Social enterprise can generally be defined as a ʻbusinessʼ with a social mission, the goal of generating revenue and profits, and using innovative and creative means (such as collaboration with all sectors of the economy) to advance itself. Social enterprises can take many different forms, from museum gift shops, institutions of higher education, and nonprofit opera companies to socially conscious firms like Google, cooperatives like Florida Natural, or social entrepreneurial projects like Newmanʼs Own food products.
Social Enterprise London defines social enterprise as “a business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners” and also uses three main characteristics to define social enterprises: 1. Enterprise orientation: They are directly involved in producing goods or providing services to a market. They seek to be viable trading organizations, with an operating surplus. 2. Social Aims: They have explicit social aims such as job creation, training or the provision of local services. They have ethical values and are accountable to their members and the wider community for their social environmental and economic impact. 3. Social ownership: They are autonomous organizations with governance and ownership structures based on participation by stakeholder groups (users or clients, local community groups etc.) or by trustees. Profits are distributed as profit sharing to stakeholders or used for the benefit of the community.
The North American Social Enterprise Alliance similarly defines social enterprise as describing any non-profit, for-profit or hybrid corporate form that utilizes market-based strategies to advance a social mission or, “an organization or venture that advances its social mission through entrepreneurial earned income strategies”.