are there any particular social or environmental challenges that you're particularly passionate about and that you believe that we as a sector can really focus on? [10:13]

I think social enterprises by their very nature are very diverse in terms of their business forms and their social mission, and the positive impact and the beneficiaries that they support. They are essentially businesses that operate to intentionally tackle social problems and improve communities and provide disadvantaged people with access to training and employment.

And it's in that last area of employment generation, that we at Social Traders are increasingly turning our attention and focus towards. It's in this area that we believe that we can have the biggest impact in our work with social enterprises. We know that the national unemployment rate, you know I think is currently running around 5.6%-5.7%, relatively stable.

There continues to be employment growth in a number of industry sectors across the economy. But we also know that unemployment rates for particular groups of people and in some places, and some post codes around Australia, there is an unacceptable level of unemployment. Unemployment is persistently high. The youth unemployment rates, for indigenous, ex-offenders, immigrants, people with disabilities. There is, as I say, chronic and persistent, long-term unemployment and this has far-reaching social and economic costs on the individuals, but also on the broader community and economy.

So where do you see the most potential in Australia for social innovation? If the government is meant to be supporting the sector, are there any particular social or environmental challenges that you're particularly passionate about and that you believe that we as a sector can really focus on? [10:13 continued]

Social enterprise is very good and in someways unique at providing meaningful training and employment opportunities for highly disadvantaged people.

And this is the area for me that Social Traders will be concentrating on. Social enterprises can be very successful in this area if they get the right support and that's where Social Traders wants to devote a lot of it's attention in the future.

What advice then, David, would you give to the corporate and government buyers to incorporate social enterprises into their supply chains? [12:47]

what I'd say is, "What are you waiting for"?

My advice would be that the private sector and governments, at an aggregate level, spend billions of dollars every year on procuring goods and services to run their operations.

We believe that buying from social enterprises represents the greatest untapped potential in generating positive sustainable impact and change in Australia.

Businesses and governments have the ability to make a really positive impact to strengthen our communities and economies simply by making small changes to the way they buy by incorporating social value into the equation.

You know, what I'd be saying is "small change, big impact".

Corporate and government buyers can be looking to create value and integrate social enterprise into their procurement policies and supply chains. And if you're interested in doing that come and talk to us at Social Traders, where we are certifying social enterprises to deliver on procurement contract needs, whether that's in facilities management, ground maintenance, landscaping, waste management and recycling, catering, transport, cleaning, other supply categories. Social enterprises exist in all those industry categories.

In summary, I would be saying to governments and corporate buyers, "You can do it. There are no constraints and restrictions. The governments are increasingly supportive, so go for it, and Social Traders is here to help".

So looking globally then David, are there any countries that you believe are really leading the charge when it comes to social enterprise? And, if so, what are they doing that we here in Australia or other countries around the world could adopt? [14:44]

Yes I think there are some countries leading the charge, but I think the international and global landscape is changing positively. So, I suppose I'd say personally that Australia doesn't lag behind other countries in terms of social enterprise practise. We have some of the most innovative and diverse social enterprise models here than in anywhere in the world.

I think probably where there is leadership is in the policy area, in the UK and Scotland in particular, where they continue to be leaders in terms of social enterprise policy and levels of awareness, and overall maturity of the supporting infrastructure for social enterprise.

They have well-established and well coordinated intermediary bodies in the UK and again, particularly, in Scotland where there is a close collaboration and co-design between government and industry clients.

I think here in Australia, we are making progress on that front. We talked earlier about the Victorian Government having launched the first social enterprise strategy at a state level here in Australia. I'm hopeful that other states will follow that lead. I understand that the Queensland State Government is currently working on a social enterprise strategy. There's positive movements on that front and in other countries.

In Canada, a number of provinces in Canada are proactively supporting social enterprise with specific policies and frameworks. In the US, in parts of Asia, in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, all have got active social enterprise strategies.

The New Zealand Government has recently announced significant commitments to social enterprise in their country. New Zealand is hosting the next Social Enterprise World Forum later this month in fact. The conference has been a sell-out with I think 3,800 tickets having been sold there.

So there's a lot of positive developments in Australia and internationally.

So, if we were to turn our focus then to the entrepreneurs themselves, what do you believe are the fundamental ingredients that a budding social entrepreneur needs to get out there and launch something, which makes an impact? [17:24]

I think there are some fundamental ingredients. In a way, social entrepreneurs are not too dissimilar to other small business leaders or entrepreneurs.

As I mentioned earlier, our businesses are purpose-led businesses, and so a few of the sort of key ingredients that social enterprises and social entrepreneurs need is clarity and conviction around your mission.

Often we find that social entrepreneurs and enterprises tend to go a little bit broad and are looking to solve all the problems of the world. So, clarity around mission is really important.

I think having good business processes, good business planning, doing the market testing and research is important. Putting a lot of focus on the business and financial fundamentals is really important from my perspective and setting up the business with the right legal structure, governance and resourcing. You know, making sure that you surround yourself with like-minded and capable people and putting the right people in key roles.

There are a few things I think that are key for us and what we're seeing and experienced working with social enterprise is, particularly with a lot of start-up and early stage social enterprises over the last eight or nine years, getting the financials is really critical to minimise the risk of business failure. If your enterprise falls over in eighteen months or two years or three years, then you're no longer having that positive social impact that you set the enterprise up to generate in the first instance.

What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across in recently, which are creating this positive social change? [19:38]

I come across really impressive and innovative social enterprises almost every week Tom. I think probably one or two that maybe I would touch on this morning are ones that we've been involved in recently in connecting to some government and procurement contracts.

The two enterprises that I'll mention are providing services: Muru Mittigar, which is an indigenous social enterprise that won a contract with Lend Lease recently to provide grounds maintenance work for their indigenous employees; providing training and employment opportunities for their employees. It was a multi-million dollar contract that was set up. Lend Lease was the company who won the contract with the Level Crossing Removal Authority here in Victoria to provide those maintenance works around that contract. So, that's one recent example that I thought was exciting.

The other one, again, a similar one, was Yarra View Nursery, a social enterprise here, that is providing plants and landscaping for the re-vegetation of the Bayswater Level Crossing project. The nursery provides employment for people with a disability.

There's these sort of examples of social enterprises that are out there operating as businesses and providing those really valuable sort of training and employment opportunities for people that would otherwise be reliant on welfare and government support and community services. So they are a couple of recent examples that come to mind that Social Traders as been involved providing and facilitating and connecting their social enterprises to win those contract opportunities.

To finish off, what books would you recommend to our listeners? [22:00]

[David talks in detail about the books listed below.]


Recommended books


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