There are several ways you can go about searching for social enterprise ideas. Seeing examples of social enterprise in action is one of these best ways to get inspired for what you might want to create!
Social enterprise ideas, unlike conventional business ideas, typically result from a desire to solve a social need; similar to how many non-profit and charity organizations find their beginning.
As the message of merging business acumen and innovation with the task of building lasting social change spreads, and along with increasing numbers of powerful examples of positive change manifesting around the world, the social enterprise movement continues to gain traction. With this entrepreneurial approach to diversifying funding streams, an organization can be freed from “strings-attached” grant funding and often unreliable corporate or individual donations.
Before sharing a list of social entrepreneurship examples in action, let’s address a few of the most commonly asked questions about social enterprise:
How is a social enterprise different from a business?
Traditional business ideas can also come from identifying a social need but the difference between a social enterprise and a traditional business is the motivation of the entrepreneur. The primary motivation for a traditional entrepreneur is more-often-than-not a desire to make money whereas a social entrepreneur is driven fist and foremost by a passion to solve a social problem. Setting up as a business or using market principles (i.e. selling products or services) is used as a mechanism to solve the social or environmental problems they seek to impact.
What are the main objectives of a social enterprise?
Because of the different motivations that drive the two types of entrepreneurs, we must consider that their businesses will function a bit differently. We often hear the business world talk about focusing on the bottom line business practices that lead to increased monetary profitability. In comparison, social businesses focus on double – or triple – bottom line business practices that lead to social, environmental AND economic profitability.
Acumen defines social enterprise as: “Any enterprise that prioritizes transformative social impact while striving for financial sustainability.”
What qualifies as a social enterprise?
Social Enterprise is the practice of using market-based, entrepreneurial strategies for the purpose of progressing an organization’s social or environmental impact.
Social Enterprises can take many forms and are not restricted to one particular legal structure or business model design.
“Social Entrepreneurship uses business models – selling products or services – to solve social problems.” – Trico Foundation
“Organizations that address a basic unmet need or solve a social problem through a market-driven approach.” – Social Business Alliance
How does a social enterprise work?
With goals to achieve both social impact and financial sustainability, social enterprises look to a unique set of business models to achieve their goals.
Some of the most common business model frameworks social enterprises use are:
1. Cross-Compensation – One group of customers pays for the service. Profits from this group are used to subsidize the service for another, underserved group.
2. Fee for Service – Beneficiaries pay directly for the goods or services provided by the social enterprise.
3. Employment and skills training – The core purpose is to provide living wages, skills development, and job training to the beneficiaries: the employees.
4. Market Intermediary – The social enterprise acts as an intermediary, or distributor, to an expanded market. The beneficiaries are the suppliers of the product and/or service that is being distributed to an international market.
5. Market Connector – The social enterprise facilitates trade relationships between beneficiaries and new markets.
6. Independent Support – The social enterprise delivers a product or service to an external market that is separate from the beneficiary and social impact generated. Funds are used to support social programs to the beneficiary.
7. Cooperative – A for-profit or nonprofit business that is owned by its members who also use its services, providing virtually any type of goods or services.
Can a social enterprise be for profit?
Yes, social enterprises can take on any legal structure!
A social enterprise approach is only a means to an end: the profit-making strategies are not in place for profit maximization but are in place as an essential component to bring about social or environmental change in a meaningful and long term way.
What is an example of social enterprise?
Aravind Eye Care is one of the earliest examples of a social enterprise model at work. This renowned Indian organization is designed to let people pay what they can. Aravind provides cataract surgery and other eye care services to any one who comes for it regardless of their ability to pay. Those who can afford to pay market price, do, and those who can’t, don’t. Amazingly, the number of patients who chose to pay covers the cost of providing care to the entire client base, allowing for wholistic care for all who need it.
Now let’s look at our list of 22 Awesome Social Enterprise Examples!
(Business Model: Fee for Service. Example: Community Shop) – Create a food market that sells food to low-income communities at a discounted price. Discounted food is donated (or purchased very cheaply) from food suppliers and other supermarkets, who cannot sell the food themselves for a variety of reasons such as approaching expiry dates, dented cans, and product mislabeling.
