Extract: An Enterprising Lot

3 February 2015 Michael Green

Extract: An Enterprising Lot

Illustrations by Lwnski

It’s a buzzword across the community, corporate and government sectors – held up as the great hope. And yet a standard definition remains elusive. So...what exactly is a social enterprise? 

Here's an extract of Michael Green's investigation. Read the full article in Ed#476.


Plaza Palms was once part of the Cairns Colonial Club Resort. Its 71 units, with steep pitched roofs, are clustered on a large 10,000 square metre property, complete with a resort-style pool, only a few kilometres from the Cairns CBD. By 2010, it had fallen into disrepair and disrepute; it became a backpackers’ hostel, then accommodation of last resort.

“I’ve got numerous stories about people who came to this property and never escaped it – never escaped the system,” says Janet Guthrie, its new proprietor.

When Plaza Palms came on the market, Guthrie and her friend Stuart Wright saw opportunity. Both had worked for more than two decades in Aboriginal health and welfare, for government and for non-profits. They’d had enough. They wanted to risk something different.

“What I see is a very tired and lethargic homelessness sector here in this region. In Cairns, the rate of homelessness has increased,” Guthrie says. “I’m like: ‘Sorry, government, your plan is not working.’”

So, in 2011, Plaza Palms became Three Sista’s, a for-profit business dedicated to providing affordable crisis and temporary accommodation. More than 270 people, including 44 kids, now live on site. Almost all of them are Aboriginal people or Torres Strait Islanders. Many, Guthrie says, are people “regurgitated through the system”, or mob from Cape York, who’ve come down for hospital appointments “and get trapped here for a number of reasons”.

There’s a cafe, a convenience store, a coin-operated laundry and a heavy emphasis on individual responsibility. A user-pays bus service takes kids to school. Tenants are on six-month leases and, as part of the deal, no alcohol or drugs are allowed on site and visitors mustn’t stay past 10pm. Three Sista’s employs seven people, each of whom had been long-term unemployed.

This year, construction will begin on 20 new units to serve as patient travel accommodation – for that, Three Sista’s has partnered with Indigenous health organisations in the Far North.

“We don’t receive any government funding,” Guthrie explains. “We don’t want any, simply because we see what happens to organisations that do. We never want to become complacent. We know we have to work hard everyday to produce income to keep our model alive.”

Three Sista’s is one of a growing number of organisations that have labelled themselves social enterprises. At a time when corporate capitalism is driving catastrophic inequality and environmental degradation, the term social enterprise has moved beyond buzzword to a movement of great hope.

“Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish,” said Bill Drayton, social entrepreneur, academic and founder of the Ashoka Foundation. “They will not rest until they have revolutionised the fishing industry.”

Drayton, an American, did more than anyone to popularise the concept throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and his is one of the most cited quotes about social enterprise. But in whose interests would a revolution be – the industry or the people? Can it be both?


Read the rest of this article in Ed#476, on sale now!