What exactly is a social enterprise? Can Levi’s be counted as one because it practices sustainability? Can KABOOM! because its operations are entrepreneurial? The term (which encompasses both profitable and non-profit initiatives) has had critics and confused bystanders shaking their heads and voicing alternatives for a while.
The criticism seems mostly to rest on the entrepreneur part. Some critics think it’s too indicative of ego-maximizing initiatives and diminishes the societal aspect of the term, while others (including Jay Goltz, author of a recent New York Times op-ed) think entrepreneurship is synonymous with making a profit, which not all social enterprises do.
Although I’m sometimes frustrated that we don’t have a clear vernacular to use when talking about social mission and business (sustainability and CSR call forth a whole new wave of head shaking), I’m not bothered by the fact that people have varying perceptions of ‘it.’ Social enterprise is defined by actions and changed lives and environments rather than by academics, pundits and bloggers. My friend Martin Montero brings it back to the mission: “In general, I think if the ‘solution’ does not increase the amount of power the powerless/poor have, it’s not a social enterprise, it’s a joke.”*
*Martin gave this quote to John Townsend, who writes for Changemakers.
Photo credit: Artfire.