What is a Social Enterprise?

Written by Allison Smith, Thrive

Lately the term Social Enterprise has been thrown around, often with people unsure of what exactly it means. It’s up there with other buzz words such as impact entrepreneur, social entrepreneur and enterprising non-profits. This post will help clarify what a social enterprise is.

A social enterprise is a business with a social mission. That’s why it’s often called a ‘social purpose business’.  The business uses traditional  market based approaches and business strategies to directly improve a social issue. Similarly, it can have a range of business models just like a traditional business. For example it could be a non-profit, for-profit, cooperative and so on.

Social Enterprises exist on a continuum between grant-funded non-profits (driven by social / environmental need) and social purpose business (primarily profit driven). Actions are taken to further their social and environmental goals rather than their investor or shareholder financial value. This is known as blended value return. They can provide organizations, especially not-for-profits, with stability and sustainability since they encourage diverse funding sources.

The Trico Charitable Foundation uses the following continuum to categorize social enterprises. Everyone can evaluate their organization differently, placing it on various points on the continuum. It isn’t black and white.


In a world of choice, innovation, and globalization, social enterprise is significant in tackling environmental and social issues across Canada. This October, the Social Enterprise World Forum will be hosted in Calgary. This two day event will bring together world leaders, to further the social enterprise movement. It will also help to further our global understanding of social enterprise, with discussions such as: Introduction to Social Enterprise.

Learn more about the social enterprise forum here: http://www.socialenterpriseworldforum.org/

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