The least well-known yet most famous social enterprises

Hidden in plain sight

Photo by Kris Mikael Krister on Unsplash

Most of my presentations start off in the same way.

“Do you know what a social enterprise is?”

Normally the answer is either a ‘no’ or a ‘kinda’. However as soon as I mention a few companies as examples, most of the audience has a better idea, whilst others are in shock. They ask how it’s possible that they know of the company, and in some cases shop their regularly, but never knew they were a social enterprise.

The answer is simple. Social enterprise is such a new term that it’s easier to market the specific things you do, rather than using an umbrella term which should hit the nail on the head.

Patagonia

A certified B-Corp which just gets better and better each year in terms of their social and environmental impact, this global brand sells high quality outdoor clothing and gear.

In 8 years, their B Corp Impact score has increased from an inspiring 107.3 to a whopping 151.5. Considering most businesses score around 51 points, shows you how much they do.

They are on a constant adventure to stop the negative impact their business may have on the environment, analysing the way they design, manufacture and transport goods, improving and solving the problems they face.

None of this would have been possible, if it weren’t for the original founders of the clothing brand, along with partners from similar clothing lines. Mostly adrenalin junkies with a passion for nature, wildlife and conservation, their personal mission meant that the company has always lived and breathed its mission.

The Tompkins couple bought up land in the Patagonia region over the last 30 years to ensure it didn’t fall foul of private exploitation. Then recently their NGO donated 1 million acres of this land back to the government as national park land.

Ben & Jerry’s

Many people are surprised to hear that Ben & Jerry’s are a social enterprise, given that the company that actually owns them is the corporate beast Unilever.

However, when the Ben & Jerry’s story began, both Ben and Jerry created the company for financial, social and environmental purposes. They wanted the best conditions for their staff and only to have a relationship with farmers who raised and treated their dairy cows in a way that met their standards.

Ben & Jerry’s were bought out, chopped and changed for sure, however they exist as their own legal entity, and have always maintained their social mission to buy the best milk from the farmers that care. The proof is in the pudding — as they say — so check out their B Corp page where they scored 100 last time round.

HCT Group

One for our English readers more than anyone else, and even they might be a bit confused.

Surely you’ve heard of Transport for London (TfL), Metro in Leeds and MCT in Manchester?

HCT Group run a number of services up and down England, including bus services for these big players. Alongside this mainstream business, they run school buses, and transportation for people with special needs, be it physical or learning.

Being owned by a charity means that their profits are put back into even more community transportation projects, meaning the most isolated and most vulnerable can live independently.

Check out their routes here, who knows you may be using them already!


These are just a few examples of famous social enterprises who many people didn’t know the good they were doing. Within the sector, we often say at how bad we are at marketing ourselves. Therefore we’re always grateful when you, our customers, can share our cause and recommend us to those around you.

If you buy from a company that has a great social or environmental cause at its core, remember to tell everyone about them!

Types of Social Enterprise — WISE

A people-centred approach

Photo by Raoul Ortega on Unsplash

One of the oldest forms of social enterprise is called WISE — a work integration social enterprise. This is a social enterprise whose main priority is to provide employment to a specific group of people, often hard-to-employ or vulnerable.

Existing WISEs cover a wide spectrum of sectors, from clothes-making to factory-line work, and from landscaping companies to massage parlours. Just like social enterprise, you will find examples of WISE across the world, and perhaps in your own back yard.

WISEs used to be predominantly run adjacent to a non-profit organisation. This way they could provide tailor made work positions so their service users could find employment. It also meant that care could also be delivered at the same time, increasing the chances of successful employment and sustainability for both the company and individual.

Every WISE is different with its reasons for establishing itself for the sole person of employing a certain group of people.

Here are some examples as to why WISEs might be set up.

To provide a safe and stable route back to work

Imagine you’ve been out of work for over two years. You haven’t had a steady income, nor have you done a nine-to-five for a long time. Your skills might be a rusty, and maybe you’ve sort of forgotten how to socialise or behave in the workplace.

This description could be someone returning from maternity leave, someone off sick for a long period, someone leaving jail, or someone recovering from an addiction, to name a few examples. Such a wide range of individuals yet all with a similar common need — a safe place to work where they know the people and the pressure is off a little.

