Prof. Jo Barraket On What You Need To Know To Help Social Enterprise Thrive & Create Positive Change


Jo Barraket is Professor and Director of the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) Swinburne and National Research Director of the CSI Network.

She’s Australia’s premier researcher of social enterprise, which has been her core area of research for over 20 years. Jo has published more than 50 articles and books and has led many research projects on social enterprise, including studies funded by the Australian Research Council and evaluations of government initiatives, such as the Social Enterprise Development and Investment Funds.

Jo is passionate about progressive social change and the role of innovation in the social economy in achieving this. In addition to her work with CSI, Jo is the Chairperson of CERES Environment Park in Melbourne.


Jo provides strong insights from over 20 years experience as Australia's premier researcher in Social Enterprise. Jo shares excellent opportunities for impact entrepreneurs, government and the Not-for-profit sector in order for them to create sustainable change.


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 academia and the social enterprise sector? [2:07]

[Jo Barraket] - I'm a sociologist by training. After I finished my undergraduate degree in English literature I decided that I did want a career in academia. I was quite attracted to most research and teaching but I really wanted to better align my values as a young activist with my research area of inquiry, so I switched my focus to sociology, which was a better fit in terms of my values and what I wanted to achieve.

At the time I was quite actively involved in the Consumer Cooperative Movement in Sydney and I was also involved in a number of environmental organisations. I was really struck by the fact that, in the cooperative that I was involved in, the organisation had a lot more power to advocate and to speak out about things and to define what it did, because it wasn't funded by donations, it was funded through its trading activity. So, that led me to what's, thus far, become a lifelong passionate interest in the relationship between economically productive activity and social change, and cooperatives are arguably the original version of social enterprise. So, I did my PhD on the cooperative movement and that led into a career in studying social enterprise.

In terms of opportunities in that field... There's been a couple of notable ones, the first one was when Queensland University of Technology, with funding from the Westpac Fondation, offered up the first research position dedicated to social enterprise in Australia and I was fortunate to be appointed into that role. And then more recently the establishment of CSI Swinburne and Swinburne University committing to quite a substantial investment in getting that research centre that I lead up and running. So they've been at two important opportunities and milestones along the way.

As Director of the Centre of Social Impact at Swinburne, could you please tell us more about the aims of this organisation and the types of projects that you're involved in? [4:09]

CSI Swinburne forms part of the national CSI network and that's a partnership between the University of New South Wales, Swinburne, and the University of Western Australia. As a network, our ambition is simple but challenging. We seek to catalyse change for a better world. We do that in the way that most university-engaged organisations do, through education, research and our wider engagement with all sectors that we work with.

Across the network, we focus on different areas of research concentration. Within CSI Swinburne, our particular areas are social entrepreneurship and innovation, measuring and communicating social impact, which all nodes in the network are involved in, and also social investment and philanthropy. We run - across each of the CSI nodes, - a Master (or MBA) of social impact and a Graduate Certificate of social impact, and we're all teaching undergraduate programmes as well now, which is reflecting the broad enthusiasm in the university system amongst students for the work that we do.

The easiest way I can describe our research focus is that we're centrally concerned with organisational dimensions of social change. So as distinct from being focused on particular social problems, (although a number of our researchers are), we're focused on the organisations, processes and mechanisms by which progressive social change occurs. That means that a lot of our research is concentrated at the intersections between sectors and between organisations, rather than being focussed on an individual sector or a specific approach to change.

In terms of projects that CSI Swinburne's involved in, it makes me slightly exhausted to think about them all and I won't try to articulate all of them, but some of the headline acts at the moment are the Map for Impact research that we've recently completed for the Victorian government, which is a close mapping of social enterprise in Victoria. The Social Enterprise Impact Lab, which we're just in the process of establishing with funding from Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation and Family Life, which is really an action learning project working with five social enterprises to try and find out what measures really matter in progressing their social objectives. And the Australian Digital Inclusion Index is the other one I'll mention, which is a project we do in partnership with colleagues at RMIT and Telstra, and that's a longitudinal and annual analysis of the demography and geography of digital inclusion in Australia.

There are some really interesting projects there and those are just the headline acts so it would be great to delve into those other ones too. Jo, previously you were mentioning Queensland University of Technology and that original funding received by the Westpac Foundation and the work you were doing there.

