What’s in a name: The thorny definition of ‘social enterprise’

In a recent meeting with colleagues representing different sides of that perennial ‘social enterprise definition’ debate, we again stumbled, or struggled, to agree. There is of course some official definitions, but everyone still seemed to feel we need to broaden out or narrow it down. Because every social enterprise is unique maybe.

It sometimes feels like we are a load of navel gazers dancing on the head of a pin! Which sounds difficult and dangerous.

That lovely thing called the internet, informed by a bit of lived experience (someone tipped me off), brought me to this helpful report by an academic research network called EMES. Which, as its a body that researches social enterprises internationally, might take us into fruitful territory of looking at common behaviours, rather than our own UK internal history and structures. It can’t be the last word, but its probably a good go. What do you think?

They basically bring it down to 3 ‘domains’ or dimensions, with three characteristics for each. These are … (and the bits in brackets are my go at simplifying it)

Economic and entrepreneurial:

a) A continuous activity producing goods and/or selling services (aims to be resilient and lasting)
b) A significant level of economic risk (pushes boundaries)
c) A minimum amount of paid work (creates jobs and brings economic benefits)


d) An explicit aim to benefit the community (care for others)
e) An initiative launched by a group of citizens or civil society organisations (emerge from lived experience)
f) A limited profit (not just about the money)

Participatory governance:

g) A high degree of autonomy (independent)
h) A decision-making power not based on capital ownership (fair and equitable)
i) A participatory nature, which involves various parties affected by the activity (inclusive and open)

So that means …

Social enterprise creates resilient and long lasting organisations that seek to push the boundaries of how to create economic well-being. They are externally engaged and motivated by collective lived experiences, rather than personal benefit. They are independent and caring, and do what they believe is right, in a fair and equitable way, whilst encouraging people to take part and shape a better future together.

That will do for me! I’m in!

Blog by Jez Hall 2019.

Jez Hall is a SFCIC director, was a board member of Social Enterprise Lancashire. We’re a member of the Greater Manchester Social Enterprise Network and Greater Manchester Social Economy Alliance.