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Developing Strong Social Enterprises: A Documentary Approach

Social enterprises are diverse in their mission, business structures and industry orientations. Like all businesses, social enterprises face a range of strategic and operational challenges and utilize a range of strategies to access resources in support of their venture. This exploratory study examined the strategic management issues faced by Australian social enterprises and the ways in which they respond to these. The research was based on a comprehensive literature review and semi-structured interviews with 11 representatives of eight social enterprises based in Victoria and Queensland. The sample included mature social enterprises and those within two years of start-up. In addition to the research report, the outputs of the project include a series of six short documentaries, which are available on YouTube at The research reported on here suggests that social enterprises are sophisticated in utilizing processes of network bricolage (Baker et al. 2003) to mobilize resources in support of their goals. Access to network resources can be both enabling and constraining as social enterprises mature. In terms of the use of formal business planning strategies, all participating social enterprises had utilized these either at the outset or the point of maturation of their business operations. These planning activities were used to support internal operations, to provide a mechanism for managing collective entrepreneurship, and to communicate to external stakeholders about the legitimacy and performance of the social enterprises. Further research is required to assess the impacts of such planning activities, and the ways in which they are used over time. Business structures and governance arrangements varied amongst participating enterprises according to: mission and values; capital needs; and the experiences and culture of founding organizations and individuals. In different ways, participants indicated that business structures and governance arrangements are important ways of conferring legitimacy on social enterprise, by signifying responsible business practice and strong social purpose to both external and internal stakeholders. Almost all participants in the study described ongoing tensions in balancing social purpose and business objectives. It is not clear, however, whether these tensions were problematic (in the sense of eroding mission or business opportunities) or productive (in the sense of strengthening mission and business practices through iterative processes of reflection and action). Longitudinal research on the ways in which social enterprises negotiate mission fulfillment and business sustainability would enhance our knowledge in this area. Finally, despite growing emphasis on measuring social impact amongst institutions, including governments and philanthropy, that influence the operating environment of social enterprise, relatively little priority was placed on this activity. The participants in our study noted the complexities of effectively measuring social impact, as well as the operational difficulties of undertaking such measurement within the day to day realities of running small to medium businesses. It is clear that impact measurement remains a vexed issue for a number of our respondents. This study suggests that both the value and practicality of social impact measurement require further debate and critically informed evidence, if impact measurement is to benefit social enterprises and the communities they serve.

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