Social Enterprises

Eli Stefanski, executive director of the Maine Women’s Fund, responds to my post about getting rid of the term nonprofit:

The re-defining of the sector seems to be in the air… again… I just received an email from an old colleague at Ashoka; in it, her tagline read: "Ashoka is a citizen sector organization (CSO), not a non-profit: Defined by what we are, rather than by what we are not. Learn more at"

I like defining yourself by what you are rather than what you are not. But in my experience, definition of the sector has been some what of a turf war. The "social enterprise" folks argued that the "social entrepreneur" folks should change their taxonomy because there was no money making involved, i.e. no enterprise. I like your dictionary definition which is for sure broader, but a few groups have already laid out stake in that ground and its a tedious debate to dig into.

Personally, I’ve always liked the concept of social capital — unlike profit, it relates equally to financial and human assets.

Though again, I’m not sure it matters all that much — factions have been trying to redefine the sector regularly for the last 20 years. Some of us simply define our community promise in what we do and how we account for it rather than what we call ourselves.

And reader Michael Vitali suggests:

How about Social Investment Organizations?

Vaccines, education, etc., (to use Gaudiani’s examples) all represent "investments" in our social infrastructure in the hopes of paying "dividends" in the future.

Eli makes a good point; what we do is far more important than what we call it. But I think that language often is an important element in driving what we do and how we act. Think of the difference in the following phrases; “civil union” vs. “marriage” and “pro-life” vs. “anti-choice”. Those are some powerful words. What we call things can be very important indeed.

Why do these words elicit “turf wars”? Because they define the approach that the sector will take. How we truly are can often be understood best by thinking about what we call ourselves.

Claire Gaudiani clearly states what she thinks “nonprofits” should be called. I don’t have a firm name in mind. I think the sector is still evolving and prefer an inclusive word like social enterprise with the broad definition of enterprise that I gave yesterday. But I’m open to other ideas.

Keep leaving your comments and ideas. Behind each of our own suggestions, I think we can see a bit into our own views of the sector. Words are powerful.


  1. Michael Vitali says:

    What we call it influences what we do by casting a different kind of light on it. That light colors the reactions of those we are trying to affect or attract.

    Framing and reframing are often used to sway opinion in desired directions. Thus, “death tax” as a negative reframing of “estate tax.”

    Obviously, action is more important than labeling. But what to call an endeavor is still quite important, particularly in a world where human attention is ever more at a premium.

  2. Jeremy Gregg says:

    The only distinction about an NPO vs an LLC or other for-profit corporation is tax status, which is dictated by who “owns” the organization.

    I suggest “Community Owned Organization.” It would be coo’.


  3. Nick Temple says:

    I’m strongly in favour of not dwelling on the debate over definitions. Particularly as, increasingly, the boundaries between sectors/legal structures are becoming more and more blurred. In the future, it will be about the clarity of your aims, the quality of what you do, and the transparency of how you act and communicate that is important, regardless of your legal structure/governance/earned income ratio.

    Still, if you are interested in the social entrepreneur / enterprise debate, there’s a few posts on the SSE blog (search for ‘definition’) and our Generally, we favour a broader definition of social entrepreneur / entrepreneurship, rather than one that excludes or could be accused of elitism. Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, and so do social entrepreneurs.