Social enterprise is a movement that is showing rapid growth across global boundaries. The British Council hosted an evening talk on ‘Creating legal frameworks for social enterprises’ recently. The event focused on developing new legal frameworks in Sri Lanka to support the development of a thriving social enterprise sector.
The panel of speakers was made up of Upul Jayasuriya – President, Bar Association of Sri Lanka, Aritha Wickramasinghe – Sri Lanka Representative of iProbono, and Dr. Amanda Kiessel – Board Member, Good Market.
The discussion evolved in to an interesting debate on how NGOs in Sri Lanka are looking at ways to adopt social business models, and how the current laws may not be sufficient to accommodate the associated needs.
iProbono is a non-profit online network connecting civil society organizations and social businesses in need of legal assistance with lawyers and students who want to use their legal skills for the public good.
“We started iProbono in 2009, so it has been running for a few years. In 2009 we realized that there is an increasing demand especially in the social services sector – the social enterprise sector - for probono legal help.
This was largely in response to the financial crisis which happened in 2007. There were a lot of people who were bankers, intelligent graduates and people in the corporate sector who had lost their jobs.
And a lot of them moved onto start off fantastic social enterprises or joined the charitable sector. At the same time, because of the nature of the crisis and the government cuts which followed, a lot of the charities did not have the financial means to go across and do the great work which they had to do,” said Aritha Wickramasinghe – Sri Lanka Representative of iProbono.
Altruistic lawyers who come to the rescue of the people are something most of us have not heard of before. Yet this current is sweeping through the world and is gaining momentum because of iProbono!
“One of the primary areas which we hoped we could step in and help was actually finding them free legal advice. That is what really motivated iProbono to set themselves up. We find great charities and great social enterprises and we find them great lawyers with the expertise which are required by these charities. So we started off in the UK in 2009.
And eventually because lawyers had suddenly become very giving and caring we have stretched to about 28 countries! It is not the traditional view people have of lawyers.
I myself, if you see my bill at the end of any advice that I give, people think I am a very nasty lawyer! However I also have a heart and I would like to contribute to the society that I have been brought up in. That is really what we are trying to get the lawyers to do here. To inculcate a culture of pro bono in them.”
Benefits for all
Altruism is a win-win situation! And we all benefit. Seriously is it so difficult to give to others especially when some of us come from privileged backgrounds? Don’t we have a duty towards society to give back?
“We want them to know that giving and sharing your skills is part of building your profile. I think we have managed to convince enough lawyers that to share some of their legal expertise for free, will actually do them good and do the rest of society good. And it has worked considerably well, because we have actually got over 50,000 lawyers in our network which spans across 28 countries now. So that is 50,000 really good people out there in the legal fraternity helping over 1200 organizations. It is very important to know that the services iProbono provides are free. It is run by people like myself who are lawyers. We contribute our time on a pro bono free basis.
And the sort of lawyers we work with are really across the board, so it is not just people who work in law firms like myself. We also work with a number of lawyers who practice by themselves and we work with a lot of in house counsel.”
Aritha elaborated on some of the fantastic work done with Microsoft. “One of the projects we did with them was a social enterprise in India called the Mumbai Mobile Creche, which goes around construction sites and gives a baby Creche for children of whose parents work at construction sites. So these parents are able to go to work, and their children are looked after. Microsoft has actually been assisting these organizations in providing and drafting IT policy and giving other legal advice.”
The primary reason of iProbono coming to Sri Lanka, is the growing social enterprise sector here.
“We see a drive amongst the legal fraternity here. Sri Lankan lawyers are quite committed to the rule of law. It is important for lawyers to give back and I think that the lawyers here want to give back. But the problem is the system of giving back is not structured well enough, so that culture of pro bono is not inculcated enough, and not enough recognition is given to the pro bono work the lawyers do.
And that is where iProbono steps in actually. So what we are trying to do is to reach out to civil society organizations and to social enterprises and let them know that there is a fraternity of lawyers in Sri Lanka, who are willing to give their skills on a free basis. We want them to know that they can tap into a database of 50,000 lawyers across 28 jurisdictions who they can access for their work.”
The work iProbono does proves how dynamic and efficient they are. They are a caring organization and are passionate about the work that they do. They are committed towards making a difference in this world.
