Sarah Chisholm On Building Sustainable Social Enterprises In The Waste Services Sector


Sarah Chisholm has worked in community development and social enterprise for 18 years. Previous roles include Manager of Resource Recovery Australia, building a team to transfer the learnings and model of a 25 year reuse, repair and recycling social enterprise based in Forster, Tuncurry, NSW.

Sarah is Co-Founder of Green Connect, a social enterprise that recovers waste, grows fair food and provides labour hire opportunities for refugees and young people in the Illawarra of NSW. She is also Founding Board member of The Social Outfit, a fashion label and store in Sydney that celebrates the skills and diversity of new migrant and refugee communities.

In her current role, Sarah manages Strategy, Partnerships and Communications for Community Resources Ltd, a 30 year not-for-profit community development organisation that has undergone a unique series of mergers and acquisitions to become the home of RRA, Soft Landing mattress recycling, Green Connect and Waste Aid Australia. Sarah is also one quarter of The Money Laundering Ladiez, exploring an artist run laundromat that provides flexible employment for artists between gigs.

Sarah has post graduate degrees in social science and policy (UNSW) and business growth and innovation (Syd University Business School).


Sarah shares strong experience from 20 years working in the social enterprise sector, providing insights into four impactful enterprises in the waste services sector. Sarah also provides useful advice for social entrepreneurs who are keen to make a difference.


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? [2:45]

[Sarah Chisholm] - Sure. I have worked in community development for 20 years. But what's nice to reflect on is what I think is my first social enterprise experience at a place called Streetwize Communications.

Looking back, it's interesting how at home I felt when I found them. They were a "social enterprise", before that term was coined, and they were a fantastic organisation that worked in partnership with Aboriginal artists and writers in government departments to develop comic-based educational resources. They were in Redfern as a really small, but tight team, and I really learned a lot from that team. In fact all the people in that team have gone on to working in the sector in great ways ever since.

Streetwize sold the resources they wanted to make, to government people that purchased them. What they were trying to do, was deal with social inequity and access to information, and so they were particularly keen on working with First Australians in the process, as well as developing resources that First Australians picked up and read and enjoyed.

A lot of that was about telling educational messages, but in a yarn and in a comic-based way. The thing I learned there was you could just slap out a flyer or comic in a week, with an internal team, but it was all about our process, which involved Aboriginal artists and writers going out and spending time in the community the resource would end up being distributed in.

We would do a lot of work with the government department and the community to understand what that process was, and then there would also be a draft comic done, and then that would be taken back to the community to get feedback and their input. When that resource finally was distributed, it was in the language people were represented and saw themselves in the comic, and they understood the message, and they kind of owned it.

That's a much more expensive resource to make, but we really were committed to that, what the process was and if you didn't want to pay for that process, we didn't want to make your resource. We did get a lot of repeat business from people that understood it once they went through that process. Once they got it, that magazine was a hit when it was distributed.

That was a fantastic experience with up to 50% Aboriginal staff, and the commitment to social equity, and what we're trying to do was also in the process and reflected in our thing.

There have been social enterprises and co-ops for a very long time, that have been doing this type of work. I was then living in the Illawarra, working with an organisation, looking to help refugees that arrived access work experience, and work in the Australian work force. There was a real issue with a town with such high unemployment already to achieve that, and also quite the cultural gap in what work looks like, and understanding taxes and superannuation, which are all good things.

Just kind of walking people through that. From endemic racism, to be frank, about getting through the job process. In the end, there was a business opportunity. I heard about this woman Robynne Murphy who's a fantastic environmental and social entrepreneur, again, before the term was around, who had actually been an environmental manager at BlueScope Steel. Who, over the years of 1980 to 1994, had actually taken BHP to, eventually, the high court, about not employing women in the steel works, because she wanted to work in the steel works.

