Dr Ruth Knight, Associate Professor Wendy Scaife, 19 January, 2021

Social enterprises are packing ever more ‘punch’ in directly addressing the community’s social, cultural and environmental needs. These enterprises are responding to unmet social and environmental needs by trading goods or services and using a business model to create social change.  So what does the Brisbane and Queensland landscape look like and making social enterprise career pivots, a career move worth making?

Social Traders suggest that 20,000 social enterprises operate in Australia, employing around 300,000 Australians. Some are big enterprises and some small, but each one believes business and social impact are not mutually exclusive.

Why is social enterprise so appealing as a career move and to investors, government and nonprofits alike?


We’ve seen considerable investment ploughed into developing a vibrant social enterprise ecosystem from both government and investors.

Government investment

The Australian Government supports the sector by providing funding to eligible social enterprises and many state and local governments are committed to growing the sector. In Queensland, the state Government released a Queensland Social Enterprise Strategy (2019) and this strategy has now been supported with funding, including the Social Enterprise Grants program and mentoring initiative.

Social procurement policies are also strategically ‘hot’ and used by state and local governments and others to leverage their buying power and generate social value above and beyond the value of the goods, services, or construction being procured. In Queensland, the state government has acknowledged social enterprises play a significant role in promoting fair and ethical trade, enhancing social inclusion, and giving vulnerable groups the opportunity to participate in the community and the economy by doing business with social enterprises.

Philanthropic and corporate investment

Philanthropic foundations and investors have also multiplied and use organisations such as SEFA, Foresters and Social Ventures Australia to create positive social, cultural and environmental impact while generating a financial return for investors.

Impact investment loans and equity finance structured by intermediaries such as the Impact Investment Group, Impact Generation Partners, Christian Super and Benefit Capital have also increased. This is a welcome funding avenue for social enterprises who wish to partner with investors who understand the dual aim of meeting an environmental or social need, while also generating a positive financial return.

Investing in social change is not just for the wealthy or serious investors. For instance, Start Some Good is an online crowdfunding platform that has enabled everyone to financially support start-ups and great ideas around the world.

The rising profile of the Queensland social enterprise

Profile has been another impetus to local social enterprise growth. Industry body the Queensland Social Enterprise Council (QSEC) has amplified the social enterprise message and helped create a supportive ecosystem for this business structure.

With profile has come increased research in and about the sector. QUT’s Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies (ACPNS) pioneered some key social enterprise research. With support from the Westpac Foundation, ACPNS partnered with Social Traders in 2009 to define social enterprise and, for the first time in Australia, to identify and map the social enterprise sector.

The paper ‘Mapping social enterprise in Australia: conceptual debates and their operational implications’ identified multiple drivers that are influencing the growth of the sector, and the complex debate about what defines social enterprise activity and how the sector might be more legitimised.

Since then, ACPNS and other researchers across QUT have explored social enterprise activities and impacts and the conditions that help them thrive. Research is also being conducted about the approaches to measure the economic and social impact of social enterprises, and how social procurement is a viable way of creating social change.

Conscious consumers

With a higher profile, more consumers of goods and services are supporting the growth of the sector. Conscious consumers are thinking more deliberately about who they buy from and many are seeking out social enterprises, or deliberately choosing to buy ethically made and sourced products so their purchasing power makes social impact.

Social enterprises such as Outland Denim and Freedom Hub and GreenFox Studios are all great examples. By purchasing from these businesses, consumers are supporting more ethical and social impact alternatives to mainstream companies who can’t guarantee their customers they are good for the planet and people.

Read more: Outland Denim: The rise of social enterprise and its power to create social change in fashion

QUT researcher Dr. Erin O’Brien has been unpacking the topic of conscious consumerism and that consumers can become advocates and activists when they choose to buy from businesses such as social enterprises. When social enterprises are effective at communicating their purpose and their impact, it offers the opportunity for social enterprises to build trust and credibility amongst consumers so they are more likely (and empowered) to become customers and supporters of social enterprise and social change.

Read more: Do social enterprises use marketing to create social change?

Moving to digital platforms and offerings

Like all businesses, social enterprises have had to adapt due to the pandemic, and many now are moving to digital platforms and diversifying their products and services, which makes them more accessible to consumers.

QUT Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies graduate and Empathy First founder, Leanne Butterworth moved her face-to-face virtual reality professional development service delivery to an online platform to continue operating throughout the Coronavirus pandemic diversifying the social enterprises’ service delivery through digital experiences.

Another example of where we saw a social enterprise move online in 2020, is the Meeanjin Markets, a market for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stallholders, where the market moved to an online platform, which profiles each stallholder,  connecting each of the stallholder’s online presence.

Technological advances in recent years are helping social enterprises compete against corporate counterparts. Humantix, an online platform for those putting on events is now doubling in size every six months. The Brisbane Tool Library and The World’s Greatest Garage Sale are using technology  to build a more sustainable society, reducing consumption and waste going to landfill. Both of these Queensland enterprises are growing fast while empowering Australians to reduce, reuse, recycle and repurpose.

Education and training

As the sector profile, research, investment and conscious consumerism increase, so does the demand for education and training to support social entrepreneurs who wish to explore or make this sector a career.

QUT has been offering postgraduate courses for social entrepreneurs for some time. MBA graduate, Paul Quilliam, who co-founded the Hummingbird House Foundation with his wife Gabrielle, received an international entrepreneurship award in 2019 from the Global Association of MBA’s (AMBA) in the nonprofit category from a field of 257 business schools worldwide.

In another pioneering effort, in 2021 QUT is also now offering the Social Enterprises unit which is a great primer to social enterprise and helps students to develop Human-Centred Design skills as they build a social enterprise business plan. The course is open to undergraduate students who wish to study Social enterprise as part of their undergraduate degree at QUT or another university. Members of the community can also enrol in the course without having to be completing a degree.

Social Enterprises unit

Introduction to Social Enterprise unit

Entrepreneurial culture

Entrepreneurial-mindset is strong in our culture, particularly with social enterprise. In fact, more founders of startups have studied atQUT than any other Queensland university. Our students enjoy being part of our extensive entrepreneurship community including the opportunities with QUT Entrepreneurship including participating in development programs with the MIT’s Martin Trust Centre for Entrepreneurship.

So, what’s really behind the boom of social enterprises?

Maybe it’s the passion and dedication of social entrepreneurs and social investors, to think beyond private wealth creation and see the opportunity that business has to use innovation and entrepreneurship to create social impact. Social enterprises have been described as ‘dragging all other businesses into the future’ (Lord Victor Adebowale).  Definitely worth a closer look.

Interested in upskilling and a career in social enterprise? We offer a Master of Business (Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies) and for undergraduate students, a social enterprise unit study options to complement your career and study pursuits.


Ruth Knight

Dr Ruth Knight

Dr Ruth Knight is an academic with the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies with a special interest in workplace culture, leadership and social impact.


Wendy Scaife

Associate Professor Wendy Scaife

Director of the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies at QUT Business School.



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