Most business owners hope to make a positive difference in the world. To varying degrees, many of them do. However, the drive to build a company that has a direct social impact has led to it becoming a loaded term where not all social enterprises are created equal.

Generally speaking, a social enterprise is one that puts business tools to use in meeting a social need. This could be bringing technologies to remote regions of the world or reducing waste while helping people in need. A social enterprise can overlap with social innovation, which is a term that describes a business finding innovative ways to address social needs.

However, a business doesn't have to be community service-oriented to make a difference in the world. In fact, the global economy has reached a tipping point where emerging markets are now taking center stage, with every business now having the potential to seriously impact society. This goes beyond charitable organizations to include businesses of all sizes in banking, mobile communications, utilities, and more.

Whether through the services they deliver, their employment practices, or through their other activities, today's businesses have an impact on society. Here are a few examples of how various types of companies enact social change in the work they do.

Traditional Nonprofits

By their very definition, nonprofits exist to provide a service without making a profit. Any money these organizations make must be reinvested into the cost of furthering their mission. One example of a nonprofit social enterprise is the March of Dimes, which puts resources toward preventing premature births. This organization has a history dating back to 1938, but like many other nonprofits, it continues to make a difference across the world with the work its employees do, saving the healthcare system an estimated $70 billion or more by 2020.


In recent years, a new option has become available to for-profit businesses enacting social change. The B-Corp classification is given to companies that meet a set list of requirements, including transparency in the socially-conscious work they do. Ben & Jerry's is not only on the list of B-Corp businesses, but it also prides itself in being a pioneer in corporations having a social mission equal to its product development and economic efforts. In addition to sustainability, the ice cream maker strives to create social change by supporting initiatives that help eliminate injustices. This is in addition to activities the company organizes in coordination with its employees.

Mission-First Businesses

Unlike most businesses, mission-first companies are oriented around a socially impactful mission, but operate as a for-profit enterprise. Although they generate revenue, the emphasis is always on making change. In this model, growth is a means to making a larger impact. The ability to interweave profit with impact helps these businesses grow, innovate, and take risks, which are all components of very successful companies overall.

LeadGenius is an example of a mission-first business, with its platform combining artificial intelligence with human resources to support business-to-business sales and marketing teams. The company has teams of skilled researchers operating in 41 countries. LeadGenius' mission is to provide fair trade digital work to skilled individuals across the globe. LeadGenius was an inaugural signer of the Good Work Code, leading the movement to define fair work best practices in the digital economy.

Socially Responsible Businesses

Socially responsible businesses may not put social impact first, but they realize the many benefits of being community minded. By operating with a conscience, they show their concern for the environment, as well as the health of the community where they are located.

Patagonia is an example of a business that emphasizes the importance of social responsibility as an add-on to the work it does. As a result, the company sets the tone as an environmentally-conscious organization that cares about its customers and the future of the planet as a whole. This provides brand exposure without constant product marketing.

Big Donors

Instead of sending a social message, large corporations can opt to put their effort behind financial contributions. Many large companies make charities a part of their annual activities, both for the positive impact it makes and the tax deduction they receive for it. Salesforce has adopted a 1-1-1 philosophy, which has the company donating one percent of its earnings, one percent of its products, and one percent of employee time to various charitable causes it supports. Considering Salesforce has a $73 billion market cap, the math demonstrates that this donation makes a serious difference in the world. The corporation focuses its own efforts on education, with grants that go directly to the very communities where its employees live and work.

Although social enterprise is a term widely used today, it can cover a full range of business activities. Social impact initiatives are also evolving as organizations realize they don't have to choose just one way to engage in community-minded activities. They can employ a blend of the above methods that better meet their mission and help them further their brand reputation.