What was great about Robynne is over those 14 years, she did win that case, and it was called Jobs for Women. She also really brought in migrant women in the area, because there was a lot of different migrant communities in the Wollongong. She had an embassy, and translators. I went to a lunch six months ago, where that core group of women, including migrant women, who are now fundraising to make a documentary about that Jobs for Women case. Robynne obviously did get a job in the steel works in the end, as well as a lot of migrant women.

Interestingly, when I was working on creating jobs for newly-arrived refugees, which we were seeing people from Burma and Sudan and Somalia, and new countries arriving, and really wanting to work and contribute. Someone told me about Robynne, and that she'd offered a little bit of work for the refugees I was looking to create work for, at some festivals in waste management.

Upcycling and Repair studio at RRA Dunmore Recycling Centre

Upcycling and Repair studio at RRA Dunmore Recycling Centre

Everybody kept saying, "You've got to meet Robynne." It was interesting again, like when I met the people at Streetwize, I felt really at home.

When I met Robynne, she was like, "Why didn't I hear about social enterprise 20 years ago? This is everything I believe in. A business that actually improves the externalities of the business."

Working in environmental repair and the job opportunities are inclusive and supportive of people with barriers to work.

They were my first two experiences, and that's interesting to reflect on that.

It came from a social justice perspective but where there was a business opportunity.

It's really interesting to hear that, especially looking back almost 20 years and how, in many ways, they were operating in that space, without the social enterprise label. When we talk about Community Resources Limited, you've just mentioned Green Connect, but Community Resources is made up of social enterprises like Resource Recovery Australia, Soft Landing and also Waste Aid Australia. These are four really interesting ventures, so can you please share more about these enterprises and what they do?

Yeah, sure. First, and we haven't tended to talk much about Community Resources, and my new role is really representing the whole organisation. That's a fantastic organisation that's probably undersold what they've been doing quietly for 30 years, too. That's a development organisation that started in 1987 in Forster, Tuncurry, so Worimi and Biripi land. Particularly, it's a thin labour market and with a high Aboriginal population. Community Resources actively sought industries that were low on capital investment, but high on jobs, and training, and entry-level employment opportunities, but also moving to career opportunities.

Resource Recovery actually started in Forster, Tuncurry, 27 years ago, with a $60,000 contract to run the local tip. We've turned that into almost a business park around waste. In 2012, the Westpac Foundation got behind that particular resource recovery model, where they had 10% growth each year. They've worked particularly with Aboriginal men coming out of prison, with a really good track record, where a lot of those staff are now supervisors and still working there, and their kids are going to school, and their kids are getting really great jobs. It's that intergenerational unemployment that that enterprise, in particular in Forster, Tuncurry has worked and now they run all the transfer stations in that region.

They also build, as a community development agency, cultural capital and social capital, into each site. At that Resource Recovery facility, what was just a guy with a wheelbarrow is now... We have managed transitioning it from a landfill to a state-of-the-art transfer station.

We built the original tip shop out of old parts from a building in town, and now we've just upgraded that with recycled materials so it's a better shopping experience for re-use. We have a Green Bike Program, where local kids that are having difficulties at school can go on this structured program to fix and repair a bike.

We also have a Men's Shed, with over 100 men on site, building, salvaging timber and making products from that timber. All of these people are heavily engaged in their community. We run composting workshops and up-cycling workshops at the green space there. It's the idea of turning what is just a waste facility into a destination that also prioritises reuse and repair, before you get to recycling because that's a better outcome.

Also, we see these as building capital and social capital for the community. Every morning, you'll have all the men turning up to the Men's Shed. We've got women starting to run up-cycling workshops for themselves and creating a space for themselves. We've got a whole lot of different rich, poor, black, white people engaging together on that site.

Resource Recovery Australia has now grown with a couple of tip shops on the South Coast in Dunmore and Moss Vale with Wingecarribee council and Shoalhaven council. In those sites, one has a Tinkerage, which has a fantastic up-cycling artist that works two days a week, where people can come repair a chair, or repair the blinds they were going to throw out because they were too long. They can be taught how to use a bunch of tools to actually repair something, so they can reuse it and not throw it out, at the tip.

