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Social Enterprise in Australia: From the Unconference to the World Forum

In case you missed it, the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) is coming to Brisbane, Australia in 2022!

SEWF is an opportunity for social enterprise leaders and practitioners worldwide to network and exchange ideas. The multi-day event of roundtables, panels and open forums will discuss issues relevant to running a social enterprise, measuring impact and navigating the ecosystem.

The Australian Social Enterprise Virtual Unconference, held in July 2021, was attended by almost 600 people from across the country. Hosted by Digital Storytellers, the event included 25 sessions that encouraged participants to co-design the vision and agenda that Australia presents to the global social enterprise community in Brisbane next year. 

The Unconference garnered 641 registrations, 562 attendees, 19 sessions, and one little Zoom link. What’s crazy about this is that the Unconference had no social channels. There was no one business or organisation publicly leading it from a comms perspective. The turnout, engagement, and interest is testament to the health of the social enterprise network and the partners involved in making the event happen.

Hot off the press, the ’Insights from the 2021 Australian Social Enterprise Virtual Unconference’ report summarises the current state and future hopes for Australia’s social enterprise sector and presents some initial recommendations for actions leading up to SEWF2022. The key insight is that there is a sense of readiness – to grow the sector, to grapple with tensions and challenges, and to use SEWF2022 as an opportunity to showcase the sector’s achievements.

Overall, and despite the impacts of COVID-19, the Unconference and subsequent report suggest an overall excitement and positivity about the state of social enterprise in Australia. Noteworthy points of pride included the sector’s collaborative approach, achievements in social procurement, diversity, and First Nations leadership. Several participants also declared great satisfaction in what Australian social enterprises have achieved despite limited government support. 

Drawing from online whiteboard notes, participant comments, facilitator observations and post-event feedback, the Unconference report reveals a burgeoning cohort of social enterprise stakeholders eager to be part of a national and global movement working towards social and economic change. It is also clear that meaningful effort will be needed to translate all the sector seeks – such as collaboration, First Nations solidarity, systems change, impact, scale – into more practice.

It’s also clear that developing a national strategy is happening at a fitting time, with many similarities and parallels between the kinds of issues raised during the Social Enterprise National Strategy consultation process and through the Unconference. 

The report makes the following four recommendations for the next steps leading up to SEWF2022:

1. Decolonise social enterprise

There is no shortage of exhortations to learn from First Nations perspectives, but what, as a sector, are we giving back? What does it look like to have a social enterprise sector that truly foregrounds social justice for First Nations people? What does this mean for the ways we organise our events, our peak bodies, and our enterprises?

2. Impact measurement and data – who, what, why?

Are individual social enterprises hoping to reduce the administrative and financial burden of measuring impact by using a common approach? Are intermediaries and other sector-builders hoping to use data to make the case for social enterprise support and investment? The lead-up to SEWF2022 is an opportunity to engage the sector in a conversation about these kinds of questions, with a view to convening targeted discussions and (perhaps) working groups around the topic at the conference.

3. Plan for systems innovation content and conversations

The need for masterclass-level content is clear! Subjects like complexity, systems innovation, adopting place-based impact models, and navigating the technicalities and market-shaping of impact investment were mentioned at the Unconference.

4. Social procurement… and beyond?

We need to determine what a small-medium enterprise-focused approach to social procurement could look like. Social procurement remains skewed towards the interests of larger enterprises.

SEWF is the leading forum for international exchange and collaboration in social entrepreneurship and social investment. The fact that it is coming to Brisbane in 2022 is MASSIVE! It presents a unique opportunity to galvanise the movement of social enterprise in Australia. 

The Unconference was the first initiative in a series of ongoing activities designed to unite the sector in Australia in preparation for the event alongside the National Social Enterprise Strategy. If you’re passionate about social enterprise, make sure you check out the full report and recommendations for the next steps leading up to SEWF2022.

If you find it valuable in your own work, you can download some social tiles referencing the key recommendations here. These are great assets to utilise on LinkedIn as conversation starters. If you’re working on impact measurement, offering masterclasses, working within the social procurement space, intentionally decolonising social enterprise, or have strong opinions about any of the above, feel free to use them to your heart’s content (and tag us)!

So what’s next? The SEWF 2021 Handover Ceremony will be taking place on the 30th of September. This year’s host, Common Good Solutions (Halifax, Nova Scotia), will be handing over the baton in a cross-continental live stream during the SEWF 2021 digital conference. For those of you who have bought online tickets, make sure you come along!

For those who can’t make it, Enterprising Stories will replay key moments from the handover ceremony in an online ‘Community Pub’ on Thursday afternoon (30th). Make sure to bring a glass with you.

Thank you to Matthew Allen for compiling the report with input from Dr Joanne McNeill and Alex Hannant from The Yunus Centre, Griffith University. Also, a big thank you to the following organisations for making the Unconference the success it was: The Victoria Government, White Box Enterprises, Social Enterprise World Forum, Social Traders, the Alliance of Social Enterprise Networks Australia (ASENA) and Incredible Communications. If you have any questions about the lead-up to SEWF 2022, feel free to email Dom at

Jay Boolkin
Jay Boolkin

I'm passionate about positive social change and the power of social entrepreneurship to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. I believe that for-purpose business models can become part of the mainstream and I am enthusiastic about advocating for business models that are genuinely built around a social or environmental mission.

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