What is Social Enterprise?

I was recently invited to be part of the Beyond Sports Summit, in Philadelphia to help the audience answer one question – What is Social Enterprise? I want to give you an answer to that question too.  It’s a question that keeps coming up, and I don’t think it’s going away any time soon.

A little background

I’ve worked with several different social enterprise support services in London over the past couple of years, and had the privilege to know and work with a number of social entrepreneurs over that time.  When the organising team contacted me to answer the “what is social enterprise” question, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

You see, even for us in the social enterprise industry, we don’t all have one strict definition that everyone around the world agrees on.  We do all have a sense of what it means, and I’ll give you my answer:

Social Enterprises use financially sustainable business models to solve social problems.  

Wikipedia says Social Enterprises apply “commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximising profits for external shareholders.”

I like my answer better.  

The event was mainly attended by professionals who run NGOs, not-for-profits, and charities that use sport to solve social problems.  From large programs that run throughout Africa, like Grassroots Soccer, to the organisers of the event, StreetFootballWorld, that connect all of these organisations together.

After explaining that no one really knows exactly what social enterprise is, I said it’s better to learn from examples.  I then introduced Street Soccer USA founder and president, Lawrence Cann, to share his experience of social entrepreneurship.

In summary, Lawrence took events that Street Soccer USA was already running, and turned them into a service.  Participants, who were not vulnerably housed or homeless, could pay to join street football matches in places like Time Square, New York.  The revenue generated goes back to help the mission of Street Soccer USA.

Some sports for social benefit organisations set up entirely new trading arms, that return profits to their charitable arms.  Think for example about Luke Dowdney, who set up the professional clothing brand, Luta, to deliver 50% of it’s profits back into the charity he founded, Fight For Peace.

I interviewed  Luke and wrote more about Luta and Fight For Peace earlier this year.

Also in the audience at the event was Santiago Halty.  Santiago set up Senda Athletic, making Fair Trade footballs in Pakistan. It’s an easy to understand business model for social benefit.  If everyone used and bought Senda Fair Trade Footballs, then more workers in Pakistan would be paid a fair wage for their work.

After talking through a couple more social enterprise examples from the sports world, we separated into three smaller workshop groups.  One group discussed social investment, one group worked on overcoming challenges, and one on how to actually get started.

It was a real pleasure to work with the Beyond Soccer team, and I certainly believe we helped the world of soccer for social benefit become a little more entrepreneurial.

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