Could a strict definition of social enterprise do more harm than good? And whose interests does the definition best serve in this era of so many business hybrids?
About a month ago, I was looking at my empty garden box and all the dreams I had for it this year. I planned to participate in the local farmers market again. And I had recently bought potato shares from another gardener. It got me thinking about how farming may have been the first social enterprise – people working together for both social benefit (improving human and environmental well-being) and economic gain (assuming there were crops available for sale). That’s what I was thinking about, and then my world was turned upside-down.
Plans for a garden quickly fell to the wayside, the lawn grew well beyond a manageable length for anything but an industrial bushwhacker, and I found myself in a role I never expected: an investor in a new start-up. I was already a social entrepreneur at only the two-year+ mark with my publishing venture; I certainly wasn’t out looking for investment opportunities. But that’s the funny thing about opportunity – it often finds you.
When entrepreneurial opportunity knocks
And so here I am, the proud partner in a new venture, albeit a modest one. Our goal: to bring fresh, homemade food to a rural community that doesn’t have many dining alternatives. Our vehicle (literally): a burrito truck. The business proposal was solid, and I believed in my partners and the product. But even more than that, I believed in the mission. And that is what made the decision to invest a no-brainer.
Not only does our business offer the local community a healthy alternative to the mainstay burger-and-fries offerings they are used to, it also brings new business (read: tax revenue) to a small rural community, and creates jobs in an area with high unemployment. It’s a win-win-win.
When I thought about it like that, the whole operation started to sound a lot like a social enterprise to me. It has a social goal as well as an economic one. And it has an investor who is more motivated by the social/community benefits than a return on financial investment. Put another way, I want to help make good things happen more than I want to make money. (Which may also explain why I am not a rich woman, but I digress.)
Despite how I may view it, I’m not actually trying to position our burrito truck as a social enterprise. That’s partly because it’s not important to me to label it as one thing or another, and partly because I don’t want to have to debate the legitimacy of my claim with people who have different ideas about what qualifies an enterprise as social.
The undefined social entrepreneur
I know I’m not alone on that front. There are plenty of people out there who are doing great work that has social benefit and earns them a living, and the only thing they call themselves are business owners. They are happy doing what they’ve been doing for years, without special labels.
All this makes me wonder if we are doing ourselves a disservice by trying to define things too strictly in the social enterprise realm. One need only to look to the charitable sector to see that strict definitions can be limiting – limiting of an organizations activities, but also how it perceives itself and what might be possible if there were no limits.
It seems the no-limits poster boy of entrepreneurship, Sir Richard Branson, might agree with me. In a piece published earlier this year in Canadian Business magazine, he says we must change the way we do business. I couldn’t agree more! After all, we started SEE Change Magazine to encourage people to do just that.
Doing good without the labels
Meanwhile, through Virgin’s many ventures, Branson aims to foster a new wave of emerging entrepreneurs and existing businesses that are working to help people and the planet. Although he never comes right out and uses the terms “social entrepreneur” or “social enterprise,” his belief in and support for a transformation away from the way business used to be done, when financial profit was the only driving force, puts him right on the same page as me.
That’s why I was annoyed with him when I first read his piece. Why wouldn’t he just come out and call it what it was – social enterprise? As the publisher of a magazine dedicated to the topic, I would have been thrilled to see him discussing it in a mainstream business magazine. But he didn’t. He chose not to connect his values to any particular label.
Now that I have become an accidental social entrepreneur, of sorts, I’m coming around to his way of thinking. Maybe it’s time to let go of our labels, throw the definitions to the wayside and just get on with the business of doing good. Even if that goodness sometimes come in the shape of a burrito.
Nicole Zummach is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine. She has worked in the publishing industry for more than two decades, and has spent most of her career researching and writing about civil society and the nonprofit sector. Contact her at email@example.com.