As Australia's premier researcher in social enterprise, you first led the production of the first FASES report back in June 2010, while you were at QUT. Since conducting that original research, what is something new that you've recently learned that surprised you about the social enterprise sector? [6:45]

I have to confess Tom, that after 24 years of being obsessively documenting the field I am not easily surprised by anything.

With that said, I am still genuinely delighted by the creative genius of social enterprises that I come across that are new to me on an almost daily basis. In terms of research evidence, one thing I am happy about is that with the Map for Impact project that I mentioned, we've been able to do some more granular analysis of the economic productivity and efficiency of social enterprises. And the publication's still under development, but I can say...

in broad terms, we've been able to show that social enterprises are at least as efficient and productive as their commercial counterparts.

I think, in terms of some of the prejudices that social entrepreneurs tell me they face in the market; that they're the poor cousins of mainstream business, this is a nice insight to show that actually they're punching, at least, at their weight, if not above it in economic terms.

That's a really nice insight to hear and it reminds me of a recent article that you wrote for The Conversation. In that article you wrote, "A more inclusive economy, built on social enterprises requires more of an investment in business skills such as marketing and winning new contracts, and better measurement and communication of the social impacts being received". On that note Jo, how might social entrepreneurs best measure their social impact and communicate that impact effectively? [8:24]

It's the perennial question and impact measurement remains a vexed issue, not just for social enterprises but across the social change spectrum.

From a sociological or social science perspective, I'm not sure that there's any best way, because I think that the methods used need to match the needs of impact measurement in context. That includes the purpose of doing the measurement and also includes the resources available to organisations or sectors to get it done.

To give you an illustration, for example, if your primary purpose is to communicate your impacts with the people you seek to serve, you might come up with a different method and set of key metrics than if your primary purpose is seeking investment or grant funding. I think the main thing that we're doing with the work that we do broadly, and particularly in the Social Enterprise Impact Lab project that I mentioned before, is really asking the question, "What measures matter to effect progressive change?". That's the question we are trying to determine in an action learning model with five social enterprises.

That's not a very concrete answer to your question though, so I will just flog a resource from our colleagues at CSI UNSW. They produced a practitioner's guide to social impact measurement as part of their Compass series, and that's on the CSI website for anyone who's looking for introductory information to evaluation and impact measurement.

Jo, in a recent interview that we did with Gerry Higgins, Gerry spoke of the importance of having a social enterprise strategy and the close relationship the Scottish sector has built with the UK since launching their first strategy in 2002. You've spoken about some recent work you've done in Victoria and mapping the sector, but last year as well we also saw the Victorian government launch Australia's first social enterprise strategy to improve that sector support. The question is, looking at social enterprise from a policy perspective then, what do you believe are the key steps government need to take to help foster and support in an innovative social sector? [10:22]

The Map for Impact Project that I mentioned is actually part of the Victorian government social enterprise strategy, so it's terrific that they've made that investment in the baseline evidence to try and better understand the sector and its challenges and opportunities. In terms of Gerry's comments, I personally feel that there are both positives and negatives in strong policy frameworks to support social enterprise.

On the positive side, there's the enabling of social businesses and the outcomes that they produce, which is really potentially great, but the negative side is the manufacturing of civil society by government agendas.

So when resources become available for specific types of social enterprise, for example, that can actually reduce innovation and it can also incentivise mission drift by organisations that are frankly really good at what they do, but they're not fitting the current funding norm or the business opportunity mould that's being created through market stimulation by governments.

I think there's pluses and minuses.

I think while I've been, at times, frustrated by the piecemeal approach of most Australian jurisdictions to social enterprise, I think there actually are some benefits to that benign neglect because there has been space for civil society to come up with its own solutions.

With that said, in terms of one of the key things governments can, and should be doing, with regard to enabling any sector; they can be ensuring that regulation enables rather than constrains social innovation.

There's a number of mooted developments at the federal level at the moment with regard to regulation of the non-profit sector that rings some alarm bells and needs attention from social entrepreneurs as well as the non-profit organisations.

Other things governments can do, which they are doing, is looking to social procurement and the role of social enterprises and other social benefit providers as legitimate players in governmental supply-chains.

That's a terrific way to stimulate markets for social enterprises and that's the thing I hear most from social entrepreneurs whenever you ask them about opportunities. It's always about building those markets, it's not usually about more funding, although sometimes that comes up, it's more usually about stimulating the market.

