Marketing and Sales

Social Enterprise Messaging Guidelines


REDF commissioned APCO Worldwide to develop messaging guidelines for organizations and other stakeholders helping those facing the greatest barriers to work get jobs through social enterprise. The goal was not to develop a new definition, but to help normalize the term and equip the network with specific recommendations to communicate a more unified message. Ultimately, the goal is to increase awareness and excitement about this field among community leaders, funders, business leaders, consumers and government officials. These guidelines build on prior work including “Preserving the Meaning of Social Enterprise,” by Jim Schorr and Kevin Lynch and “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition,” by Roger L. Martin & Sally Osberg, both pieces published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review.


The Process

Throughout the development of these guidelines, it was a priority to make it an inclusive process, to ensure the output reflected the best thinking and to boost the uptake of the messaging once the final deliverable was complete. In May 2014, we launched the project at the REDF Social Enterprise Leadership Convening. In June 2014, APCO Worldwide conducted a communications and messaging survey of people working with social enterprise. More than 60 people completed the web-based survey, which included both closed and openended questions. The process also included a review of previous works related to the topic of defining social enterprise. The results were used to inform a series of 15 in-depth interviews. These interviews were conducted with practitioners, government officials, funders and business partners actively involved in the social enterprise field. We selected many of these stakeholders based on recommendations we received from the survey. We are grateful to the many social enterprise stakeholders who contributed their time and wisdom to inform this process.


What is a social enterprise?

There are currently inconsistencies in how people use the term social enterprise, but there is agreement that social enterprises leverage a business approach to address a social mission.

What are social enterprises focused on employment?

Employment focused social enterprises are defined as:

Social enterprises are mission-driven businesses focused on hiring and assisting people who face barriers to work.

These social enterprises:

  • Earn and reinvest their revenue to help provide more people with jobs to build skills and a career path.
  • Help people who are willing and able to work, but have the hardest time getting jobs.
  • In doing so, they enable people to realize their full potential through a more financially sustainable and cost-effective model than many workforce development programs.
  • Use a demand-driven approach to meet employer needs.

What are social enterprises focused on employment not?

Just as important as defining what a social enterprise is, is defining what it is not.

Social enterprises are not any nonprofit doing innovative work. Both social entrepreneurship and social innovation are broader terms that reflect new approaches to addressing social problems, not necessarily via an earned-income business approach.

Social enterprises are also not all businesses with charitable campaigns or with social outcomes. While important, businesses that simply donate to charitable causes or whose core business happens to also achieve some positive social outcomes are not social enterprises. A core focus on achieving (and measuring) the social impact of the organization is crucial.


Key Terms

Based on conversations with key industry leaders over the past several months, we identified the following key words and phrases being used to describe social enterprises. As appropriate, these buzzwords can be highlighted to reiterate key points that will resonate with most audiences. Examples include:


Key Terms


Overall guidelines:

  1. Research your audience prior to speaking of your organization’s goals.
  2. Arm yourself with at least three data points and real-life examples of your work.
  3. Emphasize both the social and the enterprise pieces.
  4. Showcase the multifaceted benefits of the social enterprise model, prioritized based on the audience.
  5. Do not define a social enterprise as either a non-profit or for-profit organization.


Communicating to Business

In communicating to any business partner, emphasize what makes you a smarter and differentiated business choice (e.g., committed/enthusiastic employees, innovation, selling a unique product). Great social enterprises speak in business terms and can demonstrate success as it relates to customers, sales and the bottom line. Proving the organization as a viable business choice is crucial in order to secure and maintain long-term business relationships.  Anecdotal accolades should be supplemented with metrics demonstrating a track record of success, including sales and revenue. Highlight that sourcing from social enterprises can be brand enhancing and may appeal to both consumers and employees.

Initial Sell

Initially, provide light touch opportunities to get engaged and this will often lead to deeper engagement. Whenever possible, bring prospective business partners to you versus going to them. Words can rarely express what visuals can and seeing the impact and the professionalism will leave a lasting impression. This includes providing the opportunity for business partners to meet those served by the programs. By providing an opportunity to get to know the program participants, you can help begin to shift prospective partners’ views and stereotypes.