Soft Landing mattress recycling crew at Bellambi NSW

Soft Landing mattress recycling crew at Bellambi NSW

Moss Vale's resource recovery site has just launched its first Green Bike Program, because it had a similar person like the crew we had in Tuncurry, working with Bicycles For Change internationally, to fill up cargo containers with the bikes that were coming to the waste facility. Now we've got this great three-way partnership at that site to start doing workshops for local people to repair their bikes, and tap in to the community sector. Equally, a relationship with Bicycles for Change internationally, and that partnership between Wingecarribee council, Resource Recovery Australia and Bicycles for Change. Tapping in to local people doing all that work.

Resource Recovery Australia also has a mobile waste service with Parramatta and Cumberland council, that picks up things like paint, and fluorescent tubes, and up to 20 litres or kilos from residents in those areas. We also run the weighbridge services for the ACT government.

RRA has a lot of potential going forward. We've started doing some work with drop-off, reusing and recycling white goods in WA and in Bellambi in NSW.

We're doing some really interesting work in the textile space, including some of the textiles that are going to be of the last part of the mattress waste stream, and what we do with those.

So can you please tell us a little more about the work you're doing with Soft Landing, Green Connect and Waste Aid?

So RRA has become a national company. In December 2015, RRA took over Soft Landing Mattress Recycling from Mission Australia. We'd been working together in Illawarra, particularly, around collective impact about how can we grow and support each other. It didn't really start as an acquisition piece. It was more about, you do mattresses, we do transfer stations and reused shops. Where are the collaboration opportunities?

We were so aligned in this waste to wages agenda that we started negotiations that it would be great to be under the one banner. We thought we could all gain some efficiencies and it was a really natural fit. That went ahead. Since then, we also have been willing to invest in Soft Landing to be all it can be, and they did have a lot of potential to be national. It's now a national mattress recycling social enterprise working across, Sydney, Illawarra, Newcastle in NSW, the ACT, WA as well as Melbourne. Soft Landing has diverted over 600,000 waste mattresses from landfill. They recover approximately 75%.

RRA manages reuse shops, community recycling centres, transfer stations, landfills, mobile problem waste services and upcycling and repair workshops in partnership with Councils and communities across Australia.

RRA manages reuse shops, community recycling centres, transfer stations, landfills, mobile problem waste services and upcycling and repair workshops in partnership with Councils and communities across Australia.

Soft Landing have partnerships with Blue Scope, where our steel becomes new steel for roof sheeting and other products. The timber becomes kindling, and mulch, and animal bedding. The foam becomes carpet underlay. That not only saves new raw materials being extracted, but also equates to about 440,000 cubic metres of landfill space saved. The money for Soft Landing doesn't come from necessarily selling those waste streams, that's just a really high environmental outcome, but the cubic metres of landfill sites does have a dollar value, but also, the contracts we have with local governments, retail, and manufacturing, and the commercial sector are what often make that business work, financially and people are willing to pay for that outcome. So that business services over 115 contracts around the country. We are looking to expand into Queensland, Tasmania, and Adelaide. Soft Landing has also worked with industry partners around product stewardship movement to launch a Soft Landing product stewardship scheme for end of life mattresses. There is a really great book for people that want to know more about the product stewardship movement, as a policy, going forward, by Helen Lewis [that is referenced below]. That's been a really long process. Before Community Resources took over Soft Landing, the founders Andrew and Bill had already been doing some great work with the industry partners around what that would look like. Obviously, you're getting competitive manufacturers and retailers sitting around a table together to have a transparent and equal system to divert mattresses from landfill.

We have achieved that and have seen a fantastic, but long, journey. [Sarah lists an impressive list of partners and collaborators who have come together to make this work.]

That's been so fascinating because as well as having all those partners, we're working really closely with UNSW sustainable materials research and technology centre on that last 25% of the mattress. We're looking at a particular machine that can convert different combinations of timber, textile, and plastic, into new products. The kind of conversations we're seeing in the circular economy is what if you could make products that were then put back into the manufacturing. The designers of bedding are talking to us about how they design beds so that they can get the best environmental outcome.