Many WISEs have been set up just for this — a stepping stone to get back into the working world. Perhaps through a contract job to give the person the confidence to find a job after. Or maybe that individual will always work in this safe and stable place. In some cases, certain WISEs crossover with support workers from their or another non-profit to provide a holistic service so that those starting work again are fully supported.

To offer flexible job positions

Not everyone has the ability to work full time, nor regular hours. This could be down to health, time availability, other responsibilities as well as many other factors.

With this in mind, some WISEs were set up that understood the needs of their workers, and could offer the flexible job position that meant those individuals could work to the best of their abilities or to a timetable that suited them.

It may sound like a nightmare to some business owners — a workforce of flexible work positions. However with a bit of ingenuity and innovation, and when your first priority isn’t profit, these WISEs were able to flourish to provide immense social impact. Don’t forget though — WISEs are generally still for profit organisations.

Fortunately, we have seen a shift within the private sector to be more flexible when it comes to working hours and contracts, meaning employment is a lot more accessible than it used to be. Therefore the need for this sort of WISE has decreased over the years.

To meet a need in the labour market

With sectors fluctuating, governments changing their employment priorities and different occupations moving in and out of fashion, there are often skilled people who find themselves out of demand.

Shipping communities, mining communities or where the garment industry was once rife, have all changed. These industries have, for the most part, vanished or moved abroad. Where they used to employ half a village or town, we find large groups of unemployed people.

Certain WISEs have set up to reemploy them in the same industry. You see this quite often happen with tailors, craftspeople and farmers. WISEs saw the opportunity to harness the local human capital and turn it into a sustainable business.

On top of this, we can think about all the skills needed in the aforementioned industries. Instead of creating the same sector, some WISEs take this certain group of people and reskill them. By using their basic knowledge from their previous profession yet applying it in a different way, they can create new sectors and new jobs for them.


If you work with individuals needing help to return to work , or if you’re thinking about starting a social enterprise to meet one of the needs above, then perhaps you should look at existing WISEs to see what models work for them. Reach out, do a bit of research, and make a good plan so your social enterprise will thrive. 

Solving problems through social enterprise

Using the five whys to break things down

If you start thinking about all the global issues out there, you’re likely to get pretty depressed. They’re so big that you sometimes feel unable to change anything, and even if you try to change things it’s on such a small scale that it’s hard to see the impact.

Instead, take a step back from that and look at your local issues — either in your country, city or street. Now things should be looking a bit more manageable and hopefully more rewarding when it comes to getting out what you put in.

Whichever problem you end up choosing to tackle, it’s how you break it down that makes sure you are able to change it and have a wider effect, or even, a ripple effect.

Activism in action

Recently in the British news we’ve heard a lot about Greta Thunberg, an activist who started by simply refusing to go to school every Friday. This was all in protest against how corporates and governments were not safeguarding her future due to their environmental policies. Fast forward six months, and over a million students worldwide have joined in with her protest.

Sure, she is the exception to the rule, but she broke things down and looked at how she could make in impact. Instead of writing letters to large companies or the EU, or her Prime Minister, or the local Mayor, she thought about where she could make a bigger impact — at her school and in her community. She turned a problem where so many people feel helpless into one where she feels empowered. Now she’s having those talks with decision-makers, and we’ll see whether she can have any impact at that level.

Tackling your own problems

Before thinking about potential social enterprise ideas, we need to think about a few problems happening locally, as many feed into global problems. I recently asked students at my former school to name a global, national and local problem.

Here is what they came up with:

  • plastic waste
  • Brexit social divide
  • growing knife crime

Three problems that international bodies, governments, and whole civil sectors are trying to solve on a daily basis. The only way we, as individuals, can really have an impact on these is to dig further. For this we can use the 5 why method, a technique originally used by Toyota to help with rooting out faults and errors in their production and manufacturing.

Problem: Growing knife crime
Why 1: More young people carrying knives
Why 2: To protect themselves
Why 3: Scared of being mugged
Why 4: Don’t be feel safe on the streets
Why 5: Lack of police presence

Creating solutions

Now the bigger problem has been broken down into five reasons, some of which are easier to try to resolve than others as us as individuals.

For example, in order to feel safer on the streets, there could be some self-defense and conflict management training. To reduce the number of those carrying knives, there could be knife amnesty days and awareness building around the dangers of carrying your own knife. To protest or counteract the lack of police presence, there could be petitions, research on hotspots, community action to create safe routes or walking groups.

