This is part of a series of interviews with alumni from the School for Social Entrepreneurs Australia which inspires and equips changemakers and social entrepreneurs to establish, scale and sustain social ventures that foster social and economic participation, and create a lasting impact within disadvantaged communities.
Alison Gray is a social entrepreneur, passionate about enabling individuals and businesses to make a difference every day. After 25 years of corporate experience, Alison came to a crossroads in her career in 2014 and made the decision to direct her energy towards philanthropy and social impact. This had been a long-term dream, ever since reading Muhammad Yunus’ book ‘Social Business’, and being inspired about the capacity of business to make a positive social impact.website twitter facebook
With a strong skillset in marketing and business management, and an MBA from the University of Queensland, Alison began working part time for national charity, GIVIT. In late 2014, Alison chose to take a step further and started her own social enterprise, Gifts4Good, to fulfil her desire to create a world where creating a social impact is second nature.
Her belief is that most people are willing to support their local community, and want to make a positive difference to society. However, in today’s busy world, it helps if this is as convenient and easy as possible. Alison is excited to see the growth of the social enterprise sector in Australia, as she believes it can play a major role in enabling people to make a difference through their everyday consumer choices.
Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?
My idea for Gifts4Good stemmed from the realisation that, everyday, so much money is spent online, and even a tiny percentage of this could make such a difference in the world. I just needed to find a way to direct this money to good causes, which is when the idea for my business sprouted.
I was inspired by the idea that individuals and businesses could easily contribute to social change by simply shopping online and chose to pursue my idea for Gifts4Good when I noticed similar businesses overseas were successfully making a difference. With my marketing background and interest in online business, I felt I could create a shopping portal which will ultimately be a one stop destination for consumers wanting to make a positive contribution with their shopping.
Can you please explain your business model?
Gifts4Good is a non-profit organisation, and the majority of our earned income goes directly to the charities and other community causes we are in partnership with. We have two business models.
Firstly, we earn referral fees from retailers when a customer makes a purchase at a retailer website after selecting that retailer from one of the 400+ merchants listed on the Gifts4Good website. Fifty percent of this referral fee goes to the charity or cause of the shopper’s choice, and the remainder goes to maintaining Gifts4Good.
This model is similar to a number of other Australian start-up businesses – what makes us different is that we are open to all non-profits in Australia. Even small grassroots clubs and community organisations can use the Gifts4Good platform to fundraise… not just large registered charities.
Secondly, we offer services to charity shops to help them reach new audiences. For example, purpose-driven retailers can list their online stores on our website. There are some amazing charity and social enterprise retailers, supporting everything from individuals with a disability, youth unemployment and homelessness to animal protection, but most consumers have no idea they exist. Gifts4Good wants to change that by giving these businesses a cost-effective marketing platform.
What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next three months?
At the moment, we are working on increasing traffic to our website and encouraging more community organisations to register with Gifts4Good.
Australians collectively spend $8 billion on Christmas gifts each year so we highly encourage charities and non-profit organisations to set this up as a fundraising strategy over the next few months. Anyone interested can sign up via a simple form on our website, or contact us to find out more information. It’s completely free to do so.
Over the next few months, we are also planning a crowdfunding campaign to help us add more features to our online shopping platform in the lead up to Christmas, so that will also be exciting!
How do you make ideas happen?
I think making ideas happen is about having a broad vision of the desired end result. And then communicating this vision to others, seeking many different perspectives, and bringing together skills and people to collaborate to make the idea a reality. At the moment, as a social enterprise start-up, I’m utilising the skills and enthusiasm of some great volunteers and student interns to bring the vision of Gifts4Good to fruition.
What does your typical day look like?
What I love most about being a start-up in the social enterprise space is the sheer variety of tasks I’m involved with. There is no typical day! Any day might find me working from home making improvements to the Gifts4Good website, having a brainstorming session in a co-working space with student interns, attending a networking event for tech start-ups, or holding meetings with fundraisers for community organisations.
