Bambang Ismawan: Social Entrepreneur, Pioneer, Fanatic.
During a dinner meeting for work, I sat next to Bapak Bambang Ismawan, one of the founding fathers of the social entrepreneurship movement in Indonesia. Pak Bambang is also the pioneer of Bina Swadaya, a foundation that he established in 1967, a leading NGO in Indonesia and also one of the first foundations in the country that transformed itself into a social enterprise in 1999.
During dinner at Four Seasons Hotel, Jakarta (which apparently was covered by BBC World Service for their CSR program involving orphans), Pak Bambang shared the history of his foundation.
Pak Bambang started out with only IDR 10,000 (which according to him would be the equivalent of IDR 1,000,000 today) and created a foundation that was originally called Yayasan Sosial Tani Membangun (Peasant Socio-economic Development Foundation). His main goal was to empower farmers and rural communities by providing trainings and access to information. One of the tools that they developed in 1969, was a magazine called Trubus that was sold for profit to farmers in rural areas. From the very start, Pak Bambang refused to solely depend on donations and was aware that the only way to sustain the Foundation’s vision and mission was by ensuring a source of income.
Looking back, Pak Bambang remembers people laughing at his entrepreneurship approach. What kind of farmer would spend money to buy and read a magazine? Sure enough, for the first 15 years Bina Swadaya kept on facing significant loss, until it finally managed to even out its production costs.
During this time, in order to deal with the threat of bankruptcy, Bina Swadaya diversified its source of income through various ventures. According to the law at that time, a foundation can use up to 25% of its funds to invest in for-profit schemes. It opened shops, publishing houses, cooperatives, etc, and the income from these ventures went back to the foundation to support its social mission.
In the 1980s, due to this entrepreneurship approach in sustaining Bina Swadaya, Pak Bambang was often accused of capitalizing on poverty. And yet, without doing so, Bina Swadaya would have gone bankrupt and would not have been able to support the hundreds of thousands of underprivileged families that it does today.
Pak Bambang says: “Other companies diversify its ventures after they receive profit. We, on the other hand, had to diversify because we weren’t making any.”
In 1999, facing the end of the New Order Regime, Bina Swadaya reformed itself from a socio-economic development institution into a social enterprise. With 17 companies established and owned by the Foundation, the social enterprise model was not a new one. It was however a new concept for most people working in the development industry and this transformation further shaped the development of Bina Swadaya along with the development of the social entrepreneurship movement in Indonesia.
As it proudly claims on its website, Bina Swadaya currently has a turnover in the amount of IDR 20 billion, 900 permanent employees and serves directly 100,000 poor families. The Education and Training Centre in Cimanggis has delivered training on community empowerment to approximately 7000 LSM leaders and Trubus Magazine now sells up to 70,000 copies each year.
Despite all these successes, Pak Bambang’s best quality is his modesty. He tells his story simply to share and hopefully inspire, rather than to brag and show off. When asked where he got the guts to take all the risk and stick to his conviction despite the hard times he had to face, Pak Bambang shakes his head, smiles and says he has no idea. His eyes twinkle and he says, “I have no idea why I did what I did. All of my friends would look at me and call me a fanatic.”
Well, if you are a fanatic, Pak, I sincerely hope I can be one too.