Now, quite unexpectedly, every body is a social enterprise or a social entrepreneur. Not that many years ago the early proponents and pioneers were looked upon with kindhearted dismissal. Social enterprise was an oxymoron. You were a charity or a business – and please, don’t blend the two together! But suddenly in the last few years every one wants to claim the social enterprise mantle.

But some of us that have laboured in this field for years want to remind you that if you want that title you have to live the values too! And what is that you ask? Well, it’s quite simple. You are operating a social enterprise if all of the following criteria are present:

1) You’re a business selling something in the market place.

2) Your business has a definable and measurable social, environmental or cultural value.

3) You prioritize your community impact above any financial profits.

4) The majority of any profits go back to the social purpose.

Social enterprises almost always use corporate structures that insure transparency and guarantee their social value in perpetuity. They are non-profits, non-profit co-ops, or hybrids.

It is great to see that many businesses are emerging with stated social values, constantly increasing the number of what would be social ventures. They reflect and practice many of the same values as social enterprises but they retain a private, profit based ownership model. We should encourage them and more through our purchasing choices and supply chain relationships.

Adding social values into a business can represent a positive and real shift in thinking and behaviour. Benevolent capitalism, B-Corp certification and CSR can play an important role in the business environment and add value to communities. But remember, they can be very temporary until the IPO, the corporate buy out or the next owners come along without the same value or goals.

For some other businesses it’s merely ‘social washing’ when in actuality profits underly and drive the decisions; or when social values are based on chasing after a market opportunity; or social image is a marketing position?

Social enterprise is an explicit business model designed and operated to transform our communities. They promote social inclusion, economic equality, cultural diversity and environmental well being.

Social enterprise is not a market strategy. Social enterprise strives to transform the business world into a social value marketplace.


(Thanks to the several colleagues who contributed, especially Norman, David and Andy.)