Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on LinkedIn AddThisShare A A A

Social Enterprise and Social Entrepreneurship

Social enterprise is, fundamentally, about using a market-driven business model to address key social and environmental issues. It is an emerging field with diverse and shifting interpretations. In this page, we'll try to sort through all this, introduce you to the major players, and give you a launching pad for future inquiry. For guidelines to plan and establish a social enterprise, see the book Venture Forth! Essential Guide to Starting a Moneymaking Business in Your Nonprofit Organization .

Sections of This Topic Include

What Social Enterprise Is (and Is Not)
Leading Examples of Social Enterprise
Why Social Enterprise Matters
Related (but Different) Fields and Topics
Resources for Doing Social Enterprise
Get Connected: Social Enterprise Networking and Learning Opportunities

Also consider

Preparation for Starting an Organization

How to Start a Business
How to Start a Nonprofit
Related Library Topics

What Social Enterprise Is (and Is Not)

What Social Enterprise Is

Social enterprise is, fundamentally, about using a market-driven business model to address critical social and environmental issues. See Social Enterprise. Many people believe that a fundamental element of social enterprise - indeed, the "social" in social enterprise - is collective ownership. Some go so far as to stipulate a nonprofit legal structure for a social enterprise. For example, see What Are the Legal Structures for Social Enterprises? by the Social Enterprise UK.

Until we come up with a broader term than "social enterprise", some would advocate for a broad interpretation that does not limit it to collectively-owned businesses. If the overarching purpose of the business is to address a social and/or environmental issue, it's a social enterprise - regardless of its ownership structure. This is a pragmatic position -- the world's problems are far too great to be creating arbitrary silos that limit participation and sharing.

What Social Enterprise Is Not

Social enterprise is not about balancing the "double bottom lines" of profit and social impact, as though they are equally important. The real bottom line for a social enterprise, the goal by which its success should ultimately be evaluated, is its social (or environmental) impact, and being profitable (or at least financially sustainable) is the entirely necessary means to that end. Of course, there can be no social mission without money, but the first goal is mission.

Social enterprise is not the exclusive domain of nonprofits - See "What Social Enterprise Is" above. While nonprofits have been - and continue to be - leaders in the social enterprise movement, social enterprise need not be limited to nonprofits. Moreover, simply being owned by a nonprofit is not sufficient to make a business a social enterprise. The enterprise must have as its overarching purpose the amelioration of social and/or environmental issues.

Social enterprise is not just another fundraising strategy for nonprofits - While it's possible for a social enterprise that is owned by a nonprofit to generate funds to support the operation of that nonprofit, the generation of those funds is secondary to the direct impact it has on social or environmental issues. If generating funds is your biggest priority, check out the fundraising topic in this Library.

Social enterprise is not about "saving" the nonprofit sector - While social enterprise has great potential for enhancing the vitality and sustainability of the nonprofit sector, that potential impact is secondary to its real purpose - helping (directly, through the operation of the business) to make the world a better place.

Some Additional Perspectives on Social Enterprise

Social Enterprise - Wikipedia
The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship
Structure is Irrelevant
Social Enterprise: A Portrait of the Field
7 Sins of Social Enterprise
Why Social Entrepreneurship?
Social Entrepreneurs' Tricky Issues of Sustainability and Scale
Hybrid Corporations: What Business Are You In?
Do Unions Help (or Hinder) Social Enterprise?
Understanding Fee-for-Service Models
"Social" alternatives to Groupon
Low/no profit is not a virtue
Are Mergers Good for Social Enterprises?
New! Social Enterprise Shopping Guide
What Is NOT a Social Enterprise
Social Enterprise: A Lawyer's Perspective
Case Study: Local Food & Sustainable Agricultural Initiatives in the United States
State of Social Enterprise: 2012
Public Administration and the Impact Economy
Social Benefit Analysis & Social Return - An Introductory Reader
Do Social Enterprises Need Mobile Strategies?

Leading Examples of Social Enterprise

A Few Great Individual Examples

Social enterprise comes in all shapes and sizes and can be found all over the world. Here are a few examples:

Grameen Bank
Minnesota Diversified Industries
Ever Green Environmental

Social Enterprise Directories

Organization Directory compiled by the Social Enterprise Alliance

Why Social Enterprise Matters

Social enterprise matters because it is focused on making positive change at a time when we desperately need it. Social enterprise is one important tool, among many, that is actively and directly making our world a better place.

Social enterprise is more responsive. Social enterprise doesn't rely on the shifting priorities of government and major foundations; it gets on with making the change that is needed within a community and (sometimes) grows to affect whole cities, countries, and regions.

Social enterprise is scalable. Like all businesses, social enterprise has, with investment and sales revenue, the ability to grow to meet needs and priorities of the communities it serves, as opposed to traditional nonprofit programs, which are often limited to the funds available from government and philanthropic funders.

Social enterprise actively engages stakeholders. Social enterprise gives the people it helps a direct voice in the operation of the business - as owners, employees and paying customers.

Additional Perspectives on Why Social Enterprise Matters

Why Social Enterprise Matters
A Level Long Enough to Change the World
5 Reasons Why Social Enterprise Matters

Benefits of Social Enterprise: Earned-Income Generation

Nonprofits Can Generate an Earned Income

Related (But Different) Fields and Topics

Social Innovation

In "Rediscovering Social Innovation" (Fall 2008 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review), social innovation is defined as "a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals." So defined, social innovation is a bigger concept than social enterprise, which is not limited to enterprise-based approaches to addressing critical issues. Put another way, social enterprise can be a vehicle for social innovation.

