Social enterprises are increasingly recognised as the preferred operational model to affect social change. One driver has been the limited donor funds flowing through to the not-for-profit sector as grants. However, as the number of successful social enterprises grow, they are now seen as good business models for long term sustainability. This is because social enterprises are essentially viable businesses that exist to benefit the public and community rather than shareholders and owners. They provide employment opportunities or services to those who are socially excluded or direct profits to a social purpose.

Whilst the trend towards social enterprises has gained momentum in Australia over the past 10 years, here at ABV we have also noticed how many not-for-profit organisations in the Asia Pacific region are looking to start social enterprises as a way to fill gaps caused by increasingly scarce international funding. Befittingly, our experience working with businesses lends ourselves to being well placed to support this trend.

During a recent monitoring and evaluation visit to Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam, we became aware of just how much the social enterprises we have worked with appreciated the volunteers they hosted due to the business perspective they brought. In the words of the Director of COHED, a Vietnamese NGO developing a tourism social enterprise, “why we appreciate the volunteers assigned by ABV is that they are very business minded. They are not charity professionals. It helps us to work with a more business minded approach.” The assistant Director of Bahay Tuluyan, a Philippines not-for-profit using a guest house social enterprise to employ and train at-risk youth had a similar view. For her, “there’s big value in hosting a volunteer with business skills because those aren’t our skills in the first place, and we have to be guided, especially because we are focusing on training our kids.”

The key role that voluntary person-to-person skills transfer – or mentoring – can play in assisting social enterprises is increasingly recognised internationally. In Australia the Sydney-based School for Social Entrepreneurs facilitates mentoring relationships as an important element in its training activities. Katie Wyatt, Program Manager of a start-up incubation program run by Melbourne-based Social Traders has also said that mentors are the “secret sauce in a successful social enterprise”. Clearly this is relevant to ABV as all of ABV’s volunteers are experts in their areas of business. It is through mentoring that they seek to boost the capacities of their counterparts and their host organisations.

In developing countries programs enabling social entrepreneurs to access mentors and other means of business skills development are not generally widespread. In June 2016 an international summit hosted by President Obama and the US State Department heard that a key to spurring entrepreneurship globally is to promote knowledge transfer and capacity building. The summit also heard that ‘ecosystem supporters’ needed ‘to provide mentorship that matches skills to needs and ensures long-term sustainability through knowledge transfer and capacity building’[1]. Closer to home the issue was articulated by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in a 2015 assessment of the social enterprise sector in Indonesia. BCG found that ‘Indonesia acutely needs additional capacity builders’ who are able ‘to provide mentorship and non-financial know-how to help set up, establish, and grow social enterprises’[2].

ABV has always understood how valuable our business volunteers can be to building the capacities of small businesses. Now it is becoming clear that their business expertise can be just as valuable, if not more so, to building successful social enterprises in our region.

Sarah O’Connor

[1] Cheney, Catherine, ‘Here’s what’s need to accelerate global entrepreneurship’, DEVEX, 01/07/16

[2] Yulius, Siregara, Haikal, Tampubolon, Natalia, ‘The Art of Sustainable Giving’, The Boston Consulting Group, May 2015, p15

Australian Business Volunteers