Opinion: We need more LGBTQ+ social enterprises – here’s why

In an era of rising LGBTQ+-phobia and complex geopolitical challenges, traditional NGO models won't suffice. The social enterprise model is the best way for LGBTQ+ activists to combat hate, and create a more resilient, united movement, says Sebastian Rocca, the founder of Micro Rainbow.

Sebastian Rocca Micro RainbowI am a queer social entrepreneur. During my career I have led LGBTQ+ NGOs and also founded a charity, the Micro Rainbow International Foundation. However, my main focus over the last 12 years has been founding and growing a successful social enterprise, Micro Rainbow, which has a unique LGBTQ+ mission.

I believe we need more LGBTQ+ social enterprises. This belief is based on my lived experience as an LGBTQ+ activist of almost 20 years and as an LGBTQ+ social entrepreneur. Such social enterprises could transform our movement and act as a catalyst to allow us to respond faster and more effectively to our challenges, create more resilient LGBTQ+-driven organisations and increase solidarity.

We live in unprecedented times. The VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world we live in is not only affecting businesses and industries but also human rights movements, such as the LGBTQ+ movement. As a result, several of our human rights are vulnerable to being eroded. That includes LGBTQ+ rights.

I believe there are many countries where LGBTQ+ organisations could and should start exploring more sustainable models for social change

While LGBTQ+ rights are improving in some countries, the way LGBTQ+ equality is viewed seems to be increasingly polarised in many others. For example, in the UK we are witnessing an increase in hate crimes and unprecedented levels of transphobia. Internationally, we see countries like Ghana and Uganda introducing harsher laws to criminalise LGBTQ+ people. Several states in the USA are trying hard to erode trans rights. It feels like hate and fear against LGBTQI people are on the rise across the globe. 

I believe social enterprises can play a crucial role in responding to the rise of LGBTQ+-phobia, but we need to step up our game. A more sustainable business model such as a social enterprise has the potential to transform our movement.

 

  1. We will respond faster and more effectively to the challenges facing LGBTQ+ people

In my opinion, the current structure of the organisations that dominate the LGBTQI movement may not be fit to respond to the increased hate we are experiencing. Most LGBTQ+ organisations worldwide follow the NGO/charity model which can limit growth for three main reasons:

  • Boards of trustees can be very risk averse. There is little growth without risk, and it can take a long time to effect change. We do not have the luxury of time.
  • These organisations often lack the entrepreneurial talent which I believe is essential to take our movement to the next level in the fight against hate.
  • They are grant-dependent and therefore vulnerable to the agendas of governments, philanthropists and trusts. 

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for the charity/NGO model (as mentioned above, I founded a charity myself), especially in environments where democracies are fragile or non-existent and where it is simply too dangerous to  promote human rights.

However, I also believe there are many countries where LGBTQ+ organisations could and should start exploring more sustainable models for social change. We need organisational structures that allow greater agility and more rapid scaling so they can make a significant impact on the cause.

This desire to create new models for social change has been the driving force behind Micro Rainbow. In 2018, we decided to tackle homelessness and abuse of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in housing in the UK. We piloted the programme with a two-bedroom flat. Six years later, we have a capacity of 30,000 bed-nights a year and we have accessed £4m of social investment to make it happen. 

We are now in the process of raising a second round of social investment to eradicate homelessness of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in the UK by 2030. I believe we have been able to achieve this largely as a result of our social enterprise structure and culture. Our model can be replicated, and we hope to inspire more LGBTQ+ and third sector organisations to follow it. However, to date we remain the only LGBTQ+ social enterprise in the SE100 list of top 100 social enterprises in the UK.

 

  1. We will become more resilient to face today’s VUCA world

Most LGBTQ+ organisations rely on grants and donations only. This means they are vulnerable to external factors: donors, funders and the constant need to fundraise. If there is a shock, we struggle to recover, and many LGBTQ+ groups then need to close. I have seen this happen in Europe as well as in Africa. The tragedy behind this pattern is that a lot of LGBTQ+ activism is also lost. Our advocacy and lobbying efforts are therefore not consistent over time, and we end up with a fragmented movement. Against the rise of LGBTQ+-phobia, we cannot afford this. 

I believe social enterprises can help make the movement more resilient. A percentage (if not all) of social enterprises’ budgets come from commercial income which should ensure some continuity. In the case of Micro Rainbow, 60% of our budget is now independent from government, trusts or individual donor funding. When we started 12 years ago, 100% of our income came from grants and donations. This means that in a time of crisis we might have to shrink momentarily, but our work for LGBTQ+ equality is unlikely to stop completely. 

 

  1. We will experience greater solidarity as we free up resources to face the  challenges of the movement

Government and philanthropic funding for LGBTQ+ rights is very small compared with funding for other causes. When LGBTQ+ social enterprises generate their own commercial revenue, they require less financial support from funders, governments or donors. This shift allows for the reallocation of funds towards other organisations that may not have the means to be financially self-sustaining, such as LGBTQ+ organisations in countries like Uganda. Having more LGBTQ+ social enterprises means having more money for the movement. 

 

One of the missing pieces of the puzzle

Social enterprises are not the full solution to LGBTQ+ inequality worldwide and they are not without their limitations. There is still an important place for philanthropists, government funding and for corporate foundations. These players are even more critical in countries where LGBTQ+ identities are criminalised.

However, I believe social enterprises are part of the solution to the increased hate towards LGBTQ+ people during these times when some governments are cutting aid, when corporations choose to protect their bottom line when faced with the dilemma of supporting trans rights, and when philanthropic support for LGBTQ+ causes is relatively small compared with funding for other causes.

I believe social enterprises are one of the missing pieces of the puzzle. They are a new entry point not only for bringing additional resources to the LGBTQ+ movement but also to scale our efforts and to be able to face up to our (very well resourced) opposition. As a result, we will also have the means to face the rise of hate and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation worldwide. 

I also believe that social enterprises have the potential to bring more than just money to the movement. They bring a new economic infrastructure that is resilient, an infrastructure that can respond more powerfully to the backlashes we face and will face in the law, in the communities and within our families.

 

Header image: A theatre project run by Micro Rainbow. Photo courtesy Micro Rainbow

 

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