Social Enterprise: Can We Make Some Sense of It?

 

iPhone background – Twirl” by Patrick Hoesly. Trimmed to square shape.

March 23, 2017; Dallas Morning News

NPQ writes regularly about the wide spectrum of “social enterprises.” Social enterprise has a long history (everything from Girl Scout cookies to Goodwill) but most initiatives that claim the social enterprise moniker are relatively new, like TOMS Shoes, founded in 2006. The U.S.-based Social Enterprise Alliance has 863 members in 40 states.

Cause-driven businesses are known by different names, each with their own characteristics, as they attempt to engage commercial strategies to achieve social impact. A social enterprise can be structured as a for-profit or a nonprofit, and depending on the country, as a cooperative, mutual organization, or benefit corporation. It can even involve a combination of these various structures. What is consistent among all these organizational types is a stated commitment to some core social mission.

This leads some of those engaged in social enterprise to be protective of the term. In 2012, Social Enterprise UK opposed an attempt by Salesforce.com to trademark and use the term in its marketing by launching a successful “Not In Our Name” campaign endorsed by such luminaries as the Nobel Prize-laureate Muhammad Yunis of Grameen Bank.

The fact is that there’s a lot that’s new and old combined under this umbrella—nonprofits, for-profits, and any number of “tweeners”. For instance, Dallas Morning News writes about 2S Industries, the for-profit social enterprise component of the faith-based nonprofit 2ndSaturday. (The name is tied to their founding story.) 2S Industries hires former felons, gang members, and drug dealers to work in lawn care, construction, and other small businesses. This sounds very much like the Delancey Street program, but such efforts are often approached as if they appeared out of the mist.

The entrepreneurial twist on a more traditional charitable model is what caught the eye of Dallas Foundation leaders. On Wednesday evening, the foundation was slated to give 2ndSaturday its annual Pegasus Prize, along with a $50,000 grant.

“One of the reasons the [prize] committee chose it is because it is a social enterprise,” said Helen Holman, the foundation’s chief philanthropy officer. “Ultimately, it will be a self-sustaining venture.”

Delancey Street’s motto is “Enter With A History, Leave With A Future.” It would be nice if, as a sector, we would embrace our own rich history. Our future would be much richer for it. For now, the term “social enterprise” suggests a wide spectrum more than a label and it is up to all of us to help define what it is and what it is not and how long nonprofits have, in fact, been doing it.—James Schaffer