There are many ways to answer the ‘whys’ for this question, and we can do this exercise a few times to come up with different reasons.

How about social enterprise

You could argue that most of the solutions above are things that should get government funding or be delivered by the civil sector, and therefore turning them into a business idea is a lot harder.

This said, with the three models of social enterprise, there are many ways in which the above solutions could be funded.

Self-defence or similar training could be run on a profit-basis, which could then fund free training for the target audience of this problem. Kapap Academy from Singapore do just this.

The knives handed in as part of the amnesty could be upcycled into other products or resold appropriately, and the profits could go towards further amnesties or awareness days. One charity doing something similar is Steel Warriors, turning these knives into outdoor gyms.


Think about the problems that you and your community facing. Break them down individually by asking five whys, and see what solutions you can put to those smaller causes. Once you have some ideas, you can start thinking about completing your business model canvas — could it make money from trading on the market? Then you’re onto something social enterprise. If not, then you still might have a good idea for a nonprofit or charity.

Types of Social Enterprise — Embedded Models

A seamless model of impact and profit

Having previously looked at the external and integrated models, we move to the third model of social enterprise — the embedded model.

Impact and profit sources are the same

This model rarely exists unless the organisation was born as a social enterprise, as advanced planning and strategical thinking is required.

Put simply — it’s when the product or service you are offering, directly solves one of the social or environmental needs you set out to solve. Each unit or hour that you sell, has a direct positive impact which goes towards achieving your mission and vision.

It goes a lot further than the integrated model with this direct approach, as everything done is intentionally. A product design phase may have taken place to adapt or improve an existing product or service on the market to make it social enterprise appropriate.


Example 1 — Sanergy

One of my favourite social enterprises to talk about, Sanergy not only provided a simple solution to a growing problem, they went further and ensured there was a circular economy within what they do.

First off, they build what are effectively toilets in a portable style for slums and communities without toilets. These are franchised out to local entrepreneurs that can then make money in maintaining and offering them. Straight away, the toilet provides an income for an individual, whilst providing everyone else a safer, cleaner place to do their business.

Next up, the waste is collected from all of the Sanergy toilets. This means there isn’t illegal dumping or the need to build complex infrastructure that requires a large amount of time and funds, and can lead to the upheaval of communities. Once again, this provides further jobs.

Finally, with that waste, they treat it and turn it into further products such as fertilizer that local farmers can then use instead of potentially harmful chemicals.

It goes without saying, the amount of impact Sanergy must have on the community is mind-blowing, all through leasing of toilets!

Example 2 — Grameen Bank

Grameen Bank was founded by perhaps the most well-known social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus. They started off by offering microloans to people needing money to start or expand their business.

A fairly common service in developing countries right? Grameen Bank went many steps further to ensure it had an embedded business model.

The loans mainly target female entrepreneurs across Bangladesh, a country where in some parts women are shunned when it comes to owning or running a businesses.

Furthermore, it is a co-operative, and anyone borrowing money from GB is a member, meaning trust and participation is needed in order to successfully apply for a loan.

Finally, the interest charged on the loan is reinvested in other individuals applying for a loan. It is in this way that the simple offering of a loan, has turned into a sustainable social business where strategical decisions are influenced by those borrowing. The funds available to others across Bangladesh has grown exponentially, since there isn’t a group of stakeholders who are paying themselves bonuses.

Just like with Sanergy, the value comes directly from the ‘product’ itself — promoting equality, encouraging entrepreneurship, independence, financial literacy and economic growth.


This is social enterprise at its purest, where a problem was identified and a solution directly developed to solve the problem. Through the problem solving process, stakeholders, sustainability and impact were taken into consideration to produce a cycle that keeps giving.

Perhaps you have a social or environmental problem that you think you could solve? We would love to help you make it viable and sustainable. 

Types of Social Enterprise — Integrated Model

When operations and impact overlap slightly.

In a previous blog post we looked at the different types of social enterprise model, and this time we’re delving deeper into the integrated model.

The integrated model often sees a social enterprise’s income generating activity partly fund some of the social activities within the social enterprise. At the same time the business side of things will also directly contribute to other forms of social good. However the product or service they offer is unlikely to solve some sort social or environmental need.

One common integrated model is where the social enterprise sells one product, but charges a premium to one customer which ultimately subsidises the other.


