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What is Social Enterprise? Definition and Examples of Social Enterprise

Most businesses we encounter have their primary purpose rooted in profit. And while profit-focused businesses are significant contributors to the economy, their micro impact is limited. This is why people and groups with a social mission ask, "What is social enterprise?" and, "How can I build one to make a difference?"

What does it mean to be a Social Enterprise?

There is no universal definition of a social enterprise. Neither is there a unifying guideline of what the social objectives of such an organization should be. These factors are mostly left to the enterprises' founders to determine. However, according to some popular definitions, there are some things we should come to expect from a social enterprise.

The UK Department of Trade and Industry states that a social enterprise is a commercial organization targeted at social needs3. While they generate profit, we expect that the enterprise invests much of this profit to improve its community rather than maximize shareholders' returns.

The American academic circle offers a slightly different definition; social enterprises are organizations that achieve social objectives via income.

And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development holds that a social enterprise is a non-profit organization between public and private departments. And its financial autonomy depends on trading activities.

From these definitions, we can extract a clear understanding of the characteristics and mission of social enterprises.

Characteristics of a Social Enterprise

They are mostly for-profit

A social business is still a business; it collects and records revenue from selling goods and services. A social enterprise can achieve its social mission when it has the financial sustainability and ability to do so.

Therefore, social businesses are also for-profit ventures that focus on finding the right market, meeting their sales goals, and improving their profits. In doing so, a for-profit company operating as a social enterprise can sustain itself and continue to invest its financial gain to return social value.

Social enterprises can vary in legal structure depending on the best-suited model given local company law. Many socially responsible businesses operate within a limited liability company with standard legal structures; as such, a social enterprise means more than the operating structure. Others may be structured as a community interest group, benefit corporations, or partnership.

However, they integrate commercial and non-profit methods.

Unlike other companies that position themselves on clear sides of the divide, a social enterprise will operate using both commercial and non-profit objectives.

Social enterprises seek profit and develop their business strategies for social impact.

Social impact is the primary objective.

Their social mission remains the driving force behind making a profit, raising capital, and other commercial activities. A social enterprise still operates within its social objectives. And these objectives differ from enterprise to enterprise.

For example, social entrepreneurs could create enterprises to provide more job opportunities for their communities, provide local services, offer health services at an affordable rate, create training opportunities, and more. What is important is social and environmental improvement at the same rate the enterprise grows.

It's also important to note that if profit without social impact is the primary driver, the company is likely not a social enterprise.

Sometimes, these lines can blur when for-profit traditional businesses engage in corporate social responsibility. However, the clear distinction here is this activity is secondary to profit, whereas the social value and impact lead the agenda for social enterprises.

Furthermore, sometimes social enterprises can comprise the profit-making arms of nonprofit organizations, supporting their charitable, local community, developing world, and various other social objectives. Whereas a traditional business and solely for-profit entities might donate to nonprofits, a social enterprise, in this case, exists to derive profit from supporting the nonprofit's goals.

Why Does Social Enterprise Matter?

Why social enterprise matters
Photo by Adam Bouse on Unsplash.

Capitalism serves as a significant driver of economic growth. The simple reason why our global economy has expanded quickly over the past century is trade. People can create goods and services out of their ideas, sell them, and make a profit. Today, the world records an $88 trillion economy.

So with all this money floating around, we should all be good, right? Wrong. As the world gets more affluent, the divide of wealth inequality widens. In 2018, the BBC reported that 1% of the world (by population) held 82% of global wealth. People are growing profits rather than redistributing them, so everyone has equal access; they hoard this money as personal wealth.

Note that although this is just one section of the problems social enterprises tackle, this problem forms the basis of why we need social entrepreneurs.

While social enterprises have a profit-making structure, what they do with those profits makes all the difference. Successful social entrepreneurs grow their venture's profits to redistribute to communities in terms of microeconomic growth, services, access, and support.

The Three Social Enterprise Models

Any social enterprise will (either strictly or loosely) take on one of the following models to achieve its intended social impact1.

#1- The Profit Generation Model

With this social enterprise model, the enterprise engages in trading activities that have no social impact. Then, the social enterprise transfers some or all of the profits made from its business activities to another activity with a direct social impact.

#2- The Trade-Off Model

Here, the social enterprise's profit-making activities and social impact activities are within the same venture. With this model, a social enterprise will manage the trade-off between promoting its business interests and making decisions to support its social and environmental goals.

#3- The Lock-Step Model

With this model, the social enterprise generates financial returns using a venture that directly correlates to the social impact they are creating. In such a social enterprise, the business activities are the social impact activities that will rise and fall at the same pace.

What are some examples of social enterprise?

Every social enterprise has a social mission, the primary problem they aim to tackle in their communities. Here are some examples of such social missions and some social enterprises working to make a difference in those fields.

Developing rural areas

A social enterprise could focus on bringing development to rural communities. This work is often a collaboration between the social enterprise and the local governments or policymakers of those communities.

Rural areas often struggle to develop economically. They generate less revenue, have less access to goods and services, and keep losing their workforce to bigger cities. As a result, they may receive fewer allocations from the government or experience a withdrawal of public services2.

