Re: Marks on Social Enterprise Today

Social Enterprise back in fashion but poorly understood

Currently, governments across the world are promoting non-profit activity alongside local initiatives for community development. The popularity of social enterprise has been increasing as a marginal alternative to the dominance of public or government-led services. But the notion of social enterpise is not at all well known beyond the third sector (charities, not-for-profit, voluntary groups and social enterprise). Most people have not heard of Third Sector either, I suspect. I recall one of my University colleages responding with an indignant and rather dismissive reaction to social enterprise. He concluded that ‘social enterprise’ was just another example of Orwellian newspeak. Worse still, 'social enterprise' was a return to the agenda of 19th-century capitalism - with its notions of the deserrving and the undeserving poor. Enterprise was business and greed, strife rather than harmony, and militated fundamentally against an affirmative notion of social life. He thought that the two words also constituted a semantic muddle, rather like ‘bitter sweet’ or Milton’s Hell ‘darkness visible’.

A Emergent Market for Social Enterprise

Those semantic reservations aside, co-operative effort; community solutions, and local leadership may benefit directly from the effects of social enterprise movements. According to Peter Holbrook, Director of the Social Enterprise Coalition, there are some 62,000 social enterprise organisations employing 800,000 people and contributing £24bn to the economy. There is a substantial industry that involves being paid for services or products delivered, where the surplus is returned back to enterprise, or is distributed to deserving social causes.

Interviewed in Society Guardian, Peter Holbrook explained how the Social Enterprise sector is allowing people to make a real difference to their own lives; ‘Virtually everyone I meet in the business sector is interested … When I meet arts or business students and talk to them about the model, they are overwhelmingly in favour. There is even a module on social enterprise taught in schools.’

‘X’ Marks the Spot

But for consumers and ethical businesses wanting to deal with other businesses, how do you know that you are dealing with an authentic, or genuine, social enterprise rather than a business tht has merely displayed some token gestures of ethical sensitivity? Help is at hand. The newly launched Social Enterprise Mark identifies businesses that meet defined criteria for social enterprise. The Mark offers consumers an instantly recognisable logo that represents enterprises working for social and environmental aims, trading to benefit people and the planet. According to their website ‘the Mark is more than just a logo. It is also access to a network of social enterprises across the UK’ - hinting at the inter-trading and procurement of services that could happen within the sector.

Checklist for qualifying as a Social Enterprise

  • Do you have evidence of your company’s social and environmental aims?
  • Does the company have its own constitution and governing body?
  • Are at least 50% of the company’s profits spent on socially beneficial purposes?
  • Does the company earn at least 50% of its income from trading?
  • Can you provide externally verified evidence that you are achieving your social and environmental aims?
  • On dissolution of the company, are all residual assets distributed for social/environmental purposes?

For more information see


  1. If this blog has been helpful or you would like more information, please feel free to add any comments.

  2. Hello, I'm a student of social sciences and I'm taking a kind of "intensive course" on social entrepreneurship at university at the moment. After having gone through a lot of definitions of the term (there are too many of them out there) we concluded that most criteria are arbitrary. Isn't it the same with these criteria you presented? What counts as socially beneficial and who determines it in the end? I think peope that want to call themselves social entrepreneurs should be judged by the quality of the innovation they have created, in addition to their mission and vision of course. I see the point of establishing a standard but then it doesn't seem to capture the essence of what these people really do, namely solving social problems in a "new" way.

  3. Hi Shinta, and thanks for your illuminating remarks. It's good to get a thoughtful response. I agree that when we look at the full range of definitions there is a degree of arbitrariness. And academia is good at teasing out the contradictions and inconsistencies. The university debates far more than it decides! You could position a variety of charitable goals as part of the ‘social’ dimension. These are also arbitrary, in one sense, but institutionalised (through an earlier democratic process) as law. I do like your shift from the social enterprise to the entrepreneur – from the institutional thing to the role of the person. The problems might be (1) are all employees of a social enterprises co-social-entrepreneurs? (2) is innovation and problem solving the primary or sole purpose. e.g. is FairTrade conceptually innovative now? perhaps the goal is more about scaling-up, scope and reach, rather than innovation as such? (3) are we sometimes social entrepreneurs and sometimes not, in our work (4) what are the factors that assist or impede social enterprise? is this about people or about business structures (5) how much can we exclude the ethical business/ethical policy/ethical investment components, within corporate capitalism? (6) innovation is not innately good, even as social innovation…


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