It's a really exciting space.

We also have partners, including the International Sleep Products Association, where we're being asked to talk about the fact we're running product stewardship, but as a social enterprise and that got a very high level of social outcome, environmental outcome, embedded in it. We're being asked to speak internationally, now, about that model, but it did take a long time to build. That's also why we want to provide a national service.

The other one is Green Connect. Jess Moore has really been managing Green Connect. Robynne and I were really very much looking to get it off the ground and find a great manager, and we did find that in Jess Moore, who took it to the next level, as well as building an amazing urban farm. All credit to people like Adrianne Thompson, who were also there at the beginning. Green Connect have over 250 veggie box drops coming out of that farm now. It's embedded at the back of the refugee intensive language school, so it's almost a classroom outside the back of the school. So they provide 114 young people and former refugees work and growing their food, and reducing waste to landfill.

Green Connect joined Community Resources in February 2018. We were really supportive of them being attached to their local community development agency, but they started to see the journey we were on and there would be efficiency gains, in joining us as a group, because we're in the industries in which they operate and we have a 30-year track record. We also had a strong value alignment. It's been really amazing to have them on board.

What's interesting is we were all originally together at that first collective impact group about how can we all help each other, and that was very much more going to be side by side, but now we're actually working together. It does make it easier to collaborate. Any day now, you turn up at Soft Landing, you might have Green Connect staff talking to RRA staff talking about a project together, and that's fantastic.

We didn't actually seek this out to happen, but we have attracted organisations wanting to go on the journey we've gone on. 

Waste Aid Australia was founded in 2014 by Anne Prince, a leading consultant in the waste industry and it was set up to provide community-based waste solutions in the most disadvantaged communities in Australia, Asia, and the Pacific. They're part of the Waste Aid International Network. At the moment in Aboriginal communities, 70% have no regular rubbish collection service. This is really more about working with people, like the NSW Environmental Protection Authority, EPA, and Aboriginal Affairs, about advocacy, and what are we gonna do about that. It's not acceptable in 2018, if ever! So we do a lot of advocacy work and work really closely. The EPA have really come on that journey, as well as the local Aboriginal land councils. We've run eight projects in eight discrete communities. So Waste Aid originally was its own organisation, and in March, they have come across to us, as well.

We've now got these four waste social enterprises and projects in Resource Recovery Australia, Soft Landing Mattress Recycling, Green Connect, and Waste Aid Australia. It's a really exciting journey going forward. We don't have much overlap, with really specific focus areas that we each work on, in terms of our businesses, and who we work with, but there's definitely opportunities for staff to go secondments across businesses, and there's real careers for people. There's also a lot more technology and a lot of different partners involved, including retail partners where there are job pathways outside of our business. We also now have four full time IT staff based out of Foster, Tuncurry. So what's exciting to me now is we've created a lot of employment in our head offices, which is Bellambi and Tuncurry, the original towns where we all started these social enterprises. We're creating backend jobs that are full time jobs and really critical jobs for businesses that service beyond those areas.

Absolutely. There's such a broad range of really interesting initiatives there and so many learnings from those years of experience and setting those up. How do you see the social enterprise sector changing over the coming years?

I think the biggest challenge for social enterprise is how to sell.

It's social outcomes, and/or to better intersect with government-funded community services. I think are as critical to society as well, which is the government's responsibility. I don't think social enterprise is a solution to everything. I think it's a really powerful vehicle for people who don't want a patronising program, they want a real job. One of the critical things is social enterprise provides secure work with support around it, and it's not a precarious position that might end in six months. We can provide real jobs.

I do think that impact market is a concern for me. I understand the intent and the motivation, but there was a report done with 66% wanting a market return and a social return.

At the moment, it just feels like we're trading but we produce our social outcomes for free.

Ama and Su Meh working at Green Connect Urban Farm

Ama and Su Meh working at Green Connect Urban Farm

The risk in that is that I actually think social workers and community development work are critical in our model, and they're being devalued in that process.

