There is a growing interest in a new kind of business that is now being referred to as a “social business” or “social enterprise” (I am going to use the former terminology.) I’d like to explain and unpackage this idea a bit and contrast different definitions/perspectives.
The key difference between a social business and a traditional business is that a social business explicitly sets expectations with investors (usually in its bylaws) that it will simultaneously pursue two objectives — (1) specific positive social impacts/”returns”; and (2) financial returns. Generally, social businesses “warn” investors that the financial returns may be negatively impacted by the social objectives and therefore they seek investors who understand and support these dual objectives when they make their investment. By definition a business must be ultimately self-sustaining … that is, generate a profit/surplus which can allow the organization to continue without indefinite infusions of investor capital. I say “ultimately” because many businesses have periods of operating losses as they startup or pursue periods of forward investing with the goal of being more sustainable long-term.
So far so good. Then the definitions of social businesses by different people start to diverge.
Non-Profits and Earned Income. There are a few people which consider non-profit organizations which have income generating activities to qualify as social businesses, but most agree that while these may be good activities they are not in themselves social businesses as they continue to rely on donor income to be sustained. I think it is increasingly important for the viability of most non-profits to have a diversity of income sources which include earned income.
Self-Sustaining Non-Profits. There are a number of institutions which have explicit missions to “do good” and have sufficient resources/income to be self-sustaining. These include private foundations, endowments (e.g. universities) and, more recently, operating businesses organized in a trust-type format. An example of the latter are a number of successful microfinance banks which generate profits, often are subject to tax, but are run by trustees (as there are no shareholders) who by law cannot have a personal benefit from the organization. Generally, the foundations and endowments are not considered social businesses even though some of them do have some operational components. For true operating businesses run inside non-share capital structures, these are increasingly viewed as social businesses even though they may face future limitations due to their inability to accept investor equity capital.
Corporate Philanthropy. Many companies have initiatives to “do good.” Some organizations commit a specific [small] % of corporate profits to these initiatives. Examples of companies which have institutionalized this are Ben & Jerry’s, Google (1% of equity, 1%profits) and RealNetworks (5% of profits). These come under what’s known in the business world as the “corporate social responsibility” category. Generally, these initiatives are separate and unrelated to the company’s business. There is much debate about whether these are essentially public relations efforts vs. serious attempts to make a meaningful/optimized social impact. See my post on Bill Gates on Creative Capitalism. Most people agree that simply having some “do good” social programs do not make the business a social business.
Yunus Definition of Social Business. In Muhammad Yunus’ latest book, he argues for a much narrower view of a social business. He proposes that only two types of businesses are true social businesses: (i) businesses owned primarily/exclusively by the poor; and (ii) businesses where investors are limited to only receive back their invested capital and no more. He says that type (i) provide social impact through the returns they provide to the poor through shareholding and don’t necessarily need to have a social mission (although having one would make them an even better social business.) For type (ii), he argues that if the investors have any potential for return above their investment that this will always trump any social objectives.
“Hybrid” Social Business. Then there’s a form of social business which has clear objectives for both social impact and financial return. One of the most prominent examples are the many “for-profit” microfinance businesses sprouting up around the globe. These businesses explicitly operate as businesses (with investor capital) and focus on providing valuable products and services to the poor (if not the poorest) citizens/communities. Some argue that these are simply “regular” businesses which happen to focus on a certain market segment … the poor. In some cases, businesses which focus on the poor/vulnerable are exploitive … e.g. moneylenders and their re-branded breathern, pay day loan providers. While there definitely are exploitive business models, there are a growing number of examples of businesses which genuinely seek a material positive social impact. [I will cover some controversial examples of highly profitable microfinance banks in a separate posting.] There are a growing number of social investors who are seeking out quality social businesses of this nature … a good example is Good Capital.
[There are some businesses which have a more indirect impact on a population ... example is mobile telcom operators which appear to increase GDP in emerging markets as subscriber penetration increases ... Merrill Lynch report 0.59% increase in GDP for every 10% increase in mobile penetration ... but generally these are not seen as social businesses.]
Why I Like the “Hybrid” Social Business Model
While I have a lot of respect for one of my current day heroes, Muhammad Yunus, I disagree with his narrow view of a social business because I think it is too limiting on the potential for social impact through the social business construct. Here are a few of my thoughts:
- Investor expectations do matter. If you select investors who are incompatible with your objectives (e.g. they don’t value your social impacts), you’re going to have a challenge keeping focused on your social objectives. But, this is true for any business … you need to find the right investors and set expectations very clearly.
- Investors take a portfolio approach. Almost all investors seek to have some diversity in their investment portfolio in order to mitigate risk. If I want to be a social business investor, I’m going to want to invest in multiple social businesses realizing that returns/results will vary. So, if I invest in 10 social businesses and 5 fail (no return, not unusual), 3 have modest returns and 2 have strong returns, I have less risk. I also potentially receive my capital back plus a return (both financial and social.) This means that the successful social businesses are overcompensating me in return (financial and social) and the unsuccessful social businesses are undercompensating me. If I agreed to only received my invested capital back with no financial upside, then I would be losing 50% of my invested capital in this scenario and this should be structured a charitable donation.
- Social entrepreneurs may serially fail. As noted above, it is not uncommon for 50% of businesses (any type of business) to fail. Let’s say we have a very eager social entrepreneurs who starts 5 social business which fail and it’s only her 6th social business which succeeds. Let’s say that she creates huge personal indebtedness in starting the all of these businesses. Why shouldn’t she be able to have a reasonable financial return on the 6th business in order to compensate her for the risk and expense she took in developing all of these businesses? Aren’t we going to dissuade social entrepreneurs from the necessary risk-taking if they have no financial upside from their personal investment?
- Accessing investment capital. While there is a considerable amount of money in foundations, donor advised funds and other like pools, these funds represent a very small amount of the overall investment capital pool. Most people need/expect to earn a financial return if they are going to commit monies from [their much larger] investment capital “pocket” (vs. their much smaller philanthropic pocket.) So, if you want to attract this capital, you need to offer a financial return even if it is potentially somewhat lowered due to the additional social impact return objective.
Since I believe that social businesses should not be artificially limited in their ability to provide financial returns to investors and staff, I am going to use the term “social business” (with the “hybrid” adjective) going forward to refer to businesses which have an explicit and material social objective in their DNA.