Australian Unity is a social enterprise that’s morphed into a modern organisation delivering products and services in the areas of health, wealth and care. It’s not clear what came first, and it clearly supersedes the terminology we use today, but that’s what makes it so interesting. 

The modern mutual company operates in service of its members. In our fast-paced world of ever-accelerating capitalism, we forget there are some very successful mutual models that serve a broad customer base, and which are competitive against their profit focussed peers. 

OnImpact spoke with Adam Vise, Group Treasurer and General Manager, Strategy & Impact, at Australian Unity, about its origins, how they optimise their operations towards improving the wellbeing of their customers, and the structure of the ‘CSV’ framework they’ve developed to measure and manage their impact.

Mutual Heritage

The organisation has a long heritage, and while it didn’t always have the same name, it’s been serving the community for some 180 years, and goes back all the way to the early days of this country.

It followed the English model of creating friendly societies that provide social support for those in need. As the industrial revolution began to take hold and change society, there was a realisation that ‘oddfellows’, workers who were not in a particular guild, needed a support organisation for themselves. 

There was no social safety net at the time, so, they created organisations enabling people to put money aside, into a common pool, ‘a friendly society’, that you could draw on in the event of severe illness.

“We’ve been around for a long time, but in recent times, our really big success was scaling the health fund. It was one of the top five health funds in the country some 30 to 40 years ago. That has given a lot of life to our organisation, because that particular element of insurance really suited the friendly society model.” says Adam.

CSV Model – Improving Wellbeing and Measuring Impact

Impact investing is evolving, and while best-practice standards are emerging for reporting there’s still a broad spectrum of standards in how impact performance is disclosed. 

A key challenge is moving beyond simple reporting outputs, and moving to reporting outcomes. What was the tangible impact on the life of an individual or community? 

A powerful way to represent this is wellbeing, and Australian Unity have created their own model for measuring the wellbeing impacts of their work, called the Community & Social Value (CSV) framework.

“Rather than just using words to describe what we’re about, we wanted to turn it into a measurement methodology, like accounting standards.” Adam says.

“We started measuring wellbeing with Deakin University many years ago, we’ve surveyed 1,500 people every year for the last 20 years. And then we decided what we wanted to do is to give real focus to our purpose, and to seek to measure our community and social impact, which we view as outcomes in the community.”

Wellbeing is a metric, a KPI, that’s being used more and more. We’re hearing politicians use it, and impact investors are exploring ways to measure it. 

Australian Unity haven’t waited for others to keep up. They brought on social impact specialists, Social Ventures Australia, to help design and provide assurance to the CSV methodology, a process that ended up identifying about 220 lines areas of wellbeing where Australian Unity had impact, which was then broken up into three main areas: lifelong wellness, economic empowerment and strong communities.

“We look for outcomes, we then look for how often that outcome occurs, and then we use a proxy measure to convert it to a dollar figure. We’re not purely about dollars, we want to focus on outcomes, but it is important to understand how that shows up in an economic variable.” Adam says.

“Like a member in our retirement village, for example, being connected to their community, we wanted to measure the benefit of them being more connected with their community, and we’ve worked to then assess the value of that.”

But they don’t stop there with their measurement, they also explore how much of the impact is their contribution. They ask themselves, would it have happened anyway? And if it had, then they don’t take credit for it.

“In 2022, we calculated our impact to be $1.6 billion, it’s a financial proxy measure of the wellbeing outcomes that occurred that year in our business.” Adam says. 

“We strive to see a care, or wellbeing, outcome that’s not out of whack with the amount we charge. It’s a good way to think about how this value shows up in the community and in our membership. It’s a beautiful model, we try to make sure that we’re driving wellbeing outcomes as well as financial outcomes.”

A Bespoke Measurement System – Ready to Share

Wellbeing measurement remains a challenging task, it can depend on qualitative measures that don’t always lend themselves to aggregation and comparison. Australian Unity took it upon themselves to build their own system, and while it’s unique, they’ve open-sourced it, making the methodology open to others to share.

“We take our outcomes and compare them to a proxy, and it’s a method we’re happy to share with people so that they can undertake a similar assessment.” Adam says.

“We’ve spoken about CSV with peers in various sectors, and although we haven’t got anyone else to use it yet, we hope that will change. When it comes to the wellbeing of the community, you’ve got to think of the whole system in impact. That was the revelation to me – it’s not just your impact, you’ve got to think about how you interact with the rest of the system. Otherwise, you’re not really about impact, it’s become more about your ego.”

“We want to build a system that allows us to proactively consider others, share it with others, get them to think of their contribution, and then try to enhance our methodology so it keeps getting better.”

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