I understand when we take on mattress contract, that the council might not necessarily want to pay what the full cost of what that social outcome is, but I think they can contribute to it. I think government can contribute to healthy community services that are government funded, in the areas where they need to be, where there's often 30 years of experience in community development agencies. You do see, sometimes, community development agencies starting to go, "Oh, my boss wants me to start a social enterprise."

I'm saying, "Well, if you don't have a product or service that creates jobs for the people that you want to create jobs for, and if you don't price it properly, that's going to be a really hard road and really precarious work."

I'm excited that, if we can go in with our accumulated experience in each of these business areas, but work really strongly with community partners in the community development network. Where they run homelessness services, and alcohol services, and literacy services.

So for us, I think the impact market needs to learn a bit that there is a value in social work, in our business model, and there is a value in social outcomes that isn't free.

It's incredibly skilled work and it's interesting in the economy that, why are childcare workers, or community development workers, or counsellors considered so low in the value chain, in terms of what they earn and their value in society? I think they're incredibly skilled people with a lot to offer, and it is the critical piece to turning someone's life around, within our business.

We've found that you need a combination of having some of that in-house, but you need really strong relationships with the government-funded services in your area, and that needs to be resourced, too. Keeping the connections strong with the community service providers and in making sure that wraparound support is there. For us, one of the benefits in Foster, where we started, is that we run a lot of the community services so that integration is very high. It's often our own community services that can support people. We know where people are at and when they can go back into the business, or when they need time out. Those things can be managed, but that's hard to do when there's a silo effect between community services and social enterprise.

I think the impact investing market is a really exciting space, but I think there has to be reality around community organisations priority to return any profit into social capital building and into their communities, training their staff, and support workers. Because people don't come into a social enterprise, and all their problems are solved, and they come out the other end. Life's not like that. Sometimes, people might relapse with issues, or home stuff impacts their life, and our businesses need to be able to manage that realistically because we do have to also service our customers.

I guess, just raising the profile that social work is part of social enterprise, and that impact on productivity is there, but we can manage it if the social component of our business is valued. We're happy to work with government and philanthropy to make that work, but also, it can't just be done for free.

Another thing is the mergers to gain efficiencies. We are looking to write a case study on that journey we've been on, and that's been great. Of course, there's pros and cons... people quite like to know they're working with someone just in their local area, and I really understand that, and that's where I've come from originally. But what I'm saying is, by having these four businesses, we've been able to employ people like a technical writer for the first time who can write high quality tenders and who understands waste at a very high, technical, level. Each one of us, as an individual enterprise, would've struggled to have that position, but as four, we can have that position servicing all of us and it's been a massive asset. We are able to, at scale, start to get specialised roles. I think that's helping us run a really efficient business, and get people working in the social space, working in the financial management space, working in the marketing and sales space, and working in the technical space. It's all those things are often done by one or two people sharing that whole load.

When you grow, you can have a better impact.

Community Resources colleagues Natalie Bolt, Hannah Thrippleton, Lisa Berry and Corinne Stephenson

Community Resources colleagues Natalie Bolt, Hannah Thrippleton, Lisa Berry and Corinne Stephenson

In working with a lot of different social entrepreneurs, Sarah. What do you see as the most important traits as a social entrepreneur? [27:17]

I think that social entrepreneurs are really good at challenging the societal status quo, and that's what I think they're there for and that's what they definitely do, from my experience with many.

I think they're really good at identifying a social, environmental, cultural issue that's not okay, and leveraging the people, and stakeholders and funds to address it. They can create a vision for change and they can attract people to achieve it and they tend to, without stereotyping, go above and beyond with multiple skillsets in early years, because they don't have the money to have all the people they need.

I think that is a pretty critical role they play. What I see a lot of, though, is once that stage is over, there's a really different lot of skills and people that you need.

I think one of the most important traits of a successful social entrepreneur is knowing where and when your social entrepreneur role needs to retreat and redefine itself.