Example 1 — Aravind Eye Care

This great example of a social enterprise in India identified the problem in rural villages where it was very hard for locals to access adequate eye care services. There was no provision for them locally, the nearest one could be hundreds of miles away and then there was the problem with affordability.

Aravind solved this by offering subsidised outreach services for the villagers, whilst charging those who could afford it an appropriate amount that would subsidise the outreach service. They went that bit further too by making sure the doctors working with clients saw both types, those in the towns and in the village, to avoid creating a two-tier service.

The model has enabled them to expand all over India, and further afield as they work with various African countries in establishing something similar there.


Example 2 — Vesta (Social Bite)

Social Bite are a pretty impressive outfit, running a variety of different projects that aim to eradicate homelessness in Scotland. As part of the charity, they run Vesta, formerly known as Home, a restaurant that offers delicious food and drinks whilst doing a whole lot of other good.

Customers are encouraged to pay-forward meals for the homeless, and this is where the integrated model comes into play. Running as a restaurant it serves customers day and night, and then when people opt to, they then feed their service users using the extra money.

On top of this, they also use the restaurant as a great way to provide training and employment to homeless individuals looking for a return to work. Due to the nature of the restaurant, and the social ethos behind it, getting back into a 9 to 5 is a lot easier when you know the management, colleague and customers have got your back and want you to succeed.


The integrated model absorbs your social or environmental goals into your social enterprise. Meanwhile, the model enables you to take some mainstream ideas and convert them appropriately, since unlike the embedded model, the service or product doesn’t have to directly solve the problem.

The difference between integrated and embedded models can sometimes be a bit blurry, especially as you may have to adapt your operations to keep competitive. Ultimately the point of understanding your model is to be able to explain it to stakeholders and demonstrate the impact you are having because of it.

Types of Social Enterprise — External Model

When your operations and impact don’t overlap

In a previous blog post we looked at the different types of social enterprise model, and this time we’re going to go one step further by discussing some examples of the external model.

The external model is very interesting because it actually means any business can jump straight into being a social enterprise without necessary having any social or environmental goals linked directly to their product or service.

This does not mean however that the company can have a negative effect on either. They should still meet all the other social enterprise requirements when it comes to governance, transparency, stakeholder involvement and employee satisfaction.

Moreover it usually means that while they are busy selling and maximising their profit, there will be another organisation focused on solving a need. The need doesn’t necessary have to be linked with the social enterprises main operation either, which has enabled the funding of hard-to-fund groups through this model.


Example 1 — Ginerosity

One example of the external model is Ginerosity, a gin distillery social enterprise based in Edinburgh, Scotland. They ultimately produce and sell delicious gin all over the world. What kind of social or environmental goals do you think ginmakers would have? Protect the juniper maybe, or create more gin-tasting tours?

Nothing like that. They partner with other social enterprises or nonprofits to finance and provide vulnerable young people the change to access education, training or jobs. The profit generated from the gin goes directly to this cause, which is why we call it an external model.

Example 2 — Thankyou

Another example is Thankyou, a social enterprise based in Australia who have now extended their operations to New Zealand too. This impressive social enterprise spends 100% of their profit on solving global issues and partners with the likes of Unicef and Oxfam.

However their products don’t directly target those causes like other social enterprises do, but instead there is an external connection between them. For example, they sell their own bottled water, from which the profits go towards water projects around the world. They sell their own line of nappies, the profits of which go to births and baby health all over the world.


These two examples of many external model social enterprises, go to show how no matter what you sell or offer, there is a way to be a social enterprise and have an amazing impact of society all over the world. Some people may argue that it would be hypocritical for certain sectors to operate in such a way and then claim to be having a positive impact.

We, on the other hand, believe that external models can provide a way for many companies to move into social enterprise, before aligning the rest of the operations accordingly.

Applying the Theory of Change

Demonstrating your social enterprise’s worth

If you work for a non-profit, social enterprise or do anything that aims to have a positive social or environmental effect, then you might have thought about your theory of change.

Your theory of change should show how what you do, has an impact more far reaching than just on your customers and users. It should also show how you aim to create impact for longer than just the instance they buy your product or use your service.

It’s a strategic piece of work that can set down the foundations for your business, test your assumptions and ensure you have indicators to show the world how great you are. So let’s delve a little deeper into what’s involved.


When you started your organisation or project, you would have seen a problem you were hoping to solve. This provides your context that your theory of change relates to.