The other one related to finance is enabling better supply and demand alignment in funding and finance. We haven't got that right despite the current rhetoric and enthusiasm around impact investing.

The reality is that there is a mismatch between the demand needs and the products that are available through supply, and that's going to need attention. And government has an important role there, often in stimulating the market for impact investing or similar. I think there's more work to be done there.

That's a really interesting insight there. So, you've done a lot of work with social entrepreneurs; are there any really common and important traits that you believe are fundamental to have as a social entrepreneur? [13:55]

I definitely know a number of dynamic individuals in the Australian context who I see as builders in the social enterprise space. I guess we would call them social entrepreneurs, but the heroic individual social entrepreneur, for the most part, is a myth.

Most effective social entrepreneurial efforts involve teams or networks of people and they also involve an enormous number of organisational partners; a lot of the time.

I think one of the things I found depressing about the early evangelical proclamations about social entrepreneurship was that the heroic social entrepreneur tended to be a man, while in fact we know that women have been the life-blood of the social economy throughout its history in many countries.

I'm not really answering your question but I think that we need to recognise the important traits of social entrepreneurship as distinct from social entrepreneurs as individuals.

With that said, the individuals who I think are really good at this stuff have deep experiential knowledge of the problems that they're trying to solve, or they have the genuine appetite for co-developing solutions with the people affected by those problems.

  • They have amazing creative capacity to imagine new solutions and do what is called bricolage in entrepreneurship theory, which is finding creative ways to use the means at hand to solve a problem.

  • They have a flair for partnership and for spanning boundaries and for talking language that different sectors understand.

  • They have confidence and the gift of the gab in convincing others that there's a problem and a market for the proposed solution. I think they're some of the main things that social entrepreneurs with flair show.

  • I think the other thing is making the distinction between social entrepreneurship and effective management.

Not every entrepreneur is a great manager and there are clearly a set of management fundamentals that are also needed to ensure that social enterprises succeed.

There's some very interesting points to be made there. So what are some of the most common reasons that you believe social enterprises fail? [16:07]

I think if we're talking about business failure, the primary one is that many social enterprises are created to respond to a need, so in economic terms they're responding to market failure. Sometimes it's hugely challenging. If the market isn't there, there's a reason why the market isn't there, and sometimes a social entrepreneurial approach just faces all the same barriers, and that might lead to failure.

One of the things we know, which is not specific to social enterprise, (it's actually a characteristic of many small to medium enterprises), is that they're under-capitalised.

An area in both FASES and Map for Impact that's come out repeatedly, is that social enterprises say they lack skills and capability and resources.

It is marketing themselves and communicating their social impacts, as you mentioned with regard to that Conversation article.

So, they are some of the things, but I think the thing we've not been talking about much is those social enterprises that have some resemblance of commercial success and financial sustainability but are actually failing to realise their social mission. I think that this kind of failure's more insidious, because it's harder to spot and it can lead to social wash; an iteration of green wash, rather than true efforts to address complex social problems.

And I really think we need to be talking more about this kind of failure and its implications for an effective social economy.

Because if we focus so much on effective business management, really what we're talking about, (to use a metaphor that a colleague, Diana Leat, introduced me to a long time ago), is keeping a clean kitchen. And that's very different to making a great meal. And we actually really want our social enterprise kitchens to be hygienic but we really want them to create a great meal.

That's ultimately the purpose.

That's a great way to look at it. Earlier, I mentioned that you are the chair of the CERES Community Environment Park in Melbourne. Can you please tell us a little bit about what this organisation does and the key lessons CERES has learned about operating a sustainable community initiative? [18:05]

Sure. It's a not-for-profit association that was established about 35 years ago by a group of citizens in inner north Melbourne who wanted to rehabilitate an area next to a creek that had become very polluted and run down. It's a four hectare park located on what was a tip site and it provides green space, community gardens, and demonstrations of sustainable ways of living on the site. It's the largest environmental education provider in Victoria and we turn over about $12,000,000 a year. We employ about 150 people and about 95% of our income is generated through our social enterprises. They include a market and grocery retail, a nursery, an online organic grocery, and a café among others including our education programmes.

