“The really special thing about the cooperative model,” says Nundah Community Enterprises Co-operative (NCEC) Coordinator, Richard Warner, “is that they’re member-owned.”
“So often when we talk about complex disadvantage we’re talking about people whose primary role in life has been as a recipient of services. The cooperative model turns it around—it provides a sense of ownership and gives people an active role in the decision making of how the enterprise is run. It really is helping people to help themselves.”
The Brisbane-based NCEC’s members are people with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues who’d faced disadvantage and social exclusion as a result of being long-term unemployed.
“Job matching training ultimately didn’t end in a job for them,” Warner explains. “They might get multiple placements but wouldn’t be able to hold onto the job because there was not enough support or flexibility available. The existing flow through system wasn’t working for them.
“One of our members had 20 placements and the longest job he’d had lasted three weeks, but now he’s been earning an award wage by mowing parks with us for over 10 years.”
“We select the works to suit the workers,” Warner explains. “We design the business around the skills our workers have and we provide extra assistance on the job as well as actively connecting with their family and supporters so that we can quickly problem solve any issues affecting their job.”
Of NCEC’s 21 members with a disability, most have been with the co-op since it started 17 years ago; six have received long service leave.
It’s an outcome Warner believes is difficult to quantify.
“You couldn’t put a value on it,” he says. “People have real sense of ‘this is our place’. It’s life changing because it really changes people’s sense of themselves.”
Speaking in their own words, co-op members echo the sentiment.
“Beforehand I used to rely on my parents a lot,” says co-op member Craig. “In the last four or five years I haven’t borrowed a single cent, I’ve been pretty self-sufficient. That’s important to me.”
For co-op member John, friendships forged on the job have been a rewarding experience.
“My best mate, I see him just about every day. I met him at work, about eight years ago. I don’t have a lot of friends, but the few that I do have are really good. I’ve been able to make these friends here.”
From humble beginnings as a jobs club with a borrowed lawnmower and an annual income of $2,000, the NCEC now has a turnover of $580,000 per year. Eighty per cent of that income is derived from trade, primarily Espresso Train Catering and NCEC Parks which maintains 30 parks and public spaces under social procurement contracts from the Brisbane City Council and Queensland Government.
The pressure on social enterprises from funders to scale up has been a challenge for the place-based NCEC.
“We’re intentionally looking to have depth of impact,” Warner explains. “We’re relatively small and that creates challenges in terms of getting the ear of funders or building awareness that we even exist.”
“Philanthropy readily understands scale, particularly for projects that involve service-based work and those services are really important but the kind of work we’re doing is more development-based work— working with local people facing significant challenges and providing a significant amount of depth to address the complexity of those challenges.
“I think there needs to be a greater focus on depth and place. Depth often comes at the expense of breadth initially but when you’re talking about really complex problems, unless you have depth, often it’s only the surface that’s being addressed, not the root cause.
“That means we don’t achieve that scale in the same way other state-wide or nation-wide responses might, but nonetheless it’s very important work that otherwise doesn’t get done,” Warner says.
“Essentially we’re providing the opportunity for people to lift themselves up out of poverty.”
An estimated 1700 co-operative and mutual businesses are operational in Australia, but Warner, along with the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (BCCM), hopes to see that figure grow with the release last month of the Australian Senate’s report and 17 recommendations to address barriers to the growth of co-operative, mutual and member-owned firms.
BCCM points out that though co-operatives and mutuals exist to make profits, their objectives and who they serve is what sets them apart.
Warner laments that though co-operatives are common in Europe, there hasn’t been a significant movement in Australia. “I think there’s been some culture lost along with knowledge of the cooperative form,” he says.
Sharing lessons learned
The achievements of the NCEC were recognised last year when it was named 2015 Australian Social Enterprise of the Year (Small) at the Social Enterprise Awards.
NCEC, which has a diverse board that includes members with a disability, is now connecting with other communities to help them achieve similar ends.
“The award has seeded a lot of other opportunities,” Warner says. “At the moment we’re working with a refugee community using our experience to support them to trial their own food business.”
When it comes to sharing lessons learned from their social enterprise journey, Warner offers two valuable pieces of advice.
“For us, it’s been a twin lesson,” he says. “If you’re working with complex social disadvantage it’s about starting with the people who are the focus and not losing sight of that.”
“The other lesson is that you need to balance participation and production. You need a model that can balance the social needs such as creating supported employment and the financial sustainability.
“Balancing the two is a creative tension—it’s not one or the other, it’s harmonising both and understanding it will seesaw all the time,” Warner says.
“Ultimately, when you help people own a problem and help them secure the means to address it, you unlock creativity, drive and entrepreneurship.”
GOT 2 MINUTES? Watch this news story about the great work of NCEC.
Why co-operatives, mutuals and member-owned businesses matter – BCCM fact sheet
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