On top of this, you would have most likely stated your mission and vision. Ultimately the goals you, as an individual or group of individuals, are hoping to solve. Think of those goals again and translate them into something that we could think about measuring.

Goals / Context

For example, instead of an all reaching and broad‘Improve the lives of those affected by addiction’, we could look more specifically at ‘Decrease deaths linked to overdose’, ‘Improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of drug and alcohol users’ and ‘Improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of carers of drug and alcohol users’.

theory of change assumptions context inputs outputs outcomes context

Now we know where we’re heading, we can start looking at what we’re doing by jotting down what we activities we carry out to reach our goals. These are known as our inputs.

Inputs

In this example they could be things such as ‘Provide education about drug and alcohol at schools’, ‘run weekly meetings for addicts’ or ‘provide volunteer or job opportunities at the social enterprise.

theory of change assumptions context inputs outputs outcomes context

These inputs lead directly to an output, and they will sound very similar.

Outputs

For each educational course in a school, 30 students will receive 4 hours of information about drugs and alcohol.

For every weekly meeting, 15 individuals with an addiction will attend.

Of the volunteer/job opportunities, 3 individuals will take up this offer.

theory of change assumptions context inputs outputs outcomes context

So far, so good?

In fact many grants or contracts these days will only ask you to report this back to them with similar information, however they have become very output driven, without really thinking about the short, medium or long term impact of what they are funding. We know that it’s not just numbers that matter, but also what you’re offering and the quality of the service or product.

This is why we now think about the outcomes, some of which are easy to measure and some of which are challenging to. Furthermore, at this stage we need to think short, medium and long term in relation to what you’re doing. If you run a business, perhaps your long term could be from 10 years to a whole generation. If, on the other hand, you’re just looking at a year long pilot, then your long term could be between 3 and 5 years.

I’ll leave that up to you, and for now I’m going to focus on the outcomes for those taking up our volunteer/job opportunities, since this could be more relevant to those reading.

Outcomes

Short term — better and more structured routine, less likely to commit minor offences, unlikely to drink/use during the working day
Medium term — improved social skills, improved self-confidence, work ready, open to coming off unemployment benefits, new and better friendships outside of old ‘circles’
Long term — employed elsewhere, stronger personal relationships outside of old circle, no offending, not drinking/using or in control of drug/alcohol use

theory of change assumptions context inputs outputs outcomes context

You can now see that we have completed the bulk of our theory of change. We have looked at what we are going to do, how we are going to do it, and the effect over time we hope it to have on its users. One thing still remains, and that is our assumptions.

In everything we do, we assume that people will react a certain way, we predict that doing x will lead to y, and that we will achieve our goals. In both the business world and social sector, this doesn’t always happen, which is why we need to analyse our assumptions to make sure we don’t trip up.

We can look at our assumptions between each stage, and when we ask ourselves these questions, we can then strengthen what we are offering.

Have you ever heard of the NGO that gave out laptops to a village in Sub Sahara Africa, only to later find they were being used as paperweights? They’d made a lot of wrong assumptions — that the locals needed laptops, knew how to use them and had the power to run them, and ultimately didn’t reach their goal. Let’s not make the same mistake!

Assumptions

Inputs to Outputs

  • Users want to volunteer/work
  • Users want that sort of volunteer role/job position
  • Users will turn up as agreed to volunteer/work

Outputs to Outcomes

  • Users at a stage in recovery where reduction of using is possible
  • Users stick to the schedule given
  • Users will be physically/psychologically able to volunteer/work full time

Outcomes to Goal

  • Job secured leads to improve physical and psychological wellbeing
  • Job secured doesn’t lead to a return to old habits
theory of change assumptions context inputs outputs outcomes context

In this example, I have limited the assumptions for each stage, however it is important to list as many as possible and answer them prior to starting your project or organisation. The ones that are easier to answer can be removed when you feel you have adequately answered or countered it.

Putting together your theory of change should always be done with a wide range of stakeholders, to help combat these assumptions and really define what will work.

When I was part of setting up the social enterprise we used service user involvement to define how it would work that would make it more attractive to potential volunteers and employees. We involved them in the visual identity, branding, product list, product selection, setting of hours, role allocation and so much more.

They felt ownership from the beginning, which ensured many of our assumptions were solved. We offered flexible shifts, a relaxed work ethic, smart uniforms, suitable perks and everyone was trained to be a barista. They grew with confidence, made new friends, solved old problems and broke their own prejudices as well as fought stigma against addiction.

