If you’re reading this, you’re probably hoping for a definition of social enterprise. A logical expectation, given the title of this posting. But alas, as I’ve discovered in the past few months, trying to find an agreed upon description of social enterprise is nearly impossible. And the waters get muddier with each passing Google search.

Apparently, I’m not the only one trying to figure it all out. At a recent forum on social enterprise, a very well-known Canadian was heard saying, “I know little about social enterprise, but I’m very involved in it.” Okaaayyy…I’ll give him points for enthusiasm, but I have to ask the question: Can you be involved in something you can’t define? (I can sense fingers reaching for keyboards, but please, stay with me for a moment.)

Social enterprise defined?

As it turns out, when it comes to social enterprise, you most certainly can get involved even if you aren’t quite clear on what to call your activities. In fact, the social enterprise movement might progress a lot faster if people weren’t so hung up on trying to define it. But try they will:

  • Social enterprises are social mission driven organizations which apply market-based strategies to achieve a social purpose. The movement includes both nonprofits that use business models to pursue their mission and for-profits whose primary purposes are social. (Wikipedia)
  • A social enterprise is an organization or venture that achieves its primary social or environmental mission using business methods. (Social Enterprise Alliance)
  • Social enterprises are revenue-generating businesses with a twist. Whether operated by a nonprofit organization or by a for-profit company, a social enterprise has two goals: to achieve social, cultural, community economic or environmental outcomes; and, to earn revenue. (BC Centre for Social Enterprise)

After reading this handful of selections from the web, you might start feeling a bit smug (“I don’t know why she doesn’t get it; it’s all perfectly obvious!”) But add terms like social entrepreneurship, social investor, and social finance into the mix and prepare to be confused!

While I do consider myself a bit of stickler when it comes to words, there is such a thing as getting lost in the details. With so much potential within the social enterprise movement, I hate to see well-intentioned people quibbling over semantics. In the end, they are all working toward the same basic goal – to make our communities and our society stronger.

Seeing beyond the definitions

Luckily, there are some brave souls willing to wade into the mire even if they don’t quite have it all figured out. Examples are popping up all over the place: restaurants, cafes, printing shops, wineries, cleaning services, florists, you name it. People who have, for years, been running their business with a social purpose are now being told they are operating a social enterprise. Nice to know, but the point is that they were accomplishing their goals even when there wasn’t an official term for what they were doing.

That’s good news for the rest of us, including that well-known individual who recently proclaimed his lack of knowledge but high involvement in social enterprise: former Prime Minister, Paul Martin. (If you’re curious about what else he has to say on the subject, read his speech, Unleashing the power of social enterprise.

Nicole Zummach
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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 nicole@seechangemagazine.com.

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