Social Enterprise Definition Debate: Is tweaking capitalism enough?

December 2, 2015

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the FewI admit that I have been on both sides of the debate about the definition of social enterprise: sometimes staunchly defending it as critical and essential, and at others times avoiding it as not pertinent and a waste of our time.

But now I realize it is important that we do define social enterprise. Because the argument is not about the meaning of social enterprise itself, it is not just about describing an alternative business model. Defining social enterprise is all about determining the values of the marketplace we wish to create.

In his new book Robert Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few helped me focus on the social enterprise debate. He argues that “The central choice is not between the “free market” and government; it is between a market organized for broadly based prosperity and one designed to deliver almost all the gains to a few at the top.” His goal to adjust the prosperity gap is great, but his method that if we change the rules, and let government direct the market then we can level the playing field, falls short.

Taxing the wealthy, limiting the power of banks, establishing a living wage, annual guaranteed incomes, and many other schemes for adjusting the current wealth distribution through government interventions are all valuable objectives, in the short term. But only using government rules and regulations to adjust the controls and influence the current private-wealth focused market will not offer an enduring solution.

Building a social value into the marketplace requires establishing the foundations of a business model that exemplifies a social impact principle. So insuring that the definition and measurement of social enterprise success includes both social impact and capital re-investment becomes emblematic of a dramatic shift in why and how we trade; and implicitly directs a social value result into our marketplace transactions.

Relying on government rule changes or letting any ‘good’ business be a social enterprise is just tweaking the underlying values the current marketplace. And in the long term, just tweaking the wealth-driven marketplace of capitalism will do as much good as assuring that the food banks are all well stocked!

To substantially and permanently address issues of poverty, social exclusion, and employment challenges requires adjusting the value base of the market itself.

We have to decide– will we regulate morality in a market that is based on trading in the pursuit of private wealth or use social enterprise to stimulate and fashion a market that creates a healthy local economy?

Originally published December 2, 2015 on

David LePageDavid LePage is a Principal with Accelerating Social Impact CCC, Ltd. (ASI), one of Canada’s first ever hybrid corporations. ASI CCC was created to serve and promote the emerging blended value business and social finance sectors. David works as a consultant, trainer and advisor with a cross section of social enterprises, social purpose businesses and social impact investors. He is a founder of Buy Social Canada, an initiative to promote social purchasing and social enterprise certification.

David is the Chair of the Social Enterprise Council of Canada. He serves as a Program Adjunct to the Sandermoen School of Business MBA in Social Enterprise Leadership. He is a member of the Social Enterprise World Forum Steering Group, the Canadian CED Network’s Policy Council, Imagine Canada’s Advisory Committee, and the BC Partners for Social Impact. He is also a Board member of the Vancouver Farmer’s Market and a Board member of Ethelo Decisions. David is the former Team Manager of enp-BC and played a lead role in the development of enp-Canada.