Each month we showcase truly inspirational social entrepreneurs and social enterprises that are making a difference in the world. This month we speak to Fighting Chance.
You want ‘a brighter future for more people with disabilities.’ Tell us a bit more about you and what you do?
My name is Laura O’Reilly. I am the co-founder and CEO of Fighting Chance. We started fighting chance in 2011 with the mission to make impact in the disability sector.
Sounds great. What’s your social impact?
Fighting Chance is an organisation of social entrepreneurs who are interested in bringing innovation and social change to the disability sector through sustainable enterprises. We are a not-for-profit, that is our legal designation so we are able to fundraise through the vehicle Fighting Chance, take support for our ideas, incubate them, get them going with the view to them becoming good sustainable businesses which can have impact on the life of people with disability in all their diverse ways.
We have been operating for about five years, and our first area of focus that we are really working on is employment. More specifically, unemployment of people with disabilities and the lack of vocational participation opportunities facing people with a disability. That’s really where we are entirely focused but in the longer term there’s lot of different aspects in the sector we are interested in applying our model to.
How did fighting chance get started - what’s your story?
Fighting chance came out of the experience of my youngest brother Shane. He is the youngest of three in my family and has a physical disability.
Jordan and I, his two older siblings, were in University and I was studying in England, Cambridge. I was coming to study law with a really strong sense of you can do anything. Jordan is similarly studying occupational therapy in Sydney and it was a really hopeful time for him and it was exciting.
Shane finished school and we were really confronted by the difference in Shane’s experience and our experience. For us the world felt quite broad but for Shane as a personal with a physical disability but a lot of intellectual capacity, the world was getting narrower.
In particular, he tried a work experience placement and the only thing on the table for him a young man with a disability was a packing job. You were meant to put like 10 screws into a bag or whatever. He wasn’t physically capable of doing that and that was the end of that and that was the last option as work that was available for him.
After that he finished school and was assessed as being for what’s called community participation which is where you are given funding by the government to go hang in the mall or watch movies. He got a lot out of that program but as months passed there wasn’t any purpose in his life. It’s not what he wanted for himself and it sure was not what his family wanted for him. So Jordan and I thought let’s see if we can do this a bit better. We had no clue what we were doing, and the word social enterprise didn’t even exist back then but we knew that we had to do it in a sustainable way. So we thought let’s try and design a business that would include him.
So do you have a long term vision for the future?
We’re aiming to support those with disabilities in all ways. It’s really about looking at a person with disability and their challenges; for example lack of employment, lack of accommodation, lack of transport, lack of social isolation, all of these challenges. So we think ‘how can we resolve that challenge in a really sustainable way, in a business oriented way?’ ‘how can we solve that challenge and bring kind of new thinking to the challenge through business?’ Where Fighting Chance started it was just focused on employment but we’re in it for the long haul, so there’s plenty of time to take on other challenges and see if can do something about them.
Could you tell me about the other social enterprises that fall under the umbrella of Fighting Chance?
So in the first five years we’ve been focusing on employment and vocational participation.In particular we’re interested in the fact that for people with profound and severe disability when they finish school they are actually afforded no economic participation opportunities. For people with more severe disability the rate to unemployment is really high.
We wanted to address that and we have done that with two different social businesses and the reason that there are two businesses both tackling the same core problem is because people with disability are really diverse in needs.
The first social enterprise is Avenue. Avenue is a trading gift and homeware retailer. We import giftware and homeware products made by artisans with disability overseas. We import that product to Australia and our guys focus on selling and distributing that stuff. So we sell through our online website, we sell through community markets and through wholesale. And all of the commercial activity of that process, you know from finding suppliers, making choices about the product, bringing it over here, stock taking it, pricing it up and selling it out. All of that is done by people with profound and severe disability in Sydney who otherwise are totally excluded from the world of work, like my brother Shane.
That’s the kind of the mentality that is active in the Australian society and in a lot of societies- that this group of people with more profound and severe disability will be cared for, we will support and entertain you but you can’t really contribute anything to us. And knowing my brother, he had so much to contribute.
We used this information to create Avenue, which is a trading business in which people spend their day working that generates sales and the guys retain the proceeds to those sales, but we design the actual business model and the work of the day, the processes so that the people with profound and severe disability can access and engage in that work.
Sounds interesting - how does it work?
We do that through a process called job carving. So you take a process and you break it up into tiny little pieces and you give it to everyone based on what they can do, so everyone does their bit. All needs to be done and all the pieces contribute back to a whole.
The social outcome of that is that these guys are engaged in purposeful work, we pay tax and the guys retain their proceeds of their labour. That’s the avenue model.
