Here’s my one wish for social enterprise in 2016: that community is at its heart.

What this means is that all of the work done by and for social enterprises should be centred around “the aspirations and assets of a community”, as a SET member so wonderfully put to me recently.


It may seem like an unnecessary wish – aren’t social and environmental goals at the heart of social enterprise work anyway? Isn’t this work all about improving the lives of people today and tomorrow?

In theory, yes. But only rarely in practice, when we look at the daily reality of much of the work that falls under ‘social enterprise’. Most conversations around social entrepreneurship and social innovation are conducted without any sign of people who really face the challenges we seek to address. To a lesser extent this is true of social entrepreneurs as well, particularly those who choose to focus on social return over financial profit.

There are many reasons for this exclusion, but one in particular is worth mentioning. That is the lack of definition around what we mean by social enterprise. This has been hotly debated and has been helpful in growing the field – but lack of clarity hurts both enterprises and investors when making key decisions. A nonprofit board member and potential impact investor both see risk in fuzziness, and as a result promising ideas die because of lack of support and funding (often a cyclical relationship).

This trend has also led to a patchwork quilt of social enterprise support initiatives that is bewildering for even experienced professionals to navigate – all too frequently, people don’t know who to turn to for advice, funding and other support. (Poor collaboration is a different, although equally pressing, topic altogether.) The marketplace has steadily evolved in sophistication, with social enterprises and intermediaries addressing (almost) all kinds of needs and at every level. But how many industry associations can we point to?

Who speaks for social enterprise?

Who speaks to social enterprises?

Who speaks to the people who are supposedly benefiting?

We already know social enterprises can and often are already fighting poverty, providing decent work, fostering dignity. Arguably, inclusive prosperity is not just a local but also global challenge and we can make real links between marginalization and widespread dissatisfaction. “Social enterprise” is not and should never be thought of as a silver bullet, but it holds the promise to make a real difference. That promise is let down when we think social enterprise is just about revenue generation, and also when we make our conversations so inaccessible that they are closed to all but a rarefied segment.

So here’s my one wish for 2016: let’s make our work about the lived experiences of those we seek to support.

This post is part of the Sector Dialogue series, supported by the Metcalf Foundation.

Photo credit: