Transforming society will take more than business as usual

Fair Australia is all but a distant dream which last made sense in the 1970’s.

Towards the end of last year I attended a key note address by Alexandra Peterson Cart, the co-founder of Madeira Global, a New York based impact investing firm. In an eloquent promotion of impact investing to an almost full house of social purpose professionals, she praised “Millennials”, the socially and environmentally aware Y generation, and their capacity to reach for the “common ground” and strike “win-win” deals.

Her conversation with the facilitator was intended to hit all the right notes with the audience, yet I felt increasingly frustrated with what I believe is a sense of complacency in parts of our sector.

Frustrated because social and environmental outcomes are actually telling us that we are failing, harder and almost faster than ever before

We are failing socially; fair Australia is all but a distant dream which last made sense in the 1970’s. The richest 1% has doubled its share of national income since 1985, bringing us back to a pre welfare state era (see figure 1).


top income shares
Figure 1: Top income shares, Australia Source: The World Top Incomes Database, Atkinson & Leigh (2007)


We are also failing our environment; Australia is one of the biggest per capita carbon polluters in the world (see graph 2), yet currently lacks any significant policy and commitments to address this.


CO2 tonnes per person
Graph 2: CO2-e tonnes per person Source:


Yes, impact investing is a powerful tool to finance social and environmental enterprises, but I would have loved to hear a more resounding endorsement of divestment strategies from Alexandra, as well as more about the innovative investments that go beyond investing in the latest 5-star Nabers building (which should be a standard requirement anyway).

Yes, the social purpose sector has a lot to learn from private sector practices; however castigating charity workers as “poncho wearing, dreadlocky, dysfunctional individuals” is a caricature and is missing the point. Some of our most important social justice achievements came from people and movements prepared to confront the status quo.

Alexandra also advocated a market-led approach and denounced the “crap work” of government. That’s also missing the point; government regulation and investments in the social and environmental spheres are crucial if we are serious about scaling up and supporting successful local initiatives.

With such levels of social inequity and environmental damage, the clock is ticking. Now is the time to be much bolder, more confident, more vocal and, I believe, more radical. Maybe the Millennial generation has a thing or two to learn from past mass movements which have defied the political and economic structure of their times to transform society?