Used Textbooks for Social Change
(Business Model: Cross-compensation and Independent Support. Example: Textbooks for Change) – Partner with student groups/clubs to collect used textbooks at the end of each semester. Students donate their used textbooks. Some of the textbooks are re-sold to students at the college/university of their collection source; some of the textbooks are donated to students in need at underserved universities in the developing world. The profits are split between the student groups/clubs, program administration costs, and any remaining funds are used to support social programs in developing communities.
Online Socially Conscious Marketplace
(Business Model: Market Connector. Example: Etsy and Uncommon Goods) — Help underserved artisans sell their products to the world by building a platform that makes it easy for them. Artisans can either manage their online store directly, or the platform can act merely as a listing service that connects the artisans face-to-face with buyers.
Revenue is created by either charging listing fees directly to the artisan, via a commission on goods sold, or built-in as a premium fee to the buyer. The profit generated can be used to fund social services that directly affect the artisan communities.
(Business Model: Fee for Service. Example: EOS International) — To replicate a model like EOS International, pinpoint regions with a high need for clean drinking water and implement a low-cost, low-maintenance water purification technology that can be easily attached to existing water tanks.
This system should efficiently inactivate pathogens, preferably without the need for external energy sources, like EOS’ chlorine purification tablets. Beyond installation, incorporate an educational component to teach locals how to use, maintain, and repair the technology. This guarantees the project’s sustainability and empowers the community. For example, EOS’ impact model includes a program to empower local entrepreneurs to earn income by distributing chlorine tablets, which boost local incomes and also financially supports EOS to continue expanding clean water initiatives.
(Business Model: Market Connector. Example: Kiva or FINCA) — Create a platform for individuals and organizations to lend money directly to entrepreneurs who would otherwise not get funding, such as those in the developing world. Charge a small fee to cover the operational costs.
(Business Model: Market Connector. Example: Start Some Good) – Build a platform for social entrepreneurs to find groups of funders. Similar to the Micro Lending platform, but lenders take a promise of something in the future in return for ‘donating’ a bit of money to the Social Entrepreneur’s project now. Charge a small fee to cover the operational costs of the platform.
Baking/Cooking for a Social Cause
(Business Model: Employment and Skills Training. Example: Edgar and Joe’s) – Open a bakery/restaurant or another food-providing establishment that focuses on building employment skills for underemployed groups, such as at-risk youth or former drug addicts. The profit from sales of food and beverage go to wages, training, and social betterment programs for the staff-beneficiaries.
Efficient Wood Stoves for Developing World
(Business Model: Cross-Compensation. Example: Bio Lite) – Millions of women in developing countries suffer from cardiopulmonary diseases as a direct result of breathing in wood smoke on a daily basis. Build a more efficient stove to solve this problem. Sell the stoves at or above market rate to those who can afford it, and use the money from the sale of the stoves to partly subsidize the cost for those who cannot afford it.
Social Awareness Brand
(Business Model: Independent Support. Example: Beautiful In Every Shade) — Start by identifying a powerful, inclusive message that resonates with a broad audience, like celebrating the beauty in diversity. Develop an appealing and distinctive logo or insignia that symbolizes your message, akin to the work of artist Chris Charles for Beautiful In Every Shade.
Launch with a signature product, such as an iconic tee, which acts as a canvas to spread your message. Your brand’s success will come from not just the products you sell, but the powerful message they convey and the community they build.
Micro Power Generation
(Business Model: Fee for Service. Examples: Husk Power) – Provide micro-electric solutions for remote applications in the developing world. Two ways you could do this are to create a stand-alone power system from used, rechargeable batteries to power classrooms. Or, you could create a mini power plant that uses biomass produced by the humans, plants, and animals of an off-grid village. These types of systems are very cheap to build and implement and can be paid for on a fee-for-usage basis. This idea might also lend itself well as a cooperative.
Socially Conscious Consumer Electronics
(Business Model: Fee for Service and Market Intermediary. Examples: Fair Phone.) Build a new kind of consumer electronic device; one that is built with conflict-free materials, provides fair wages to the workers who build it, offers a fair and transparent price for the end consumer, and does not engage in unfair consumer practices (such as locking smartphones, or creating proprietary software/hardware interfaces).