When we were doing that, that’s where we started and we were doing that piece of work but we were being approached by much more people with moderate and mild disability, you know high functioning autism, mild disability, those sorts of things. They weren’t looking for a profit share model, they were looking for a job, $25 an hour sort of job.
So we thought, let’s have a go at that and that’s the second social enterprise, Jigsaw which what’s happening behind me. So today, two years later Jigsaw is a trading and fully sustainable business outsourcing company. Government and commercial partners outsource work to us and we deliver the work in a commercial sense.
Tell us more about Jigsaw.
So an example would be Warringah Council, they obviously have all the records of everyone who lives in the Warringah district, if you need to find something about your driveway, at the moment you call up the Warringah council and they will send someone to the storage unit, dig around the paper, find your records, they will bring the box back and then be like oh damn this is the wrong box and go back again and dig around in the paper and two weeks later you get your records.
Where we are going as a society is obviously digitisation of that information. You call up, they do a search online and up pops the record and they email it to you, that’s where we are going. Jigsaw is facilitating that with the actual digitisation of that information.
So that’s one of our contracts and another one of our contracts is a company called Shoe box. They do online receipts. So you send all your receipts to Shoebox and they put it into an app and you can use that to make your tax claims or whatever it might be. We scan all the information for shoe box.
That’s a couple of the examples of the information management services that we are offering to the community here. We offer services to the market at commercial rates, we pay our workers commercial rates, award wages and above award wages. Within the business that allows us to do three things, to train and upscale people within a functional business, secondly offer jobs paid at standard wages, and thirdly we have what we call Jigsaw temps where once you work and train and you are confident, we support you to transition into other similar jobs in mainstream.
It’s about using trading activities to support people transition from low confidence, long term unemployment and to ‘now I am being skilled, I have got a year or two years of experience, confident and I am ready to go out and apply for similar jobs in mainstream’. That’s what Jigsaw is doing.
Amazing work. Do you hope to keep the people continuing with Jigsaw or hope that they find something else?
Yes, with Avenue, it is a whole of life model and we are talking about people with much more profound severe disabilities. With Jigsaw, it’s designed to be a transitional model but there is no timeline on what that means. If someone comes and joins us and needs two weeks of work experience, you know a reference to go out and get another job, amazing.
If someone needs two years paid in work to kind of up their confidence and accumulate all the experiences that you can leverage in an interview and be confident about that next step, awesome. If someone needs twenty years of that support, awesome.
We will adjust as the model can accommodate because it’s ultimately sitting on a trading base. If someone wants to stay as our employee, then that’s great but if someone wants to transition then that’s great, it doesn’t make much of a difference to us. Basing it in an actual trading business it allows us to really go deep on training and skill development and dealing with challenges that people face.
How do you find the people you support?
With Jigsaw, usually people contact us. People will come in and do work experience, any university or high school student will go through that horrible experience where you are nervous and you rock up on the first day and you do a period of unpaid work experience.
That gives us a bit of time to get to know the person and make an assessment of what support they are going to need. It gives the person a less pressured introduction and it lasts about 10 weeks and then from there people can transition into a paid role and then it moves on. So usually it starts from work experience, that transitions into employment and ideally the third step is they start looking into the external transition to a mainstream role.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting a social enterprise?
First of all I am a really big fan of the lean methodology in terms of social entrepreneurship. I am a big fan of start, fail, pivot, start again, fail even quicker, pivot. We did that with Avenue for a year and half. We had around 4 iterations before what became what it is now. I am a huge fan of just jumping in and trying and seeing where you land.
I think in doing that process it’s really important to keep a sense of why you started, as you can get lost in a different direction and you follow that, and realise that you have pivoted somewhere that’s actually quite separated from your mission.
I think as long as you stay focused on your mission the pivoting is a positive process. I am sometimes surprised at some social entrepreneurs who are going out with business plans that aren’t very robust. I think that the most important thing is making sure that the service you proposed to offer to the market is genuinely tapping into solving a need.
If you can keep that discipline around the business model and make sure that the numbers stack up you have got good prospects. And the other thing is not being scared to fail, we fail like everyday and every hour. You just got to have resilience and have super stamina as nothing happens really fast and it’s just slow burn.
How can people get involved and be a part of what you are doing?
There’s a whole bunch of ways how people can get involved with us. We work with volunteers in a variety of ways; from people coming and hanging out and spending time with the guys, to professional volunteering to help us grow the business.
There is a donate tab on our website and that’s always awesome if anyone wants to support us that by. Also by liking us on social media and by spreading the word. The most important thing for us is that we grow our community around the products that we sell, the services that we offer to the market and the people that we support. If people think that this might work for someone that they know, by telling someone about it or helping us get in touch with that person that’s ultimately the way we grow and have impact.
Great stuff - thanks for sharing your story Laura!
Read more about Fighting Chance at http://fightingchance.org.au/