The Four Lenses Strategic Framework


This paper aims to move beyond stories and definitions by presenting practitioners with a conceptual framework—as rudimentary as it may be in its first version—to inform and inspire new thinking about social enterprise performance and impart strategy and management resources to help practitioners achieve high performing social enterprises.

The paper’s larger audacious goal is to engage practitioners, academics, donors, and other sympathizers in a debate that will move toward developing social enterprise methodologies and best practice. In presenting this foundational social enterprise performance framework we fully expect it to change, evolving both in content and form, while also inciting any number of tangential or niche frameworks and methodologies. And so begins the effort toward founding common performance parameters for social enterprise from which to evolve a methodology…

The paper is a sequel to the Social Enterprise Typology, a paper that elaborates the rich mosaic of highly differentiated and creative examples of social enterprise, and by doing so, served as a precursor to organizing these diverse approaches and strategies into a common framework.

This version is made available as part of the website and practitioners and others are invited to add their comments, share their examples, challenge our assertions, and so on.

Executive Summary

The Four Lenses Strategic Framework is not meant to be authoritative nor static. It is meant to support a practitioner-driven debate to further define common components of the social enterprise methodology.

Part 1: Introducing Social Enterprise Performance

Ask any self-respecting social entrepreneur why they do what they do, and they will tell you passionately about a social problem and how they are working to solve it. Most achieved a moment of clarity when they recognized an injustice and were compelled to take action. In tackling the social problems, their approaches are as wildly different as the problems themselves, yet our research and experience tells us that social entrepreneurs’ motivation is ubiquitous—to make sustainable social impact.

Part 2: Framing Performance

The challenge in creating a common performance framework is that both the concepts of social impact and sustainability are hotly debated and highly subjective.

Hence, in creating a common framework, we have chosen to focus on a set of common criteria that can be simply demonstrated and accepted as being essential to sustainable social impact creation, without pretending to define the full scope of ‘sustainable social impact.’


The strength of the Four Lenses Strategic Framework is that it reveals inherently greater complexity in social enterprise operations, management, and strategic decision making than what has been addressed to date in social enterprise methodology or the literature. Like an onion, the framework peels back layers, exposing deeper and deeper levels of dynamics within the social enterprise that must be managed internally while simultaneously managing interactions with a changing external environment.

Research Methodology

The departure for this research was the authors' reaction to the lack of literature on social enterprise performance analysis and methodology. The other key impetus was the absence of practitioner participation in flagship exercises to define social enterprise and set an agenda for the field (these were largely dominated by funders and academics). Consequently, all primary research for the Four Lenses Strategic Framework came directly from social enterprise practitioners.


The authors would like to thank and acknowledge all those who helped to make this work possible.

First and foremost, tremendous gratitude is owed to the Skoll Foundation, for its very generous grant to underwrite this paper and our larger “field building” project.

Very special thanks to CARE Enterprise Partners for making the first commitment toward developing seToolbelt (, a free open source resource library for social enterprise practitioners.