It's effectively a constant work-in-progress and our CEO and management team are obviously the heart of that work, so I get the privilege of speaking about it as the Chair but I really acknowledge and nod to them as the engine.

I think the key lessons are; we're constantly learning about having clarity, about the purpose of each of our social enterprises, and their functions in fulfilling our wider social and environmental missions, because each social enterprise has a different function.

So, for example, one of them might be very much focused on generating revenue to re-invest in managing the park. That's quite different to a social enterprise that itself is a demonstration project that is providing strong demonstration of effective ways of living sustainably, where we might just want that one to break even.

we need to be constantly talking to ourselves and reminding ourselves what the functions are to make sure that the business engine of the organisation's running steadily, but that we're always aligned with mission.

And I think the other thing that we've learned is that the huge value and support that resides within the CERES community and wider networks, and that something we've discussing at both board and management level, is that we've got a very high degree of brand recognition, because three generations of Victorian kids have been to CERES on a school excursion. Really, what we've been talking about, is how can we better leverage that brand recognition and reputation to support not just our own organisation but our wider vision for more sustainable and just ways of living.

That's what we're trying to shift a bit towards at the moment.

Well, it's a fantastic model and it's certainly a very inspiring initiative, and I'm sure many countries from abroad are looking in at the work you're doing there and finding inspiration in that. So, to flip the coin, are there any countries that you believe are really leading the charge when it comes to social innovation? If so, what are they doing that you think Australia or other countries around the world could adopt? [20:50]

It's a good question. I think similarly the social enterprises...

There are some countries who are better at marketing their social innovation fields. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're actually doing anything better or more effectively.

With that said, there are very interesting developments in a number of world regions.

In continental Europe there's quite a lot of interesting developments. For example in community energy companies and the role of platform cooperatives in socialising the gig economy to make sure that it actually empowers rather than exploits workers. There's a conversation happening here, but it hasn't taken off in practical terms in the way it has in Europe, particularly in Germany.

In India, with such a rapidly growing economy, there are great examples of social entrepreneurship that are often arising from what we call necessity entrepreneurship. And then related to that, because of current patterns of forced migration across the world, there's some interesting models of social enterprise starting to appear as refugees and new migrants try to establish themselves economically and socially in new countries.

In terms of public policy, we always look jealously to Scotland because it has got that comprehensive approach to building the ecosystem that Gerry mentioned in his interview with you.

Then we also look to Canada, particularly for its leadership in social procurement among other things. And not just social procurement by government but actually social procurement by the corporate sector.

What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently, which are creating positive social change? And I'm sure there's hundreds of them but do you have a top few that you could list? [22:38]

I see new and inspiring projects pretty much every day of my life, and I'm somewhat overwhelmed, in a happy way, with them. I think what I really wanted to talk about is Produce to the People in Northwest Tasmania in Burnie, which is an emergency food relief organisation but has a community garden in a local school, and is doing a lot of very important work in a part of the country that absolutely needs it.

The reason I wanted to highlight that is I think we can tend towards being inspired by the big initiatives that are getting a bit of media attention and energy, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Some of those big, inspirational projects become touch-points for thinking how we can do things better.

I guess what I want to highlight is that it's at the ground level that there are things being produced by community, for community, that are absolutely amazing.

They often, in rural and regional communities, don't have the access to philanthropy that some of their metropolitan cousins do. They're also operating in markets that are very lean because of the demographic of the people who are there and also the industries that are there. I'd like us to be looking for our inspiration on the ground where we can.

That's a great initiative coming of Tasmania there. As an author yourself, I'm very curious to ask, what books would you recommend to our listeners? [24:20]

Well, Tom, I'm very embarrassed to say that, as a senior academic, I rarely read academic books. I read a lot of journal articles but I find my busyness levels stop me from reading deep scholarly tones. Mainly I read detective novels for distraction, and my favourite one at the moment is called Ice Cold Alice for anyone who wants to read it.

In terms of articles that I'm reading, I'm currently reading an article by colleagues in the UK, Alex Nicholls and Simon Teasdale and that's looking at the policy discourses and their relationship to social enterprise development in the UK. That's a very interesting read.

At the risk of rampant self-promotion, I think that my co-authored book social procurement and New Public Governance is a pretty interesting read, if you're interested in Social Procurement. It's the first book out on that topic and I think it's reasonably interesting.


You can contact Jo on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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