One only lasted a few months, he shared his views that it wasn’t right for him, not hands on enough and he didn’t want to be in that location. Others moved on to other jobs, and one or two still work their part time today.

The theory of change helped us take an idea, and turn it into reality to meet our goals. It’s not a complex thing to do, it doesn’t take weeks to do, and will really help you connect to your cause.

Give it a go and feel free to share what you’ve done or let us know if you’d like some help putting it together – michael@ensoco.co.uk

Originally posted at https://medium.com/@michaelfreersplit/applying-the-theory-of-change-e1f0f570ec12

Why we should always strive for an embedded model for our social enterprise

A look at which models exist and which are deemed ‘best’

The flexibility of social enterprise is something that makes it a lot more appealing than having to go the traditional non-profit route. However with a number of models out there, it can sometimes be hard to define which is and which isn’t a social enterprise.

You may have even heard in the news that Apple was moving towards being a social enterprise. Whilst many were quick to dismiss this based on the way Apple has worked, does work, and the cash reserves it holds, others had heard the term social enterprise for the first time and suddenly thought Apple was one such model. This is not the case.

At the other end of the scale, there is the myth that the organisation has to focus on employing people from a vulnerable group in order to be classed as a social enterprise. This is, in fact, a type of social enterprise known as WISE (work integrated social enterprise).


For those new to this sector, here are the the three most commonly talked about models in social enterprise, which each have a name that relates to the social/environmental cause.

Embedded model

Where the product or service directly provides the solution to the cause and is fully linked to the social or environmental goal(s).

For example, providing latrine solutions in a sustainable and entrepreneurial way when the organisational goal is to improve health and wellbeing whilst reducing attacks.

Integrated model

Where the product or service provides some crossover with the social or environmental goal(s). In some countries they are forced to use two legal entities — one for doing good and the other for making money.

For example, running a coffee shop which donates its profits back to the non-profit whilst also offering work for some of their users or clients.

External model

Where the product or service has very little to no connection with the social or environmental goal, and may even donate outside of the organisation.

For example, producing and selling wooden boxes whilst funding computer lessons for primary school students.


So now when you look at the models, you could potentially see how people thought Apple could even dare to think about becoming a social enterprise. Then we can think about a number of private corporations and how they, more and more, are donating to certain causes or sponsoring specific events.

Taking a step back from that, and looking at the integrated model. This is sometimes where social enterprises have found themselves struggling to make ends meet. Perhaps their product or service didn’t have the demand they had hoped. Perhaps what is a great cause just isn’t a sustainable business. These social enterprises pivot in three ways. They can  give up and collapse, innovate and stick to their guns, or find something that sells, even if it isn’t linked to their cause. It’s this last one that can commonly lead to an integrated model and can dilute the nature of the social enterprise.

Then we have the embedded model. Where the substance of everything you do is linked to your cause, it’s sustainable and you have impact pouring out of each department. Your suppliers are all social enterprises, your paper recycled in-house and you have a staff volunteering program with the local community. Social enterprise flows in the veins of everyone involved, directors, workers and buyers, and decisions are made with everyone’s best interest in mind.

It’s not hard to see why we should be striving for such a model. It’s not easy to get there, and definitely takes more effort and skill in navigating the business world we live in. Your original idea will have to be tweaked and improved, and if things aren’t going well then you will be faced with the three options mentioned earlier.

But just like any successful business, when you have that idea, and convince everyone it is the right product or service for them, this time with the added value of being an embedded social enterprise, you will be closer to dominating the market for years to come.

Originally posted on:

https://medium.com/@michaelfreersplit/why-we-should-always-strive-for-an-embedded-model-for-our-social-enterprise-6e66c854e9fd

Dear Social Enterprise,

It’s time we looked at our relationship.

I’ve fallen in love with you over the last ten years. Finally, I thought, the best of the private and civil sector can come together to solve social and environmental issues both big and small, and I can be a part of this world, of your world.

However right now, I feel like we’re going through a tough spell. It seems like not everyone likes you so much, and when people start doubting you, I have to admit, I start to second-guess my own feelings. I know I shouldn’t be pressured by my peers or by people I don’t even know, but sometimes it can be overwhelming.

“Why do you love Social Enterprise?” I’ve been asked on a number of occasions, and I tell them why I love you, with all my heart. “But why would you do that?!” they continue, and all I can say that, for me, it comes down to a feeling of what’s right or not.

