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Living Ethically on the Dark Side – Adventures of the Starship Social Enterprise

This blog is part of HAG’s 5th birthday series. To see our story, check out our 5-year timeline.

As a co-founder of Humanitarian Advisory Group, this fifth birthday is a real milestone for me and for our team. Not only is it a milestone for any small business to reach this point (60 percent of small businesses don’t make it past the three-year mark), but being a business in an ocean of charities within the humanitarian sector also has its challenges.

That’s right, contrary to popular belief, we (the HAGs) are a business – not an NGO – and we operate as a social enterprise.  So, what is a social enterprise I hear you ask? Here’s how we work:

  • We re-invest the majority of any profits into the humanitarian sector through pro bono and independent work and cash donations
  • We are driven by a social cause – to promote excellence in humanitarian action, and all our work is geared towards this purpose
  • We derive most of our revenue through trade (as opposed to grants or donations)

So, in many ways, we are can be a bridge between the business and the not-for-profit worlds in our sector (an apt description really as the medieval meaning of HAG is of a ‘hedge rider with one foot in the village and one in the world beyond’!).

In founding HAG we were inspired by both the work of the Humanitarian Policy Group and of Humanitarian Outcomes – one more a research think tank, one more of a consultancy. As it turns out, we have evolved into something quite different, and we hope complementary, to both of these organisations.  And that’s great as we wanted to create something new – a platform, a training institute, an ethical consultancy, a think tank, a link between the academia and practitioners.  We wanted to be able to power our ideas, make them come to life, through the creation of high quality products and services for partners.

We are also committed to walking the talk. So, that means if we talk about inclusive humanitarian response then we need to operate in an inclusive way. As we approach our fifth birthday we are proud to announce that we have just formed a partnership with Career Trackers to begin hosting indigenous interns as part of our team.  We have also achieved our B Corp certification, requiring us to meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.

From within the business world, being a social enterprise is seen as quite an ethical and noble undertaking, but coming from the aid sector, the fact that we operate as a business means I have gone to the ‘dark side’ – funny really as the same was said when I moved from the NGO world to the United Nations, so I guess now I’m really going to hell!

The thing is, when I was recently reading Peter Singer’s most recent book, The Most Good You Can Do, there is a section where he mentions that it is actually more ethical to work for the private sector and donate a good chunk of our salary to effective charities, than to work for one yourself.

So perhaps this idea we had about generating money to power our ideas to benefit the humanitarian sector wasn’t so crazy after all? The Victorian Government mustn’t think so, as it has just launched a social enterprise strategy. The strategy highlights the focus that social enterprises have on young people, women and people living with disabilities, and the increasing number of people they employ.

In choosing to take the road less travelled, it hasn’t been all plain sailing – we have been criticized for being all female-owned and for being a for-profit entity.   Personally, I wasn’t really prepared for the rough and tumble of the business world – of the transparency involved, writing your name on something, rather than slapping on a logo, hiding behind bureaucracy.  Of accounting for your time and your results.

The agility is exhilarating, the decisions sometimes terrifying, the responsibility exhausting and the rewards inspiring.

So, thank you to supporters and to detractors for a fine five years, our steep learning curve has been shaped by you, and it’s been a rush and there is plenty more to come as we devise more yet ethical adventures for this team of HAGs.