24 February 2021

As Australia begins to rebuild from the COVID-19 downturn, research from the University of South Australia indicates new opportunities are emerging for businesses to contribute to the social wellbeing of the community.

‘Social enterprise’ and the ‘purpose economy’ may seem like esoteric concepts, but at their heart they are based on a simple premise – the notion that businesses can be commercially profitable and simultaneously deliver a social benefit to the wider community.

In the wake of financial impact of COVID-19, many commentators have suggested key elements of Australia’s economic recovery could be shaped to be ‘for purpose’, whereby government stimulus and public support should favour enterprises that are both financially profitable and socially beneficial.

The most obvious example of this thinking is the notion of a ‘green recovery’, through which investment in zero-emission technology would deliver both economic and environmental benefits, and research from UniSA suggests there are opportunities to adopt a similar ‘purpose’ approach across other industries in the post-COVID world.

UniSA tourism management  expert  Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles and business ethics expert  Dr Manjit Monga recently completed a five-year study of an Adelaide-based social enterprise, GOGO Events, which employs disadvantaged, often homeless women to help style and set up major corporate events.

Dr Higgins-Desbiolles believes many of the details of the GOGO operation prove the viability and value of purpose economy businesses, both as commercial activities and socially beneficial projects.

“One aspect of our study of GOGO was to examine all aspects of the business to see how well it was delivering to all stakeholders,” Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says.

“We examined whether it was successful as a commercial business, whether it was delivering satisfactory results to the clients it was staging events for, and also whether it was positively impacting the lives of the disadvantaged women it was aiming to support into work and well-being.

“Across all dimensions, we found GOGO was performing outstandingly.”

Over eight years, GOGO founder Sarah Gun has employed more than 80 at-risk individuals, mostly women, all of whom were facing difficult life circumstances, including complex barriers to employment.

These employees have worked on over 330 events – including for high profile clients such as Toyota Australia, Westpac and Food South Australia – and by providing meaningful work in a caring, nurturing environment, GOGO has been able to help many staff regain some control over their lives.

Dr Higgins-Desbiolles notes there is currently unprecedented interest in such socially minded business models, and she believes the multi-dimensional success of GOGO could provide a useful benchmark for other businesses looking to give back to the community.

“In 2020, at the World Economic Forum, the ‘purpose economy’ was the hot topic, and here in Australia, the recent naming of Isobel Marshall as Young Australian of the Year for her business Taboo, which is providing sanitary items to disadvantaged women around the world, shows how positively these sorts of ideas are being received,” Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says.

“The events industry has been very hard hit by COVID, but our research suggests that, as we help this industry rebuild from the pandemic crisis, it is very viable to consider how that recovery might also deliver wider social benefits.”

Dr Higgins-Desbiolles believes the GOGO model clearly demonstrates that social objectives need not compromise commercial outcomes, proving that, with the right care networks and support, all stakeholders can benefit.

“Sarah has very high standards for the events she organises, and she works very closely with the vulnerable people she employs to ensure they are comfortable and confident and can deliver the quality her clients expect,” Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says.

“Key to this, she has developed a network of care, where at-risk individuals, service organisations such as the Hutt St Centre, corporate clients and others enter into relationships of transformation that help support stronger social networks.

“At a time when the pandemic has brought our need for community and social networks into focus, such examples are invaluable.

“The results speak for themselves, and there is a lot that other entrepreneurs could learn from the GOGO story.”

Dr Higgins-Desbiolles is available for interview.
Media: Dan Lander | mobile: 0408 882 809 | email: dan.lander@unisa.edu.au

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