Updated: Mar 8
This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.
PREMA MENON: We are in the midst of the rapid rise of the social enterprise, a social enterprise is best defined as an organization with a mission which combines profit-making with respecting and supporting its environment and stakeholders. At last count, in 2017 there were about 20,000 social enterprises in Australia, with annual growth projected at around 5 percent a year. Australia is ranked as the second-best in the world for setting up a social enterprise right after Canada. It's no surprise to me that an Australian is behind efforts to lower barriers for other social entrepreneurs across the world to set up their own social enterprises. In today's episode, I speak to Tom Dawkins, co-founder, and CEO of StartSomeGood.
TOM DAWKINS: A crowdfunding platform for those with ideas to do good work from an agency dedicated to increasing the pace of innovation for social change. And that makes us quite different from our peers but has led us to make a bunch of design decisions that are really kind of specifically about how you help new people bring their ideas for and begin to participate in creating social impact.
PREMA: What can we do in this podcast? I speak with those who are putting their ideas into action, focusing on the good they can do for their neighbors, communities, citizens and the world.
PREMA: In this episode, you'll hear about Tom's personal journey, how StartSomeGood helps social enterprises and Tom's observations of the industry. Tom and the StartSomeGood platform have been central to starting many social entrepreneurs on their journey. So Tom is well known in Australian social enterprise circles. As a child, Tom understood the value of having your voice heard because he'd witnessed the impact when others had it taken from them.
TOM: I must have been eight. I guess it must be about 1987 just a date, very precisely because it was the year before the bicentenary in Australia. 200 years since white settlement and I remember this piece of graffiti that drove past that said, "Don't Celebrate 88" and I was shocked. Why would you not want to celebrate 88? I'd heard nothing, but you know that this is important, this is what we're gonna do. My parents explained to me that there are some Australians who don't celebrate that date because to them, that's the invasion of this country and the beginning of true cultural genocide. One we're still recovering from. And I think that was really eye-opening to me to suddenly realise that there was this other story underneath the story that I've been told. I think that began to even at that very early age that that has stayed with me. I think that there's always that ultimately to me as kind of almost what power is that is what privileges as well is taking for granted that your story battle and that people want to hear you. And so many people don't have that privilege and don't have that opportunity.
PREMA: This stayed with Tom into his teens. He was selected to enter the State of the World Forum, one on exchange in America.
TOM: And what was so amazing about it wasn't just that we got to meet and hear from these incredible change makers and leaders, but that they wanted to hear from us, that they want to know what we had to say. And obviously, I didn't really know anything about anything at that time, but I was willing to give it a go. Despite these conversations, it honestly changed my life. And I think that's what is at the heart of empowerment, is discovering that your voice matters. And the only way you can ever discover your voice matters is to have people listen.
PREMA: Tom knew that he'd been able to attend this changing forum simply because he was the right person at the right place at the right time.
TOM: Every single one of us had parents who could afford to send us to America for a year or two wouldn't have been there at all. And it got me thinking a lot around how do we make this kind of an opportunity less haphazard, less tokenistic and less bias towards girls. And that's a journey I'm still on.
PREMA: Tom recognizes that of everyone who wants to make an impact, only a few will get the chance. In Tom's experience, visibility and voice almost always fall to the majority. Soon after graduating, Tom set up VibeWire in Sydney, a business focused on young change-makers. After eight years at the helm, Tom moved on to his next phase.
TOM: I finished up on my 29th birthday and moved back for four years, less than the first two of those years in Washington, D.C., as the first social media director for an organization called Ashoka, who fascinatingly invented the phrase social entrepreneurship about 45years ago. And I spent two years in San Francisco and it was in San Francisco that StartSomeGood was born. And that's not coincidental. San Francisco is the most vibrant innovation system in the world, the Bay Area I really mean. and I was fascinated by what are the characteristics of an innovation ecosystem. And then I realized that so many of those characteristics are in fact, missing from the social impact funding ecosystem. And ultimately founded StartSomeGood.
PREMA: Prior to our interview, I was reading over an e-mail from Tom in it. He categorized start some good as being in the business of democracy and making the world a better place by giving everyone an opportunity to lead, change or make a social impact.
TOM: And partly that's because I think that a lot of the best innovation when it comes to social change comes from people with a lived experience of those challenges. But those people don't usually come neatly packaged with all the right set of skills in terms of pitching and marketing and sales and fundraising that is needed usually to kind of get ideas started and raise the funds you need to try new things. And so we're trying to fill that gap for the social impact sector.
PREMA: The first step was to ease the initial burden. For many social entrepreneurs, funding investors might well be available, but they are few and far between. Many investors are risk-averse and don't see social enterprises as an avenue for significant return on investment.
TOM: I was really inspired by Kickstarter because I felt like solving a very similar problem but for creative entrepreneurs rather than social entrepreneurs. But it was still a kind of a gatekeeper issue that in the social sector where this world of gatekeepers, which were foundations and corporate, some governments, the funders deciding what was worth trying at all and doing so at a very risk-averse way in the creative sector, that was a record label executives and so on. And that created massive inefficiencies. That's how you get stories like the Beatles getting knocked back many times. That's how insanely inefficient the record industry was, identifying good innovation in terms of things that didn't sound like everything else. And we're kind of in that world now still for a lot of social impact. Where stuff's getting knocked back 90 times because it doesn't look like what's come before it. But of course, that's exactly what we need. If you don't like the status quo is acceptable, then what we need is things that don't look like everything that came before.
