Social Enterprise Messaging Study

Pre-Interview Survey Results


In June 2014, with REDF funding, APCO Worldwide conducted a communications and messaging survey of people working with employment-focused social enterprise organizations. More than 60 people completed the web-based survey, which included both closed and open-ended questions. The results, which are summarized below, were used to inform a series of approximately 15 in-depth interviews.


Communications Concerns

When talking about social enterprise (SE), respondents say a “communication gap” is one of the biggest communications concerns their organization faces, including a widespread lack of understanding of the terminology. Besides the need for a clear definition of SE (i.e., having distinct messages for different stakeholder groups while maintaining an accurate and unified way of communicating about the organization overall), colleagues also point out that it is crucial to delimit the parameters of the field – in the words of one respondent, “to draw a circle around the participants – who is included and who is not; how do for-profit social impact companies differ from employment-focused social enterprises, and how to organize the thinking about the overlap.”  Another respondent adds that there are too many different voices from too many different organizations that may be inadvertently hampering the development of the SE movement by building silos and camps in their efforts to define it.

The term social enterprise is frequently confused with a more general “social entrepreneur” frame in which a person has started a social service organization, a colleague says. Most people don’t understand the benefits of being a social enterprise – why the organization wouldn’t just be a traditional non-profit. Thus, social enterprises have to learn how to describe their work as a business, not as a program. This will help move the discussion further. Yet, colleagues should recognize that describing their work in business terms could also set an unrealistic expectation, one respondent cautions.

Another challenge to overcome is the prejudice involved with hiring the populations served by these organizations and perceptions of quality and professionalism, as well as the notion that such service agencies are not nimble, skilled, or sophisticated enough to effectively run social enterprises. Other notable concerns include credibility about the quality of work provided by SE employees and getting potential customers to take interest in the mission.

Lastly, colleagues bring up a couple of obstacles around awareness – namely, reaching broader audiences while being constrained by underdeveloped/underutilized social networks and tight marketing budgets.

Social enterprises have to learn how to describe their work as a business, not as a program

Lead Message

In describing their organization’s work, respondents tend to lead with messages about providing skill training, case management and job placement to disadvantaged people who have barriers to employment. Some also describe their work as building a bridge to connect clients and customers. Some others focus on the fact that they provide funding and technical assistance to nonprofit organizations that create job opportunities for the most difficult people to employ. A common message is also the increased economic impact for all – impacting lives by providing meaningful work makes a difference in the community, especially by bringing historically disenfranchised users of community resources to the work table.

More than half of respondents use the term social enterprise to describe their work, although most use it in the first paragraph (42 percent) versus the first sentence (27 percent).  Twenty-three percent use the term social enterprise only occasionally and eight percent of respondents do not use it at all.

Using the term “social enterprise” with a general audience

Using social enterprise to describe their work to a general audience currently yields the benefit of needing to be quickly self-defined and understood, colleagues say. Because the term needs to be explained, it can enable organizations to frame the conversation on their own terms. Respondents are positive about the window of opportunity associated with this. The newness of the terms creates a certain level of curiosity and intrigue, and there is plenty of social context and discourse within the general public to make people receptive to the idea.

Some say the term social enterprise conveys a dual social-financial message; it appeals to a wide audience, politically and economically, and both Democrats and Republicans can appreciate it. It establishes credibility in ways that the terms “nonprofit” or “public charity” do not. Implementing business methods to solve social problems shows innovation – people get and admire triple bottom line goals. People like the idea of nonprofits taking a business focused approach to generating revenue.

On the flip side, some respondents don’t see many benefits of using the term because it is so vague. For example, the current lack of understanding of the term social enterprise is leading to confusion as to why a social enterprise needs funding. The term social enterprise is still too obscure to use effectively with many audiences. Most suggest developing a common, widely-used definition would help, or alternatively developing an entirely new term, which could elaborate what social enterprise is and how it works.