“iProbono has worked with a fantastic social enterprise called AZADI. It is a social enterprise which was set up in India to take away the stigma of menstruation. Menstruation is seen as a dirty thing. Children are not allowed to go to school or places of religious worship when they are menstruating. So we found a group of lawyers to assist AZADI in the ground breaking work that they do.
Then there is another groundbreaking case that we worked on. It was a very tragic case of a three year old child who was raped by her neighbor in India. It happened very recently and it went to the trial court in New Delhi and the trial judge was very dismissive of the child’s evidence, even though the child’s internal organs and reproductive organs were severely damaged because of the rape. And the accused was acquitted without any charge.
So the mother who is really a brave lady approached HAQ: Centre for Child Rights to seek legal support, and HAQ reached out to iProbono, and our fantastic network of lawyers then got involved. It went to the high court of Delhi where precedence was set. New rules were set by the judges on the format of interviewing a child in a trial matter and also the precedence of not disregarding a child’s evidence was set.”
The “Good Market” is another social enterprise set up to serve the needs of the public. According to Dr. Amanda Kiessel, Board Member, Good Market, “The Good market is very much a Sri Lankan initiative and very much a local initiative which makes me feel a little bit odd to be representing it on a very public forum. But I have been in Sri Lanka for 12 years! It is very much a volunteer driven initiative and there are many people involved. The idea is to promote products and services that are good for the planet, good for the country and good for you. These have either environmental benefit, some social benefit or health benefit.”
“Within the good market framework, the way that social enterprise is defined, is that it is an organization that is mission driven that was started for a social and environmental purpose and has a self- financing business model,” said Dr. Amanda Kiessel.
There are three types of organizations within Good Market: “We have some that are a kind of a hybrid between a nonprofit NGO and a for profit company in the middle. And they self -identify as a social enterprise. They were set up from the time they were started with a social or environmental mission, something that is mission driven and self – financing.
Then there are also some groups that are nonprofits that are trying to find ways to become more self- financing. And in the current context of Sri Lanka that is really important because a lot of the nonprofits in Sri Lanka were set up dependent on international aid. They don’t have local funding mechanisms. Since international aid is reduced, they have to find ways to become self –financing; otherwise they will have to close down.
We also have some private businesses that are trying to expand their social and environmental impact. So within the good market we have all three types of organizations.”
The Good Market is rooted in its humble beginning and has grown from an acorn to an oak. Amanda shared some of her business acumen connected to the Good Market.
“When the good market first started, we expected it to be really small. We were planning to have 10 stalls. That was the original idea. It started with 32 and now there are 160 approved vendors. So you get a really big cross section of large groups, small groups and all different types of registrations.
So we have some experience just working with all these different businesses or nonprofits. And there is also the registration of the Good Market itself, which was a very good learning experience as well.
So when the market was first started it was a very loose network of volunteers. It had no registration, but then you need to open a bank account and we needed to sign an agreement with the government to be able to use the venue. We needed some kind of registration. And the initial registration was just as a normal company – it was quick and easy and we thought it made the most sense.
From the beginning it was clear that it was a social enterprise and if there were any profits in the future that they would be reinvested towards the mission. But having been registered as a private company we realized it changed people’s perceptions as to what it was about – Pvt. Ltd changed peoples understanding. So we actually very quickly re registered as a guaranteed ltd. So it has been a guaranteed ltd. ever since.
People understand that you are starting to do something that is not there just to create profit for private shareholders and private investors. That recognition is really important for a lot of social enterprises. For example we have google apps. If you are a nonprofit you are able to get their software services for free.
What it all comes down to is that we have an obligation towards people. We may belong to different stratas of society but our goal is one – to help ever.
Elaborating further on the concept of CSR, Upul Jayasuriya, President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, said:
“The other day the former Chief Justice of India was in Sri Lanka and he was speaking to the lawyers and he was also talking about the CSR of the lawyers. Now this is something different.
The lawyers do have a corporate social responsibility. It is not for profit making. They have to give their services in the interests of the public.
This is the responsibility of all of society not just lawyers or businessmen. We must bring this thinking into the public domain so that people will be attracted to this. There is big obligation of the civil society. We must make people understand that every one of us whether it is company big or small or society, every individual has a responsibility towards society. This is in different formats – floods or tsunami. We must get together and discharge our responsibilities.”