The world of cleverly-phrased social entreprise buzzwords can mask a basic question: is there really a difference between a ‘social enterprise’ and socially-minded people just doing business?The question came up at a recent event. When asking a new startup founder if he was part of a social enterprise his response was that he and his co-founders preferred to think of themselves as socially-minded people starting a company.  He was seemingly hesitant to commit his new venture to the accountability and cache of being a social enterprise. Yet, he acknowledged his company’s commitment to social ideals and their company’s goal of somehow incorporating impact-oriented practices in their work. 

Is It a Distinction without Difference?

Arguably he and the leaders of many other startups and companies are guided by their social compass. They may be individuals who regularly volunteer, recycle with gusto, and support  underserved sectors of society with donations, free product/software, or mentorship.

Extending one’s own persona of social awareness to the company could be the start of a corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan. For example, if you volunteer, donate, mentor, give back as an individual and individuals around you at work do the same—it may feel like you are part of a socially responsible business. Plus, if your company takes steps such as creating a CSR team, it will further validate your notion that you are part of something that is doing well by doing good.

So, in some ways—the distinction may seem to be without distinction. If a rising tide carries all ships—then shouldn’t we aspire to antiquate social enterprise buzzwords in exchange for a broader adoption of social impact at all levels of entrepreneurship and enterprise?

It’s All About Intention

Yes, but arguably—we’re not there yet.

While social innovation, social entrepreneurship, social enterprise are gaining ground in public and corporate consciousness (hey, we’ve been writing a blog dedicated to it for over a year!), these concepts are far from reaching critical mass adoption.

It deserves mention that a corporation is a separate legal entity, so there is a good argument for building social impact goals into the core of a new company, as articulated by is bylaws and mission. It is powerful to have discussions based on the intention of founders to incorporate a social impact-related premise as part of the company’s overall mission.

One reason to do so is that there is a possibility that, using all of these buzzwords could be a fad.

It could just be in vogue to say you’re a social entrepreneur, that you focus on impact, that you innovate to create social good and profit. Sparkling phrases that show a commitment to profit and purpose are alluring, especially when other companies seem to be using them too.

The difference in committing to actions or behavior, is intention. Arguably, if a company includes a social intention as part of its mission statement and provides some ways of assessing progress, that could be far more powerful than engaging in buzzword-wizadry.

Likewise, there are numerous ways for a company to manifest its social impact intention. For example…

Ways a company or startup can show its intent toward social responsibility:

  • Certifying as a B corporation
  • Incorporating as a benefit corporation, flexible purpose corporation, L3C, etc.
  • Sharing your company’s progress toward sustainability with transparency
  • Choosing to be part of communities of companies also dedicated to goals, and sharing best practices
  • Supporting the study and progress of impact innovation through funding, dedication of resources, etc.
  • Attending conferences and events to stay on top of trends in social impact initiatives


More than a Dream

As it is often repeated “A goal without a deadline is just a dream.” And while a company doesn’t have to associate itself with social innovation labels—-if its true intention is to make good on social responsibility, it serves it well to not just adopt social impact buzzwords but to the commit to the intention that powers them.

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    1 reply
    1. Jim Jacques
      Jim Jacques says:

      Many forms of social enterprise are driven by private organizations, don't think that they are out of date just because they are in the business school. If you go into a microfinance organization or an impact investing fund, you will find a lot of people there that used to work in investment banking or at big banks prior, so it is not strange that these subjects would be at a schools where those people frequent. Plus, professors do teach across schools and students also cross register, so its not like the programs being in one school prevent other students at other schools from attending.


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