Using the term “social enterprise” with customers or businesses

Overall, few points are raised on the benefits side when it comes to talking to businesses. One positive aspect is that the term differentiates such organizations from traditional for-profit companies perceived as competitors; putting the business operational side of an organization into a “social” context differentiates it from a “typical” business. Certain customers like and need an association to the “social” element (for regulatory, CSR or marketing purposes). But ultimately it really depends on the customer/business (i.e., whether the customer wants/needs to engage in social good oriented activities). From a trends perspective, SE aligns with the overall trend of younger generations wanting to “do good” with their purchasing power.

On the negative end, the still nascent term, social enterprise, raises concern over a lack of understanding as to what a social enterprise does. Some businesses and customers do not care about a social mission and are solely focused on performance. Another drawback is that using the term social enterprise leads some businesses to consider the SE to be a competitor –unfairly competing by using an advantage of access to grant funding that businesses can’t get.

Some respondents find businesses are worried about the quality of the service respondents’ offer when they describe their work as a social enterprise: “It implies a population that needs help and that may not be job ready.” It does not sound serious – either with respect to the quality of work being delivered, or the way the social enterprise would interact with the business (i.e. securing the work, contracting, reporting, relationship management). In some cases, the term SE can lead customers/businesses to conclude that a SE’s services are not relevant to them – for example, some businesses confuse the term for “social responsibility”.

Putting the business operational side of an organization into a "social" context differentiates it from a "typical" business

Using the term “social enterprise” with funders

Respondents say using the term social enterprise to describe their work to funders highlights their social impact. Using the term also allows funders to have a better understanding of social enterprise and they like the utility of unrestricted earned income supporting a social mission. Funders also appreciate the innovativeness of social enterprises. Other respondents say funders don’t “get it” when they use the term social enterprise, which can lead to incorrect conclusions that their products/services are not relevant to funders. Another drawback is social enterprise doesn’t always fit in the traditional workforce approach with regards to funding. This leads to funders’ confusion on why they should need social enterprises and where their funds go, as well as signal that there is less of a need for funding. Respondents voice common questions they receive from funders such as, “If you are sustainable, why should I help?” and, “Where are my funds put to use in your business?” Other respondents say the term social enterprise lacks meaning and is a buzzword, whereas others suggest there are no drawbacks to using the term.


Using the term “social enterprise” with government officials

Some respondents say using the term social enterprise conveys positives, such as entrepreneurialism, innovation and social good, and that the term social enterprise is seen as helping to solve a social issue while at the same time decreasing dependence on their funds. Overall, advantages to describing respondents’ work using the term social enterprise depends on the government official’s interest, but does convey the respondent’s work has a social mission with a positive social impact.

Government officials also are confused as to what social enterprise means when respondents use the term to describe their work. Officials may not understand the language or terms used and have confusion on whether social enterprises are nonprofits or not. There is a perception that social enterprises are not eligible for funding. According to respondents, a social enterprise does not fit with business models that are traditionally funded, supported, and regulated by the government, leading to further confusion among government officials. Other respondents have said government officials are unfamiliar with social enterprises, so using the term is difficult.


Using the term “employment social enterprise”

Few respondents (24 percent) currently use the term employment social enterprise to describe their work and more than half do not see value in starting to use this term to describe their work.

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Public-Facing Commitment

The most conclusive feedback from the survey was overwhelming interest from the group to be part of a public-facing commitment. In fact, 92 percent of respondents said they would like to be part of such a collective commitment.

Some of the notable suggestions for such a commitment include:

  • # of individuals entering or re-engaging with the workforce (most likely transitional/supportive experiences for this population)
  • $ net benefit to American communities, taxpayer $ saved
  • # of those people served who stay employed for one year
  • # of ‘traditional’ employers who agree to employ from this source
  • $ economic activity generated
  • income level of those employed
  • $ revenues earned for organization
  • $ in contracts with public and private sources
  • # of lives transformed
  • minimum goals for retention and hourly wage
  • increase in earned income from employment objectively measured over the time period
  • meaningful full time jobs
  • # of companies recruited as job placement partners; new public and private sector contracts secured
  • # of paid labor hours

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