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Entrepreneur and philanthropist Lance Brooks on what SMBs can learn from social enterprise

Small businesses stand to benefit by borrowing from the rulebook of social enterprise and building strategic alliances in their local communities, according to social philanthropist and former Australian Survivor contestant, Lance Brooks. 

Brooks is the founder and managing director of Brooks Community Consultants (BCC), a grassroots community engagement and social sustainability consultancy. He also founded Communities for Communities, an organisation dedicated to uniting the residents of Canada Bay, in Sydney’s Inner West, to help less-fortunate communities. To date, the not-for-profit had raised more than $2 million for its cause. In 2007, it won the ‘Community Contribution of the Year’ Award as part of the Inner West Weekly’s True Local Awards. Two years later, it was the joint recipient of the of the ‘Community Partner’ Award category of the City of Canada Bay Council’s Sustainability Awards.

He spoke to Dynamic Business about his work with Communities for Communities and BCC, explaining the essential elements of a sustainable social enterprise and what small businesses can learn from this model.

What led you to found Communities for Communities?

From a young age, I was passionate about getting involved in community organisations such as sporting committees, volunteer groups and swimming councils. I realised early on that connections between people had the power to create positive outcomes.

I grew up in a third-generation family business, which nobody had ever left. While there were lots of wonderful aspects, I was drawn to start something on my own. After leaving the business, I signed up for the outdoor leadership program Outward Bound, having long desired to do so. I travelled as part of a group from Mount Kosciuszko to Bass Strait. Despite the tears and the fights, it was an incredible journey where people helped each other to carry on.

When Australian Survivor was looking for people to appear in the first season, which aired in 2002, I put my hand up. It seemed like a natural progression of my love of the outdoors and my earlier experience with Outward Bound. There were good bits and bad bits, like with anything, but the experience reinforced how valuable interpersonal connections are. The show left me a richer person – not because of the money (I didn’t win) but because it gave me a new perspective on life. We were virtually starving, with very little water or shelter, but I ended up trusting everyone and it became a peaceful experience. I realised this is the reality that many people live day in and day out.

When I returned, I knew I wanted to do something that brought people together. If I’d won Survivor, there would have been a $500,000 prize. I had the idea that if I couldn’t win it, I would try to raise it – Communities for Communities was the result. We founded the organisation in the city of Canada Bay while getting together at Drummoyne Swimming Pool.

How does the NFP operate and what has it achieved?

Communities for Communities is a volunteer organisation where people build and celebrate their own community, help other communities in need, and raise awareness and understanding of the needs of others. We also try to lead by example in the hope that other communities will be inspired to set up their own Communities for Communities model.

Our organisation is all about building relationships with people. I’ve been with families in a rubbish tip who need to make a shack to survive, but there’s still a sense of family and communities. I always walk away from the projects with admiration and feeling inspired. It’s not just the family union. It’s the whole community.

Volunteerism underpins everything we do. We’re always looking for volunteers with different skills, who can add something new to our organisation. We have 30 people on our committee, with another 200 volunteers who provide ongoing support. There’s a great harmony at Communities for Communities. There’s no self-interest, no one is trying to get to the top. We’ve built a model where people deliver things free of charge. There is no office – we have no assets. People gift what they can – their talents or their enthusiasm. That’s what makes it work so well.

With the $2 million raised, we’ve built about 850 homes, nine schools and 11 to 12 community facilities. We’ve held around 150 events in our area. We’re not trying to set up a charity – we’re growing a volunteer organisation. We’ve signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Habitat for Humanity, which is our partner for delivering the projects in the field.

How do you ensure the organisation is sustainable?

The hardest thing with Communities for Communities has been maintaining our volunteer network. Generally, people volunteer for two to three years, but we always encourage them to pass their knowledge on to new volunteers before they leave. I like to think it’s our volunteers leaving their dust, or their magic, behind.

New volunteers are so important to what we do because they bring new thinking and a fresh approach. Because we’re an entirely volunteer-run organisation, we also need to make sure we’re bringing in people with relevant skills. We have an accountant, a lawyer, a PR consultant – everyone has a valuable skill they can offer. We wouldn’t be where we are without our incredibly dedicated volunteer network. 

How did Brooks Community consultants come about?

So much of the success we’ve had with Communities for Communities has been driven by the connectedness between interested community members, local businesses and community leaders. It wasn’t until the managing director of a big development company approached me that I started thinking about how building relationships within communities could be used as a business model.

At the time, I was running my own marketing and promotions business. The managing director of PAYCE heard what I had been doing with Communities for Communities and asked if I could help him with the local community at Wentworth Point in Homebush West. The project went well and he recommended me to a new client. Brooks Community Consultants grew out of that experience and continued to grow through word of mouth from that moment.

What is necessary for the success of a social enterprise?

If I had to recommend one thing, it would be mutually beneficial partnerships. You have to find and develop partnerships that bring the skills, resources and assets that deliver a social outcome. It’s important to align with partners whose skills, resources and assets are missing from your business. By being a little more strategic about this part at the beginning, you’re more likely to see positive returns later on. While it would also be ideal to find partners who are socially responsible, it’s not essential. Remember that you might be able to help a business become more socially responsible through this partnership too.

A great example of a mutually beneficial partnership in my experience is the Christmas Carols that used to be run solely by Canada Bay Council. Communities for Communities also organised a Christmas Carols and it ended up growing to twice the size of the Council’s. We decided to partner with Canada Bay Council and host a Carols for the whole LGA. The Council covered the cost of running the Carols, but Communities for Communities invested the time to organise it. It was a win-win.

What can businesses learn from social enterprise?

Small businesses should look at their local communities and see where they can build strategic alliances to generate mutually beneficial results. It all comes down to the law of interdependence.

There are so many things to be gained from these alliances. A sense of loyalty and connection with the community is invaluable to small businesses, especially because of the local advocates it creates. If you’re really strategic about it, you can reach deep into your local community and have a relationship with each of them, then market through your network. Local businesses are dependent on their local community and because of this, they need to do things that are locally orientated.

The Canada Bay Christmas Carols is another good example of this. The local IGA provided all of the supplies for the Carols free of charge. Things like bread, sausages and tomato sauce. It created such goodwill in the community and a great awareness of the business. Because the local IGA provided regular support, they were able to build relationships and a connection with local community members that resulted in obvious benefits for the business.

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James Harkness

James Harkness

James Harnkess previous editor at Dynamic Business

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