I’ve also recently graduated from the School for Social Entrepreneurs business incubator program, so this has given me the opportunity to visit other Australian social enterprises as well as meet with a mentor for support with business planning and setting up our organisational structure and governance.
What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?
The biggest challenge for us has been growing the business and increasing traffic to the website. As a non-profit and a small start-up, we don’t have the funding to advertise like major companies. We are relying on social media and word-of-mouth to build early awareness of Gifts4Good, and are happy to say this is now gaining traction.
What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?
It’s a bit left field and out of my area of knowledge, but I think there is an opportunity for teaching children to code. I understand CoderDojo, the free volunteer-led community based programming clubs for young people, have waiting lists in some locations. And friends of mine who are parents have downloaded some form of app to teach their kids but are wanting more hands on support. To me, these factors indicate a potential market opportunity.
What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment?
I had the opportunity to meet many inspiring social entrepreneurs through my recent course with the School for Social Entrepreneurs. They’re all doing great things. However, I learnt a lot from sessions with Jackie Ruddock of The Social Outfit, Eyal Helamish of OurSay.org and Allan English from the English Family Foundation.
What about internationally?
Social enterprise is much stronger in the UK and US than it is here. I’m inspired by the work of the ‘Buy Social’ movement in the UK, and by Goodshop, an US online shopping portal that has donated $12 million to charities via online shopping over the last decade. I’d like Gifts4Good to be like them when we grow up!!
What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?
A huge one! Understanding the power of business to make a difference was the key inspiration for me to start my social enterprise journey.
The primary value I see for business in the social change space is in the ability for business to create sustainable and scalable social impact that isn’t reliant on grants and philanthropy.
Social enterprises, with a core mission of creating positive social impact, can do this directly.
For mainstream businesses, the opportunities lie more in creating impact through purchasing goods and services from social enterprises (that is, by investigating social procurement opportunities). There are also big opportunities for partnerships between businesses and social enterprises, providing in kind support and skilled volunteering. There is great potential for alignment between business staff development and mentoring programs and the needs of small social enterprises, perhaps even more so than with the traditional charitable sector.
From a retail perspective, there are also more and more businesses developing products or product ranges that support a specific cause. This is because of the growing trend of consumers wanting to purchase brands that make a positive social difference.
Speaking of affecting social change, is there a particular charity you’d like our readers to support?
The Pyjama Foundation – I’ve been a volunteer reader to a child in foster care for the past nine years through the Pyjama Foundation and think the work they do in supporting and improving literacy for kids in care is amazing.
Can you name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers?
I’ve been using some great online services and productivity tools which have helped with the work of starting up Gifts4Good. If your readers haven’t used the following (trello.com for virtual team and task management, canva.com for simple images and graphics and upwork.com for outsourcing to freelancers), I’d recommend checking them out.
Can you also name 3 Australians we should follow on Twitter?
Three inspiring Australian women I like to follow on Twitter are Amanda Gome, Head of Digital and Social Media Strategy at ANZ, Naomi Simson, Founding Director of Red Balloon and Holly Ransom, 2014 Youth Summit Chair.
Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?
There are plenty of opportunities for people to get involved with Gifts4Good. I have a number of university students volunteering with Gifts4Good to help me build the company. I have marketing, communications and IT students helping out, which is great. But it’s a lot of work establishing and scaling an online platform, so I’m always open to extra help. And a partnership, in kind support or skilled volunteering by IT and/or digital marketing specialists would be ideal.
We’re aiming to build a community of Australian idea makers helping each other. If you could have one question answered about start-ups, marketing, social media, accounting, monetization, product development etc. What would it be?
My main question would be about effective strategies to build an online community around a social change vision – in Gifts4Good case, transitioning towards a country that understands the value of social purchasing.
What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?
I’d love to give a shout out to Blue Sky Coffee, 32 Commercial Road, Newstead. It has free wi-fi and is a great large space ideal for a small group meeting or collaborative working lunch. They’ve been particularly welcoming of the Gifts4Good team on a number of occasions in recent weeks.