Hunton Law

Legal Counsel for Nonprofit & Tax-Exempt Organizations

Legal Counsel for Nonprofits, Foundations & Social Enterprises

What is "Social Enterprise"?

Just back from Los Angeles, where I attended a 1.5 day summit hosted by Social Enterprise Alliance.  At various moments, speakers and attendees paused to reflect on the term “social enterprise” – where it came from, where it might be going.

What does “social” mean to you?  What does it mean when you hear it in: social media?  Social responsibility?  (Corporate) social responsibility?  Social network?  Social enterprise?

Clearly, “social” can mean any number of things, depending on who’s saying/writing it, who’s hearing/reading it, the words that immediately precede or follow it, and the general context of its use.

How about the term “social enterprise”?  What does that mean to you?  Using the power of the market to drive benefits to society and the environment?  Leveraging business models, strategies, and principles to strengthen local communities, restore the environment, and create jobs for people who need them most?  Selling products and services with the explicit goals of improving health outcomes, education, human rights, and/or economic justice?  For-profit?  Nonprofit?

By this point you’ll have learned: (a) I’m not going to give you my definition of social enterprise; and (b) I like asking questions more than I like giving answers. 

So then why would I refer to myself as “legal counsel for social enterprises”?  A risky move, in light of the different meanings of the phrase.  On one hand, I might have thought that the use of “social enterprise” in my materials would help with the weeding out process, leaving only the most hardcore social purpose innovators as my clients and colleagues.  Maybe.

On the other hand, I might take advantage of the vagueness and looseness of the term to cast a wide net for my business.  That is to say, in theory, that a 501(c)(3) public charity that considers itself a “social enterprise” would be just as likely to hire me as a Fortune 500 corporation that also calls itself a “social enterprise”.  Mission accomplished!  I have a range of corporate clients, from the 100% donor-supported charity end of the spectrum, to the 100% profits-to-insiders end of the spectrum.  Maybe, maybe not.

Social enterprise has no clear definition.  For the time being, I’m comfortable using the term to describe those organizations and companies that I believe in and want to work with, and that want to work with me.  At some point, I might shift my use of the term, or start an altogether new tagline for my practice.  But that’s part of the beauty of our social sector work: it’s an ever-evolving, forward-thinking, innovator-driven field.  Arguing over a definition is not going to hold back an entrepreneur who is laser-focused on inventing, manufacturing, and distributing a product that will save the lives of millions.  The lack of a certain definition will not grind our work to a halt, because there is plenty to be done and not enough time to do it.  So let’s go forth.