Building a social venture from scratch requires various specific skillsets, and once built, the skillset required changes over time. It is a big challenge.

I've found that being in a lot of startups, getting something from concept to actually happening is where I often thrive, but telling the startup team, "Look, your job is just two days a week, at the moment, you might need that other job." It's really hard to manage. Some people are like, "I want more hours," You're like, "This is where we're at."

Eventually, if you're running like we are now, it's an $18 million organisation at Community Resources. We do have a lot of specialist people and we have built that brick by brick. We now need really good general managers. We need people who are really good in operations, and logistics, and financial management, and risk management, and social support, and HR. I would say one of the joys of building a larger social enterprise is being able to recruit those people. Having the business that can recruit them, but it requires a social entrepreneur to reinvent their role. In the past, I've tended to go to the next venture. This time, I'm reinventing myself within our business to do the things I think I'm best at. 

It's a tricky journey and some founders become really great managers, but I do think you've got to have that self-awareness when you need to reinvent yourself within your own business.

I think it's a fantastic insight. That's for sure. What are some of the most common reasons that you believe social enterprises fail, then? [29:32]

I feel like now I can reflect on this. I think that sometimes the passion for the vision...

I once got a really good piece of advice that said you can have more impact if you are dispassionate. 

And I have been trying to practise it. I am the passionate, vision entrepreneur, but I'm really much more self-aware and understanding that if you're dealing with councils, those people are at capacity doing business that they have to get done and your particular passion and vision isn't high on their radar, and you don't want to thrash them with it.

I think, because social entrepreneurs aren't happy with the societal status quo, and I think that stuff's more visible now about gender equality, cultural diversity, a lot of that stuff hasn't been okay for a really long time, so people can be quite passionate about it when they get an audience. I think you just have to be dispassionate about the fact, is there actually a product or service in this for a social enterprise?

I think sometimes being in love with your own vision and idea, and not being prepared to ask those really tough questions, can mean eventually it will fail.

There's been people who have been on that journey and educated people about that journey really transparently and I think that's fantastic and we need more that in the social enterprise sector.

RRA and Soft Landing working in partnership with UNSW Sustainable Materials Research & Technology Centre (SMaRT)

RRA and Soft Landing working in partnership with UNSW Sustainable Materials Research & Technology Centre (SMaRT)

There's some fantastic insights there. So for all of the social entrepreneurs and everybody else who's just keen to create some positive change; whether they're working in waste services sector or more broadly, what books would you recommend to our audience? [30:55]

Well there's a few books that cover the various topics. One book around product stewardship, where manufacturers, retailers and consumers take responsibility for waste is Product Stewardship in Action by Helen Lewis, that's a great book. I also think when it comes to reframing work, in terms of social enterprise, Hundred Year Life; Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, about maybe instead of having education, employment, retirement, we have education, training, employment, retraining, employment, and then retirement. That we probably need to reinvent work, and that's what social enterprise is trying to play a role in. More people working less over long periods of time. Social Traders is a really great website to go to with a whole lot of case studies and resources about social enterprise, and whole lot of people that can provide really good advice on what's required.

There's a really good podcast I just listened to this morning by Jason Twill about Community Versus Individual Wealth that really covers this stuff about social equity and environmental repair that has to happen in society.

On the refugee space, there's a book called Arrival City that talks about the largest migration in history, as we reshape our world. There is massive urbanisation happening, and also, cultural diversity is something I haven't unpacked, but is at the heart of all our enterprises.

I think better decisions get made when you have a diverse workforce, so First Australians, newly arrived migrants, men, women. 

I have been in the waste industry and often been stacked with white, older guys. That's a whole other journey in itself. Those people are really valuable, but I think when you have a diverse decision-making group, you are reflecting the actual society you're working in more effectively.

Another great book is Governomics, by a friend of mine, Miriam Lyons. and Ian McAuley about the role of government, as well, and not letting government off the hook.


You can contact Sarah on LinkedIn or find RRA on Facebook. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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