A bit of background info.

  •  Benjamin Whitaker
  •  September 11, 2014
  •  blog

I answered some questions for an interview by a third year communications student the other day. She asked some interesting questions so I thought I’d post the interview.

Here it is……

1. When did you decide to establish the Social Opportunity Group and the Food for Thought Program and what made you decide to do this?

We (the staff and I) had been using the tips from my cafe to donate to various organisations, but frustration grew because there was such a distance between the cafe and where the money went. We would donate the money, receive a receipt and that was that. We didn’t know where the money went.

The idea of SOG came about because I felt there was a need to create a platform that could make social change and the people supporting could see exactly where the money went. From customers, donors to suppliers of the cafe.

I had previously worked as a teacher in London and had been part of a breakfast program that fed kids that otherwise wouldn’t get breakfast at home. We fed the children and followed it up with some fun activity. This is where the idea for Food for Thought sprouted.

At the time I was teaching music to primary school kids, and saw the value in the arts for children. Social skills, communication, confidence, cooperation, coordination to name a few of the important life skills that children develop through engaging in activities such as music, drama and art.

Nutrition also plays a vital role in children’s developing bodies and brains. So through my research, experience and observations, I decided that nutritious food and creative activity were the perfect recipe for a project that involves supporting children in vulnerable situations.

We chose Argentina because there is a need for healthy food and education right throughout the country. It is also where my amazing friend and our project coordinator, Valeria is from. Before SOG, Valeria had been involved in various social and cultural projects so with her expertise, experience, contacts and local cultural knowledge, Argentina was an obvious choice for us to start our first project.

Near the end of 2012 we started to create a team of talented volunteers who became team SOG Australia. We have an annual fundraising event in Melbourne and use it as our home base to launch our attack!

2. What was it about the concept of using coffee to generate profit for social change projects like “Food for Thought” that you thought would make it work?

To be honest, the cafe was the only business that I had so by default The Final Step became the generator for Food for Thought. It was quite lucky really as it not only provides funds, but acts as a centre of information for the project. Customers can buy a coffee, look on our project wall, and see exactly where some if the money that they paid for that coffee is going.

Coffee is a beautiful product that creates a lot of interest and connects people across the globe. Cafés are the social centres where millions of people converge everyday. So coffee is the perfect commodity to support social change and cafés are the ideal platform to base the delivery of that change.

3. Did you have any hesitations considering the competitive café/restaurant scene in Melbourne?

The cafe was already a functioning business before we changed it into a social enterprise (September 2013). There was always the fears of standards and business dropping once I left the country but luckily we have a great team running the cafe.

SOG’s multi-talented accountant, Jason, who is also involved in the cafe world, looks after behind the scenes. He runs a tight ship and makes sure things are running smoothly.

4. Are there any aspects about your business model that are significantly different considering you are social enterprise (beside profits going to the project) compared to a traditional business model like the café you helped open with your parents? For example, daily operations etc.

Not a lot has changed since we moved to functioning as a social enterprise. We are now an incorporated association but day to day business is basically the same.

We also have a crew of volunteers who help out with serving customers, clearing tables and washing dishes. This saves us from putting on another staff member and signifies more money for the project. Another great SOG member, Leanne, controls the volunteer roster.

5. Were there any major obstacles in establishing the business?

The biggest obstacle was the first year of business. I was new to the Melbourne coffee world, the location is on a hidden side street, and I had no customers. What was my saving grace was that I worked by myself for this period and didn’t have to pay any staff. It is fair to say I lived pretty cheaply during this time.

6. How do those that come to your café respond to the idea that profits are being contributed to ‘F4T’?

The cafe had built up a lot of regulars in the four years that I was there so I knew a lot of customers. They are all pretty interested in the journey I am taking, and technically they are paying for it, so they feel involved in the whole process. They have shown great support to the cafe and the project.

7. Are there some examples or experiences you can give, being in Buenos Aries, where you can see the difference that The Final Step is making through claiming social responsibility? A difference that many could have if they believed that everyone has the ability to promote social change through business.

Around 25 kids from this vulnerable suburb now have five healthy meals per week. We used to see violence almost every other day in our venue. Now there is basically none.

The other day I was having trouble with a young girl who didn’t want to participate in a lesson. One of the older students came up to me and said that he wanted to talk to the girl. I left him to it and within two minutes the girl was participating in the lesson. That example tells me that we are making a difference. Building the capacity of young vulnerable children is our goal. The Final Step makes it possible for us to do so.

8. What is the most rewarding thing about running a social enterprise like The Final Step?

For me the most rewarding thing is knowing that through business we can support not only ourselves but those in need of a helping hand. It is not only rewarding but hugely satisfying. I’m the happiest I have ever been in my life because of social enterprise.

9. What do you think are the major differences between social enterprises and charities in their potential for social change?

I believe that Social Enterprise has the ability to transform business the world over. It incorporates the money making aspect of business that the world is obsessed with. Taking this profit making ethos and using it to drive social development could change the way the majority of the world lives.

10. “The first step in the journey towards sustainable social” Can you explain what this means to you? What do you think is the key to sustainable social change?

It is the first step because I believe that sustainable social change is a process, a continually changing process that evolves. In this, each step is assessed and the best direction to move forward is found. It is not something that just happens but something that we always have to work towards.

The key to sustainable social change is sustainability. To me social change is pointless unless it is sustainable. I feel that the key to sustainability is education. It’s the teach a man to fish theory. If we can build capacity and empower people, particularly young people, then we are working towards sustainable social change.

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