Tailor Your Message Based on Your Offering and Audience

Given that artisanal goods are generally not seen as a necessity, and gaining attention apart from competition means differentiating oneself based on deeper messaging about characteristics, we heard from those surveyed that the faces behind the work and the social mission should be at the forefront. Conversely, social enterprises that offer a service will largely be competing from a more straightforward and economical perspective, prompting the need to focus on efficiency and the business solution the social enterprise offers, with the societal element as a support point.


Hierarchical ranking of proof points, based on offering


In addition to differentiating your message based on your offering, tailor your communication based on who you are speaking to within the business. For example, procurement is likely to be more interested in how you can compete in terms of efficiency and price. Those in CSR or HR function in the company may be particularly interested in the social mission. At the executive level, a hybrid-approach may resonate best.

When speaking to procurement, focus on efficiency and price.

When speaking to HR or SCR, focus on the social mission.

When speaking to executives, use a hybrid approach.



Communicating to Consumers

For most goods and services, the market is saturated with options, making the need to properly position one’s offering to consumers from both an economical (of good value) and humanitarian perspective. More than just the actual product, with consumers, building an appealing branding campaign is key. It’s about showcasing the all-around company and mission, not just the benefits of a particular good or service.

In order to sufficiently appeal to consumers’ buying habits, social enterprises should:

  • Exceed consumer expectations, including taste, quality, service and price.
  • Showcase that consumers are not only receiving a better product, but helping society at large. Reinforce this point by adding specific data points and personal stories for those who have been employed through a social enterprise.


Communicating to Government

There is limited understanding of what social enterprise is in the public or government sector, yet on the whole those that take the time to understand it, get behind it. Social enterprise can appeal to government stakeholders on both sides of the aisle, due to its emphasis on leveraging business acumen to address pervasive societal issues in a cost-effective and scalable way. Social enterprise also presents and exciting opportunity to innovate, particularly in the government sector where that is so hard to do – and takes a more sustainable approach than most other interventions.

When communicating with government stakeholders, it is important to demonstrate:

  • The ability to address both workforce development and economic development challenges.
  • The community needs that are met.
  • Cost-savings compared to other models and measurable impacts at the local, state, and federal level.
  • Evidence of sales and people getting jobs

At the local government level, social enterprises have found success by:

  • Demonstrating that they are a community asset and are providing a solution to a particular problem the community may be facing, principally in blighted neighborhoods
  • Getting involved in the city on an ongoing basis

For social enterprises focused on employment, one key is emphasizing skill development and training on the job for those facing barriers.


Communicating to Funders

Funders have different focus areas and motivations, so it is important to research prospective funders in advance to target your outreach based on issues of mutual interest, and align your communications with their focus areas.

Key areas of focus for funder communications:

  • Focus on the use of business strategies and results to carry out the work of the social sector, which appeals very broadly.
  • Emphasize the catalytic/ripple effects through society.
  • Highlight that social enterprise uses an earned-revenue model to offset program costs.
  • Combine numbers with personal stories. Blend quantitative data and qualitative testimonials to tell a comprehensive and compelling story. Coupling outcome and impact data with stories about the lives changed creates an effective blended package.
  • Emphasize exceptional leadership. Examples include an ability to engage with and secure buy-in from different sectors and a willingness to admit failure and learn from it, an ongoing interest in bettering the business by proactively seeking feedback and the courage to take risks, particularly in the name of innovation.



Ultimately, the goal of effective communication is to increase awareness and excitement about your social enterprise field among community leaders, funders, business leaders, consumers and government officials. Remember, it is important to research your audience prior to speaking of your organization’s goals and arm yourself with at least three data points and real-life examples of your work, emphasizing both the social and the enterprise pieces. Most importantly, showcase the multifaceted benefits of the social enterprise model, prioritized based on the audience.

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