Also see Dimensions of Social Innovation.

Social Entrepreneurship

Ashoka defines social entrepreneurship as "individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps." So defined, social entrepreneurship is concerned with the entrepreneurs who undertake large-scale social innovation - which may or may not involve a social enterprise. See "What is a Social Entrepreneur" for a list of people who meet Ashoka's definition.

The Grameen Bank is a great example of a social enterprise which, led by social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, popularized the social innovation of microcredit. Also see Promise (and Problems) with Microcredit.

Corporate Social Responsibility

CSR is, for many, about maximizing shareholder value in a way that minimizes negative social or environmental impacts. To the extent that this is the case, profit is the first goal and minimizing harm (not making things better) is the secondary goal. CSR is way better than business as usual, but it's not social enterprise. See the Business Ethics topic for more information.

Resources for Doing Social Enterprise

Social enterprises face unique challenges, on top of all the other challenges that any business must contend with. In this section, we focus on presenting resources that address the unique challenges. In later versions of this page, we may add the general resources - keep an eye out for that.

Becoming a Social Entrepreneur

Social Enterprise Toolkit
What is a Social Entrepreneur?
25 Entrepreneurial Death Trap
Want Scale? Get Attitude

Starting an Enterprise

Incubating a Nonprofit Social Enterprise
Social Franchises Mostly Fail
Students Create Social Enterprises
Finding Good Venture Ideas (part 1)
Finding Good Venture Ideas (part 2)
Finding Good Venture Ideas (Part 3)

Market Research -- Inbound Marketing

Planning Your Research
Market Research

Human Resources Planning

Job Specification
Staffing (Planning)
Leadership and Human Resource Management

Financial Analysis and Management

Finances (For-Profit)
Finances (Nonprofit)

Feasibility Analysis

Feasibility Testing -- Do Just Enough
Feasibility Testing -- A Lost Art

Feasibility Testing -- Top 10 tips

Financing and Taxes

Social Venture Partners International
Venture Philanthropy -- the Changing Landscape
High-Engagement Philanthropy: A Bridge to a More Effective Social Sector
Social Capital Markets
Life Cycle Financing Options


Evaluating Outcomes and Impacts of Social Enterprises Run by RDEF's Portfolio Organizations
A critical evaluation of social impact assessment methodologies and a call to measure economic and social impact holistically through the External Rate of Return platform
Community Development Evaluation

Guiding Principles

Commitment to Integrity

Get Connected: Social Enterprise Organizations, Networks and Publications

Organizations and Networks

Ashoka - Innovators for the Public
Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship
Enterprising Nonprofits Fund
Initiative on Social Enterprise at Harvard Business School
Nonprofit Enterprise and Self-sustainability Team
Social Enterprise World Forum
Roberts Enterprise Development Fund
School for Social Entrepreneurs
Social Capital Partners
Social Enterprise Alliance
Social Enterprise Coalition (UK)
Social Enterprise Council of Canada
Social Ventures Australia
Social Venture Network
Social Venture Partners International
Social Enterprise Goes to Graduate School
New! Sales Strategy for Rhode Island Social Enterprises
Social Enterprise Summit, Chicago, 10/30-11/2
Directory of Social Enterprise Directories
New! Global Social Enterprise Dining Map
New Social Enterprise app


Social Enterprise Magazine
Stanford Social Innovation Review
Book Review: Succeeding at Social Enterprise
SE: Empowering Mission-Driven Entrepreneurs (Marc Lane)


Social Enterprise Alliance. North American membership association offers many resources, some available to all, others members only.

REDF. San Francisco based funder that's probably started and supported more successful social enterprise's than anyone else. Web site chock full of practical advice.

Community Wealth Ventures. Washington DC consulting firm founded by Bill Shore; resources include SE database, franchising report, L3C report, and more.

Social Enterprise World Forum. Free, global, 7000+ subscriber listserv focused exclusively on social enterprise. Post a question and you'll likely get five answers in days.

Rolfe Larson Associates*. Denver consulting firm with a Free Resources section with practical work sheets and templates on starting an SE.

Free Management Library. Section on Social Enterprise and Business Planning packed with resources and links about the field. Weekly blogs also.

Wikipedia. Nowadays every research project has to include Wikipedia, although in this case, it is a bit sparse on practicality.

Aperio in Toronto offers some good articles and case studies.

Continue to Learn in the Library's Social Enterprise Blog

The blog is hosted by an expert in social enterprise who writes two posts per week, including from guest writers. Learn from those posts -- even consider writing an article yourself!
Social Enterprise Blog

Learn More in the Library's Blogs Related to Social Enterprise

In addition to the articles on this current page, also see the following blogs that have posts related to Social Enterprise. Scan down the blog's page to see various posts. Also see the section "Recent Blog Posts" in the sidebar of the blog or click on "next" near the bottom of a post in the blog. The blog also links to numerous free related resources.

Library's Business Planning Blog
Library's Marketing Blog
Library's Nonprofit Capacity Building Blog
Library's Social Enterprise Blog

Vast, Additional Resources in the Category of Social Entrepreneurship

Related Library Topics

Recommended Books