PREMA: Aside from providing a platform for crowdfunding, StartSomeGood supports these social entrepreneurs with practical workshops, online programs, as well as annual summits.
TOM: We want to both provide the best possible technical tools to build to raise money, but pair that with the best possible coaching and training opportunities that people can get really familiar with everything that goes around those tools because it's great to have a tool to distribute a story. But if your story makes sense, it's ultimately going to go very far. StartSomeGood also partners with traditional gatekeepers to help them become less risk-averse these days, the considerable majority of our revenue is not through the platform directly but through partnership work. Working with those gatekeepers, helping get in many respects, helping them get braver and smarter about how they fund early-stage innovative social enterprises and community projects. And so we run impact accelerators and match funding programs. ING, the city of Sydney, Sydney, Parramatta, City of Canning and THL, the world's biggest camper van rental company We did a project with this year on looking for community-led projects that leverage outdoor experiences for social impact because that's obviously their area passion. So these days, it is actually kind of helping people do that better. Helping funders and other people who want to support innovation, but who, you know, who justifiably need to figure out new ways of doing it. It does require that, you know, the challenge is moving from, I guess that really purely analytical metric led Show us the numbers and we'll decide if it stacks up Kind of approach to this is exciting. Seems kind of high potential, great team. Let's give them a go and then running. You know, our model has someone that can and she's able to train start a program that we run for them. They put in the first half of the needed funds, but they're conditional on them being able to raise the remainder from the community through StartSomeGood. It increases the benefit to the funder by driving a lot more awareness and engagement while reducing the risks because it shares the funding burden with the community. But it also requires that it forces that entrepreneur organisation to get out there, improve the community. Really want it.
PREMA: Tom has a unique vantage point of his industry thanks to his role and his involvement for over 20 years. He believes social enterprises are experiencing a massive upswing, becoming the new business as usual.
TOM: And that's been driven by a number of things. The kind of cultural trend that is driving that, in general, is people wanting to make an impact now. And so this idea there used to, people used to think a lot in terms of leaving a legacy. that's just not a concept that has very much cultural currency anymore. It's not about leaving a legacy. It's about actually living your values now. And that means, I think, that increasing numbers of people are increasingly looking at how to express and live their values through every part of their life. And so becoming more conscious of what companies they support, focusing on working, you know, trying to get jobs to companies or organizations that provide meaning and purpose.
PREMA: Tom's observation is that the desire to express in live values cuts across different generations.
TOM: It is true that, you know, when I visit the university-based entrepreneurial programs, even when they don't have an overtly social focus, you tend to find that 85 percent of companies are social enterprises anyway. With all of this stuff, I think what you generally see is that young people reflect back the way in which societies are shifting. Young people are almost never the driver of cultural change. I don't think, you know, because they actually are shaped by the culture they're growing up in. You can't, they are not like outsiders affecting it. They're absorbing it certainly in our programs. We see people right across the spectrum. I think there's actually a lot of people who are more mid-career, I think, and come to social enterprise from either side. They're significantly into their corporate career and they're going. Is this it? Is this all there is? There's got to be more to littleness. And what I want it to mean more. And they start looking to bring in that social element, even the inside their organization or starting their own or shifting careers. And I think the same thing happens from the other direction, which is people who fit in the traditional, not possible welfare sector also thinking, is this it? Is this all there is just this endless kind of treadmill of doing the same thing and delivering the same services? How can we actually scale this? How can we be less dependent on the government? How can we be more sustainable? And been attracted to businesses as a possibility of doing those things?
PREMA: Women are making the most of opportunities in this industry.
TOM: The most recent statistics say that 72 percent of social enterprises in Australia are founded or led by women. Co-founders. For what it's worth, we are sympathetic. Cut it structurally in our society, women are often dealt with social issues more directly. They've often been thrust into roles as carers or, you know. Therefore, I have dealt with all sorts of things that go along with that. And I imagine that some sort of connection there that lived experience, but certainly that is a strong trend we see.
PREMA: At the time of this recording StartSomeGood has helped 1078 projects on their platform with over 10 million U.S. dollars raised. Tom reiterates the importance of lived experiences when setting up social enterprises or technology for good.
TOM: Well, certainly that problem can exist with people who are, you know, 21 and doing a business degree and think they've got the solution to helping women fleeing domestic violence or something. I have no experience of whatsoever. I've never spoken to a woman who has for a second. But you also say like 55-year-old bankers thinking that they're the perfect person to sit on the board of a homeless services organization despite knowing nothing about homelessness or never having met a homeless person. And that's why, you know, again, it's why we think it's important to provide the kind of lower the barriers of entry a little bit and provide that onramp to people of all ages who do have a real insight, often based on their life experience that travels time spent with people, their personal circumstances, whatever it might be, and try and facilitate their opportunity to tell that story and to have people listen.
PREMA: Thank you for listening. If you liked what you heard, please write or follow this series on whichever podcast service you're on.
Another great way to support this series is to follow me on Facebook or Instagram. Just search for What Can We Do podcast. What Can We Do? is an independent podcast series produced and edited by me, Prema Menon and the script editor for this series is Liza Nadolski, and the audio you're hearing has been sweetened by Nicholas Allaire.