In this series of regular articles, our Melbourne-based correspondent meets the Positively Scottish Humans of Oz
‘Charity fatigue’ is a common symptom of modern life. At last count, there were 24,000 registered charities in Scotland, or one for every 221 people. In Australia, which has 54,000 charities, there’s one charity per 444 people. More often, charities need to think smarter in order to be more effective, and look to strategies such as alliances, mergers and the sharing of resources. Another option is having all stakeholders interested in a particular issue work together on positive outcomes. This is the vision of Kevin Robbie, formerly of Arbroath, who is now chief executive of United Way Australia. Operating in 41 countries, it is one of the largest not-for-profits in the world.
In Australia, we’re focused on bringing government, business, philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector together to work with the community to develop new solutions to complex social problems.
There have been organisations out there doing great work, but if we collaborate with each other and realise that we’re all doing parts of the jigsaw, we can make the jigsaw a lot faster and better. We think businesses are an important partner at the table.
To tackle some of the deep-rooted, complex problems that exist in society, we need to bring all the key players together, but we need to do that with the community. We need to talk to the community, we need to understand the aspirations and the strengths of the community.
We can’t assume that because a community is labelled ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘low-socio-economic’ that everything is bad, so we go in and look at the gaps, but also look for the strengths, look for potential solutions that are already there and then work to develop them. We work in about seven or eight communities in Australia, really trying to make a difference…mainly around early childhood development and school-to-work transitions, but we’ve also done work in homelessness and health.
It has its challenges, like every job, but one of the things that really attracted me to this role was this notion of collaboration. Having the United Way worldwide resource bank to tap into we can go: ‘OK someone’s come up with this idea, surely somewhere in the 1,800 other United Ways around the world, somebody’s tried this before.’
We’re not reinventing the wheel all the time, we’re actually going: ‘OK this community thinks this will work, can we actually check this has worked in other places?’ I don’t think you can automatically assume that because something’s worked in one place, it can easily be transferred someplace else. There are common problems in a lot of developing countries around youth unemployment, long-term unemployment and affordable housing, but context is important. For me, there’s the critical element of really needing to understand what this issue is from the community’s perspective.
I was head-hunted from Scotland to come to Australia eight-and-a-half years ago. I had run social enterprises as the chief executive at Forth Sector in Edinburgh, one of the leading social enterprises in Scotland. Our job was to help people with mental health issues recover from their problems. We did that by working with businesses that created jobs for them. It was something I was very proud of. We pioneered work in Scotland around the importance of measuring impact, and we ended up being able to influence the Scottish and UK social enterprise strategies. What we were doing was really making a difference to people’s lives.
I still remember having the minister for social enterprise come and visit this small hotel that we ran. On average, the people that worked there had been unemployed 14 years, and the minister asked them what they got out of working at the hotel. One guy said: ‘On the worst days, when I feel like killing myself, working here is the thing that’s kept me alive.’ That still affects me more than 10 years later—that what we did was that important. They always said what we gave them was not only the value of the job, but also the job title—that it redefined them in terms of their mental health problems. That’s why I believe in social enterprise so strongly, because it can re-engage people and give them value.
When you look at social enterprise as movement, Australia is behind the UK. In the UK, there’s a lot more developed infrastructure. The day of social enterprise is about to rise in Australia. Going forward, I think people will be more interested in the model than they traditionally have been here. It’s not that there aren’t great social enterprises in Australia, because there are some really fabulous ones, they are just still a bit below the radar. Social enterprise is not as mainstream as it is in the UK. I also think part of the challenge in Australia is geography. You can have really great social enterprises but they just don’t know each other, or the distance between them is too great and the connections and sense of movement isn’t there.
Where I think Australia is probably ahead in the game, is that it has some of the best social innovations I have ever seen. Really great stuff that, if they were in UK or the US, they’d be getting lauded on a worldwide scale. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing—Australians are not sharing their innovation or they are just not understanding that what they are doing is actually world leading.
The thing I’m most passionate about is this idea that you can run business for good. My dad was a working-class panel beater who attempted to set up his own business several times. He had a sort of entrepreneurial drive about him. My mum was a nurse and she had a social need to do good.
I spent my life trying not to be either of my parents but actually, what I ended up with, was a career where I blended elements of those two things. When I got into social enterprise, it made so much sense to me because I never really wanted to work in the private sector—making money for the sake of making money.
I think there’s lots of different ways people can make a difference, but for me, it really comes back to understanding what the issues are within your community. Understanding what you personally are passionate about and then looking to connect with organisations that have the same values.