Words, as we all know, can clarify or complicate. If you've been confused about the way phrases such as "social enterprise" or "social entrepreneurship" are being used, here's a quick primer on terminology.
Corporate Social Responsibility (which has been in use for a long time), is applied when a business considers its "bottom line" to be more than financial profit and demonstrates tangible concern for the environment, good working conditions for its employees, humane treatment of animals, and/or other legal and ethical ways to be a "good corporate citizen." Employee volunteer programs fall into this category, as does financial philanthropy.
Social Enterprise and Social Entrepreneurship are newer terms used to describe several different things:
- A company that is for-profit, but directs its business profits towards meeting social needs. Can include:
- Giving all or a percentage of profits to charity.
- Hiring or training people in need to be its labor force.
- Locating in places selected to stimulate economic development.
- Fair trade practices, without exploiting underdeveloped artisans or tradespeople.
- Sometimes recruit volunteers to help staff retail shops to increase ultimate revenues from sales that can then be directed to charitable work.
- A not-for-profit organization that runs a business enterprise in order to fund its work (cash income) or meet its mission (e.g., retraining the unemployed).
- A business or a nonprofit founded specifically to address a social need, in an effort to solve a community problem or demonstrate alternate ways of offering services - almost always employing the ethical principles of good corporate social responsibility. Examples:
- Renewable energy alternatives.
- Urban car- or bicycle-share projects.
- Recycling of used computers to give to the poor.
Which brings us to the "entrepreneurship model" of volunteering. First, this includes anyone who founds or runs any of the above types of enterprises. Such "social entrepreneurs" are very often volunteers - at least in the beginning. There's nothing new about this, since all social innovation begins with activists willing to work hard to establish something they believe in. But now it has a name.
The second - and perhaps more interesting - use of the term social entrepreneur refers to volunteers who want to innovate or experiment with new ways of addressing needs. Specifically, these people are looking for ways
- To be creative in approaching community or client needs - not to "fill a slot" of a job-like volunteer position description.
- To innovate - not to perpetuate traditional, possibly failed, ways of giving services.
- To be able to apply their skills, talents, and time to changing/improving the world, not just "helping" an organization.
While this approach to volunteer work design has recently been extolled as the best way to recruit both Baby Boomers and Millennials/Generation Y (who have quite a bit in common despite the age gap), it really is a great way to get out of the trap of considering volunteers as staff "assistants." It presupposes that someone from the "outside" might bring a fresh perspective to an organization's challenges and that volunteers who participate in creating the projects they tackle will develop longer and deeper engagement with the cause.