In this case, social entrepreneurship is a way to step into a role to solve a problem the government does not consider a priority.

Adventure Alternative

Adventure Alternative takes tourists to local sites to offer them authentic experiences. They, as a sustainable tourism business, work with the locals to develop high-quality experiences for visitors. Adventure Alternative also works to develop local social entrepreneurs so the community developments can grow beyond what they directly provide.

Babban Gona

Babban Gona is an agricultural franchise based in Nigeria. This social enterprise provides small-scale farmers in rural areas with end-to-end services that improve farm yield and market access to sell their food products at fair rates.


Gulbarn Women Tea
Photo Credit: Gulbarn

Gulbarn, a traditional tea company, employs Alawa people in Alawa Country in the Northern Territory of Australia. The Alawa people manage and harvest the plants and are the tea plants' exclusive providers for the social enterprise, Gulbarn.

Saving our planet

Many of the social enterprises that are cropping up today have social goals rooted in environmental issues. Our planet is currently facing several crises.

There's plastic pollution, ocean pollution due to plastics, climate change, deforestation, global warming, environmental degradation from mining fossil fuels, and so much more to list. All these issues, combined, form the mission of many social enterprises.

A social enterprise with social and environmental concerns would direct its profits towards solution activities, such as clean-up, protection, preservation, recycling, providing people with sustainable alternatives for products and energy, tree planting, and other activities that aid its social mission.


4Ocean Beach Clean
Photo Credit: 4Ocean


TerraCycle is a social enterprise founded in the US that offers national recycling solutions for hard-to-recycle waste streams. They provide both small-scale and large-scale solutions for schools, organizations, and communities. Most of their programs are free to join, but they offer other premium paid-for services. Members can also shop for their large selection of TerraCycle products.

Trinity Oaks

This social enterprise is a well-known wine brand that promises to "plant a tree for each bottle of Trinity Oaks sold." Since the program began in 2008, Trinity Oaks has planted over 80 million trees and counting. As a commitment to social change, this social enterprise is tackling the global problem of deforestation.

Providing access to basic amenities for developing areas

In many developing nations, access to basic amenities is limited. These amenities include water, electricity, housing, and healthcare. While government structures may exist to provide for these needs, these structures may not be functional.

A social enterprise can help in two ways. They can either offer these services at subsidized rates to ensure that most of their target users can afford them. Or, they build a social enterprise that realizes its profits from markets outside of the community and redirects the profits from said business to the community.

Communities lacking these basics can experience significant improvement due to any successful social enterprise's social impact in tackling these issues for them.

Solar Sister

Solar Sister is a clean-energy social enterprise that recruits, trains, and enables women in rural Africa to start their own businesses. Its work provides affordable clean energy products to rural areas and benefits the families and communities of the women who work with Solar Sister.

Related: You might also like our rundown on renewable energy non-profits.

Microcredit and microlending

Access to credit is the norm for most people in developed countries. However, a significant portion of the world's population has little to no access to credit.

In Canada, about 83% of the population owns credit cards. But only 27% do in Brazil, and only 2% in Uganda. This lack of access limits social and economic growth. Fewer people can start a business, get a university degree, pay for expensive medical procedures, and more.

This need drives another aspect of social entrepreneurship as a business model. We now have social enterprises with the social goals of providing microcredit and micro-lending services to communities that need such financial access.


Acumen started in 2001 with seed capital from the Rockefeller Foundation, Cisco Systems Foundation, and three individual philanthropists. This social enterprise is an investment company specifically created to support businesses and people who serve poor/low-income customers.

Grameen Bank

This is a financial social enterprise established for the poor. Grameen bank, founded in Bangladesh, allows customers to access credit without collateral and other hurdles that usually disqualify poor/low-income people from receiving bank loans.

Giving back

Many social enterprises adopt the giving-back approach. In this case, the enterprise founders do not establish need-specific businesses that would serve a community or group. Instead, founders can establish a social enterprise in any industry and use the profits from the business(es) to tackle the social and environmental concerns included in their mission statement.

Many of these organizations also actively support other social enterprises, mentoring other founders and opening doors to professional networks.


Toms, a well-known social enterprise, has donated over 100 million pairs of shoes to people in need. The company claims to give away $1 for every $3 they make.


Mitscoots is an apparel brand established in the US. Every time customers purchase from this social enterprise, and they donate an item of similar value to someone in need.

Better World Books

Better World Books is another social enterprise that contributes to its social impact through donations. Every book bought through Better World Books donates another book to someone in need.

These are just a few industries and how social enterprises fill different social and environmental needs gaps. Many other enterprises are doing similar work, such as Alison, a social enterprise that offers free courses created by world-class teachers.

1Cheng, P, Ludlow, J. (2008). The Three Models of Social Enterprises. Creating social impact through trading activities: Part 1. Published by Venturesome.
2Artur Steiner, Simon Teasdale, Unlocking the potential of rural social enterprise, Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 70, 2019, Pages 144-154, ISSN 0743-0167, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2017.12.021
3Li, Yong. (2017). A literature review on social enterprise. Research on Modern Higher Education. 3. 35-40. 10.24104/rmhe/2017.03.01006.
By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Main photo by Olga Filonenko on Unsplash
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