Social enterprises: activists in their own way

How for-profit ventures can create positive change in society through their communication practices

By Asma Naimi

The primary aim of social enterprises is to address societal challenges and put impact first. Social enterprises are vocal about what they stand for and they have been able to draw a lot of attention to their work. They are activists in their own way, aiming to create the change needed to build a more sustainable and just society.

Have their efforts been successful? Have social enterprises been able to mobilise people towards action? My research with Daniel Arenas aims to unravel what social enterprises say and how they say it, but most of all if it matters.

Social enterprises aim to address societal challenges through their product or service offerings. These innovative organisational forms lead by example and want to show that for-profit ventures can create positive change in society.

Is this the only way social enterprises are trying to create impact? The communication practices of social enterprises are an under-examined but important mechanism that can create change.

Social activism
Social enterprises address the most pressing issues in the world today (Photo: Twenty20)

Social enterprises are actively engaging in conversations held on global platforms to address the most pressing issues in the world today. They connect their work with the Sustainable Development Goals formulated by the United Nations and they are vocal about what they think needs to be done to reach these goals.

Does what social enterprises say matter? Traditionally, social activists have used advocacy as one of their main strategies to create change. For example, the civil rights movement used narratives about the brutality of slavery to mobilise public support and put pressure on political actors. A parallel can be drawn to social enterprises, for example Tony's Chocolonely uses narratives to address the issues of child labour and modern slavery in the cocoa supply chain. This social enterprise pro-actively engages with the media to promote their solution to these problems. It's worth investigating what social enterprises are advocating.

Does how social enterprises say it matter? My research shows that social enterprises, like Tony's Chocolonely, have a deliberate strategy to raise awareness about societal issues among the general public and to mobilise a broad range of stakeholders towards action. It is important to understand how social enterprises exactly do this and if their approaches are successful. The insights of this study could provide knowledge about a powerful way to respond to social issues. This is a fairly new field of research, which makes it all the more exciting.

Social enterprises have a deliberate strategy to raise awareness about societal issues

What is the impact? By understanding how social enterprises frame their narratives about societal issues, more light can be shed on their role in tackling societal challenges. Social enterprises are economic actors that have a social mission. This makes their approach towards tackling societal challenges differ from traditional social activists.

For example, poverty is a complex societal challenge that can be addressed in various ways. Focusing the solution more on economic factors (i.e. job creation) than on political factors (i.e. political participation) or vice versa can significantly change the impact of development efforts.

The idea of business as a powerful way to create change has fascinated me since the start of my academic career. It can be a source of doing good, but a sole pursuit for profit can also lead to negative outcomes. These are two sides of the same "coin." With my research, I aim to create knowledge on how social enterprises, as innovative organisational forms, can contribute to tackling societal challenges. One of my main ambitions in life is to build a bridge between academia and practice, and translate this knowledge to help organisations create positive impact.

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