Well, here is my first post from Melbourne. I think I should start with the two most important things, what the weather is like and what ‘social enterprise’ is for the unenlightened.

It’s raining and about 14 degrees. In fact it raining quite hard and Melbourne has had more rain in the past 24hrs than it has had in the past month. Lots of comments about how unseasonably bad the whether is – it makes the Scottish contingent feel very much at home. Albeit its colder here than it was in Edinburgh when I left.

And what are social enterprises? Well, social enterprises are social mission driven organisations which trade in goods or services for a social purpose. Their aim to accomplish targets that are social and/ or environmental as well as financial often referred to as having a triple bottom line. Sometimes social enterprises are referred to as ‘more than profit’ organisations. Shetland Arts is a ‘social enterprise’. We trade: in goods like tickets for events and festivals and commission on art sales; and we provide services in the areas of community development, regeneration and skills through working in and through the arts.

There is a key difference for me when compared to organisations which run secondhand shops or run fundraising events to gain sums to pay for their charitable activity. This activity is purely fundraising – it’s not in my book social enterprise (I may revise this view be the end of the week). For it to be a social enterprise it has to trade in the activity it is there to exist for – social activity that meets aims as laid out in the constitution of that organisation or whatever its governing instrument might be.

So why am I here? Three reasons:

One: Shetland Arts like many organisations in voluntary sector has for sometime been focused on how best it can ensure its long term future and growth while reducing its dependency on restricted community and public funds. This aim pre-dates the credit crunch – Shetland Arts’ Trustees from day one have sought to diversify our funding base. At present nearly 70% of our funding comes from just two sources – Shetland Charitable Trust and the Scottish Arts Council. In A Hansel for Art published last year we made a promise to reduce our dependency on local funds to one third of our turnover by 2012.

Two: Add to the above the opening of Mareel in early 2011, a venue that must be self sustaining by year three in the worst case scenario and at best, generating income for our arts development activity. Mareel will be a 100% social enterprise and the first self-sustaining arts venue of its kind in the UK. This is a big challenge but not so rare when you look further afield – Australia and the US have a strong tradition of successful creative social enterprises with little dependency on the state. So, it’s very possible – as our business plan modeling for Mareel has shown us.

So, in short I’m here to learn from some of the worlds most successful social entrepreneurs, build strong relationships with the 20 or so Scottish delegates so we can form a supportive network that will be sustained beyond this study trip and use the time to focus on how Shetland Arts can become a successful social enterprise itself.

And Three: Well I was invited by HIE as one of just two social enterprises in the Highlands and Islands to apply for a place on what was a highly competitive study programme, with just 20 places for Scottish delegates. It is without a doubt a fantastic opportunity one that one comes just once in a career. It is great timing for where we are with Mareel and Shetland Arts as a whole.

So onto what’s happening today – it has been a recovery day from the 27hr flight yesterday. We are gathering at 4pm for a study trip briefing then heading to the Parliament building for the opening ceremony of the World Enterprise Forum. The event kicks of proper tomorrow and the next 2 days with sessions through out the day and night. 10 people from Canada will then join the 20 strong Scottish contingent and we head off on a seven-day study visit of social enterprises in the Broome area of Western Australia (a 7hr flight away!).

Now, must get dressed up on head down stairs – more posts over the next few days.