I’ve been mulling over what they’ve said for a few months now, and I feel like I understand why not everyone is convinced by you, or even worse, they don’t even know you exist. I’m going to share the ‘why’ with you now, and hope we can fix these problems together.

You’re complicated

When I have to explain what you are exactly, I have to think about who I’m talking to. Where they’re from, what they do and why they do it.

I have to find examples that they can relate to, because not everyone knows Patagonia or Sanergy.

Then, I have to explain the legal nitty gritty about you, which in some cases doesn’t exist and instead I talk loosely about strategies and plans.

You’re just not so easy to define, and everyone has their own ideas of what you are, in some cases linking you to things such as socialism, communism, or hippies, instead of just doing good.

Your parents didn’t raise you so well

It’s easy to blame the parents, but lets face it, you were born out of the third sector. Your parents have loads of heart, and are perhaps idealists, but quite often lack the ‘head’ to steer you into being a real enterprise, and not just a charitable cause dependent on grants and donations.

They always needed your other relatives to join in and help, sometimes financially, but most often with leadership and guidance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when Uncle Unilever and Cousin Phillip Morris are giving advice on solving social or environmental problems, you should really take a step back and think.

You’re too quiet

When I walk into a room of business graduates, and start talking about social enterprise, I see blank faces I’m stunned. How the hell do these guys not know about you. I try to shout your name from the rooftops, promoting, education and consulting wherever I can, but it seems so many others aren’t.

Quite frankly you still haven’t found you voice. You haven’t shown people what you can do. You need to think about your PR and marketing which at the moment is close to non-existent.

Our relationship doesn’t have to be exclusive, I am in fact happy to share you with the whole world. I know you also want this, as it’s part of your goal that you often talk about. So please, please, please, find more spokespeople to represent you better and inspire others to start some sort of relationship with you.


I don’t know if anything in this letter to you is new, perhaps you’ve heard it from others but I just wanted you to know that I won’t lose faith in you. I will always sing your praises, and I will continue developing ideas with you in mind.

But we need to work on our relationship together, to make it stronger, and to stop people questioning whether it’s right or not.

Are you in?

Originally posted on: https://medium.com/@michaelfreer_2342/dear-social-enterprise-5fa3a4c3fd60

What actually is a social enterprise?

It’s a question we often get asked, and it’s never an easy answer.

That’s not because we don’t know, but because depending on where you are there are normally different ideas of what exactly constitutes a social enterprise.

Let’s start with some generalisations to get the ball rolling anyway:

  1. A social enterprise must be transparent and open. Social entrepreneurs effectively put the way they act into their organisations – or they should do.
  2. A social enterprise should have a triple bottom line. This involves having social, environmental and financial goals and making sure they’re all taken into consideration when making business decisions.
  3. A social enterprise should make some money through trading on the open market. If all your money comes from government grants or contracts, then you may not be a social enterprise – more of an charity or NGO.
  4. A social enterprise has to reinvest a proportion of its profits into its social/environmental goal. This doesn’t mean reinvesting it into the business and buying yourself an Aston Martin Vanquish though.

Whoever we speak to in the social entrepreneurship sphere, they always provide us with those four themes. If we take a closer look at some areas, you will see how the definition varies from person to person, organisation to organisation and country to country.

  1. In some countries, social enterprises must publicly report on their social and environmental impact, as well as their financial accounts. They must engage all stakeholders in decision making and have open membership.
  2. In certain countries, you must explicitly state what each of your goals are (for people, planet and profit) when setting up, in others you have to have one main goal, be it environmental or social, and not be too clear elsewhere.
  3. We have seen that the percentage of money coming from trading changes from country to country. Some stating a minimum of 25% gives you social enterprise status, others 50%. There’s normally special dispensation for start-ups or NGOs converting over though.
  4. This has the biggest range. In Croatia, their strategy states 75% of profits should be reinvested, in the UK CiC’s (social enterprise legal form) is 65%, and the scale goes all the way down to not stating how much of your profits should be reinvested.

Furthermore, and outside the general rules, some countries state you must employ people from vulnerable groups to qualify and others state the government can never be the owner of a social enterprise.

Now you have a bit more insight into the complexities we sometimes face in explaining, but there are a few organisations trying to make things more precise and clearer, which we will discuss next time.