(Business Model: Cooperative. Example: First Book) — Focus on the mission of providing equitable educational resources to children from low-income backgrounds. Begin by building a strong network of educators and program leaders, aiming to create the largest online community in this sector. This network is crucial for identifying the needs and gaps in resources across various communities.
Focus on collecting and distributing high-quality educational materials, such as books, learning aids, and digital resources. These should be sourced to suit a diverse range of backgrounds and educational settings, particularly targeting underprivileged areas.
Develop partnerships with publishers, educational organizations, and donors to source these materials, either through donations or at reduced costs. Implement a scalable model that allows you to reach a wide demographic, to impact millions of children annually. The success of this model hinges on the effective distribution of resources, which will allow them to reach the classrooms and educational programs where they are most needed.
Ultra-Modern Technology to Attract Economic Development
(Business Model: Fee for Service. Cooperative. Example: O-Net) A small community normally doesn’t have much to offer a business, unless you make it a place that has the best business service in one area. For instance, you could create an internet service that is owned by the community and provides internet access at ten-times the bandwidth for the same price as those in another community would have to pay. The cost could be subsidized by the community, but it would attract high-tech businesses to locate in the community, fueling the local economy and benefiting everyone in it.
Beauty Products to Support a Social Mission
(Business Model: Independent Support. Example: Bottle 4 Bottle.) Partner with major beauty brands to sell their products as an online retailer. Convince them to provide their products to you at a favorable wholesale rate, and divert the profits to purchasing milk and baby bottles for distribution in the developing world.
A Virtual Factory of Computer Workers
(Business Model: Employment and Skills Training. Example: Cloud Factory.) Build an online community of computer workers, hired from underemployed communities. Train each of them to do one computer-related thing well (ie. writing functions in a particular programming language, translating code for a specific and common API, etc.) Combine dozens of them to complete a product, such as a website, for a client that would normally only require 1 or 2 people. Because each person is highly micro-specialized, the larger team forms as a virtual ‘assembly line’ to finish the project faster, cheaper, and with a higher quality standard than the traditional method of locally hiring or outsourcing a broad-range knowledge worker. Virtual assembly line workers enjoy employment with higher wages than they would normally receive doing menial work.
A Marketplace for Social Good
(Business Model: Market Intermediary. Example: Ten Thousand Villages.) — Sell socially and ethically conscious products in a virtual or real environment. By purchasing these products from the producers, the social good flows down the logistics chain to the beneficiaries, and consumers can find a bunch of the products they want in a convenient shopping format.
Exercise Equipment for Social Outreach
(Business Model: Fee for Service and Cross-Compensation. Example: Rubber Banditz.) Sell a piece of exercise equipment that is simple to use and affordable. Promote the equipment as an alternative to full gym access for those who can’t afford it. Use profits and product to subsidize outreach programs that promote healthy living, thus promoting healthy living to two underserved groups: direct customers and outreach participants.
Educational Travel Company
(Business Model: Fee for Service. Examples: Think Impact.) — Start a company that brings together travelers with experiences that provide an intercultural learning experience and a positive social impact on a local community. Profits are recycled back into the communities they affect.
Food for Philanthropy
(Business Model: Independent Support. Examples: Newman’s Own.) — Create a food company that provides an already needed/wanted product and use the profits to support philanthropic work. The company is easily scalable and can focus on just one product line/charity, or can be easily scaled to provide multiple food products and support a variety of charities.
Social Products and Employment for the underserved
(Business Model: Employment and Skills Training, Fee for Service. Example: Jobs for Humanity.) Source one or several social good products (clean cookstoves, affordable power solutions for the developing world), and hire an underemployed group to sell these products to their community on a commission basis. It’s both a distribution/marketing method and a way to employ underemployed populations.
Water for everyone!
(Business model: Cross-compensation. Example: Soma Water.) Create a home water filtration solution that you sell to the first world, and use the proceeds of these sales to provide the same (or similar) solution to the developing world. As a bonus, use environmentally friendly materials and processes in the creation of the product.
Micro-Giving for easy philanthropy
(Business Model: Cross-compensation or independent support. Example: B1G1.) Partner with businesses and have them donate micro amounts of products/money to a social cause for every transaction they enter. For example, set up a relationship with a baker. And for every loaf of bread they sell, have them donate a handful of flour (or monetary equivalent) to a food-aid organization in the developing world.