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Source: Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, Vancity Community Foundation, TimReview

What is a social enterprise?

A social enterprise is a revenue-generating organization whose objective is to have a social impact. Definitions of “social enterprise” vary, but there is no unified definition in Canada. For our purposes, social enterprises fall into a wide spectrum of business models.

A social enterprise does not have a specific corporate form. Social enterprises include “non-profit organizations” or “registered charities” who operate revenue generating related businesses, and include organizations that operate as “for-profit” businesses with a social goal.

You can operate a social enterprise in the corporate form that suits you best, whether it is more socially or commercially focused. In the graph below, social enterprises fall anywhere between a “charity operating a related business” and a “business corporation with social purpose.”

Source: TimReview The entrepreneurship spectrum illustrating the boundaries of social entrepreneurship

Social enterprise business models

Social enterprises apply business solutions to social problems. The ultimate goal is to achieve sustainability by enabling non-profits to support themselves financially in innovative ways instead of relying solely on grants and donations. Since there are no shareholders in a non-profit organization, the profits from the related social enterprise are completely re-invested in the work of the organization.

The emergence of revenue-generating activities for non-profits has created a new operating model where business principles, market characteristics and values (competition, diversification, entrepreneurship, innovation, and a focus on the bottom line) co-exist and work with traditional public sector values like responsiveness to community and serving the public interest. Essential to the success of a social enterprise is an effective business model.

A business model includes two key elements:

  1. an operating strategy that includes internal organizational structure and external partnerships that are crucial for creating the organization’s intended impact; and,
  2. a resource strategy that defines where and on what terms the organization will acquire the resources (financial and human) it needs to do its work.

The business model for a social enterprise is the channel that the social entrepreneur converts inputs into outcomes; the generation of both social value (measurable impact) and economic value (revenue).

A social enterprise can be integrated with the non-profit organization in one of several ways:


  •  The enterprise and the social program are one and the same
  • The business is created to serve clients (central to the mission)


  • The business activities overlap with the social programs
  • The business is created as a funding mechanism and to expand/enhance the mission of the organization


  • Social and business activities are separate and may or may not be related to the mission of the organization
  • The business is created mainly as a funding mechanism to support social activities

Virtue Ventures provides an excellent summary of the various types of business models that are summarized in the table below. These social enterprise business models can be applied equally to institutions, programs, or service delivery. These models are designed in accordance with the social enterprises’ financial and social objectives, mission, marketplace dynamics, client needs or capabilities and legal environment. Most of the business models are embedded within the organization.

Business modelHow it worksExamplesKey success factors
Entrepreneur supportSells business support to its target population.Microfinance organizations, consulting, or tech supportAppropriate training for the entrepreneur
Market intermediaryProvide services to clients to help them access markets.Supply cooperatives like fair trade, agriculture, and handicraft organizationsLow start-up costs, allows clients to stay and work in their community
EmploymentProvide employment opportunity and job training to clients and then sells its products or services on the open market.Disabilities or youth organizations providing work opportunities in landscape, cafes, printing, or other businessJob training appropriateness and commercial viability
Free-for-serviceSelling social services directly to clients or a third-party payer.Membership organizations, museums, and clinicsEstablishing the appropriate fee structure vis a vis the benefits
Low-income clientSimilar to fee-for-service in terms of offering services to clients but focuses on providing access to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.Healthcare (prescriptions, eyeglasses), utility programsCreative distribution systems, lower production and marketing costs, high operating efficiencies
CooperativeProvides members with benefits through collective services.Bulk purchasing, collective bargaining (union), agricultural coops, credit unionsMembers have common interests/needs, are key stakeholders, and investors
Market linkageFacilitates trade relationships between clients and the external market.Import-export, market research, and broker servicesDoes not sell clients’ products but connects clients to markets
Service subsidizationSells products or services to an external market to help fund other social programs. This model is integrated with the non-profit organization; the business activities and social programs overlap.Consulting, counselling, employment training, leasing, printing services, and so forthCan leverage tangible assets (buildings, land, employees) or intangible (expertise, methodologies, or relationships)
Organizational supportSimilar to service subsidization, but applying the external model; business activities are separate from social programsSimilar to service subsidization– implement any type of business that leverages its assetsSimilar to service subsidization.

If you want to launch a social enterprise you should ensure that:

Source: Doing Well While Doing Good: How to Launch a Successful Social Purpose

  1. It is a good fit with the agency
  2. You know your industry
  3. You treat your enterprise as a business
  4. You hire the right people
  5. You set realistic expectations
  6. You improve your financial literacy

You should also consider the following questions:

  • How can you tell if your group is ready to embark on a social enterprise?
  • What are the steps in a social enterprise planning process?
  • How do you identify and assess enterprise opportunities?
  • How do you plan for a social enterprise?
  • How can you measure social returns in a business setting?
  • What do you need to know about the legal context?

Source:, The Canadian Social Enterprise Guide

Download PDF of the 2nd Edition of Canadian Social Enterprise Guide.

For more information about developing a business model, download the MaRS workbook, Business model design. The information and exercises will help you design a business model by working through the key variables in executing a market strategy—competitionpartnershipdistributionpricing and positioning.