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. In the context of this paper social enterprise is defined as: “a socially-oriented venture (nonprofit/for-profit or hybrid) created to solve a social problem or market failure through entrepreneurial private sector approaches that increase organizational effectiveness and sustainability while ultimately creating social benefit or change.1 It follows that social enterprise methodology is comprised of “the methods and organizing principles underlying the study of social enterprise.”

At the core of the framework is the concept of sustainable social impact, the end goal which drives the social entrepreneur. Here, we intentionally do not give a comprehensive definition of the concept and set no boundaries.2 Instead we focus on the concept of sustainable social impact and identify four common themes—we call them performance criteria—that appear to propel many social enterprise practitioners in their pursuits:

  1. Depth of impact—the drive to develop and implement solutions that address the root causes of social problems in order to achieve deeper, more lasting social impact.
  2. Blended value—the drive to develop and implement blended value creation models that make economic wealth creation and social value creation interdependent, so that eventually one cannot exist without the other.
  3. Efficiency—the drive to develop and implement processes and technologies to achieve increased efficiency, so that more can always be done with a set level of resources.
  4. Adaptability—the drive to develop and implement solutions that are more flexible and adaptable, so that lasting social impact can be realized in ever-changing and unstable environments.

The four performance criteria act as references around which social enterprise practices can be identified, organized, compared, and possibly formalized into methodological components. In doing so, the framework serves to identify, around the four performance criteria, social enterprise practices that seek to leverage private sector strengths while addressing private sector limitations and market failures.

Upon closer study of the performance criteria, the framework then offers the following analysis: behind each performance criteria lies a set of activities that can be grouped in four strategic areas—we call them strategic lenses:

  1. Stakeholder Engagement—activities related to involving all who have a role to play in addressing the social problem toward more sustainable social impact.
  2. Resource Mobilization—activities related to assembling and putting into action the necessary means toward more sustainable social impact.
  3. Knowledge Development—activities related to improving the quality, relevance and appropriateness of information and processes toward more sustainable social impact.
  4. Culture Management—activities related to guiding behaviors and mindsets toward more sustainable social impact.

While each performance criteria relates directly to each of the lenses, the extent to which one impacts the other varies. For example, resource mobilization is the most critical strategic lens for issues pertaining to generating blended value--but if all types of resources (i.e. human, social, physical, natural, and financial) are not fully mobilized and managed, then the social enterprise will invariably miss opportunities to maximize economic and social value creation. Resource mobilization is also important toward achieving depth of impact but to a lesser extent—a social enterprise could conceivably create impact without mobilizing all its potential resources. Thus, each performance criteria has a primary lens, although to get the most out of performance, each criterion should be carefully filtered through every strategic lens.

Once performance criteria and critical strategic areas common to social sector organizations are identified, the framework can be used to examine the interplay between strategic actions and performance, and how the two together, or in opposition, lead to sustainable social impact. When performance criteria are refracted through the strategic lenses, interdependent relationships between strategic action and performance outcome become evident. Relationships between strategic actions may be synergistic and thus leveraged to have a greater positive effect on performance, or by contrast, strategic actions may underscore inherent tensions within the lenses that must be managed to achieve the desired performance outcome.

This paper aims to move beyond stories and definitions to structure social enterprise performance. Its task is to inform and inspire new thinking about formalizing a performance methodology to help practitioners achieve efficient, adaptive, strategically-minded organizations capable of simultaneously creating economic wealth and social value and addressing root causes of social problems in order to achieve deep, lasting social impact.

  • 1Alter, Kim, Social Enterprise Definition, Virtue Ventures, 2006.
  • 2In our view, sustainable social impact is characterized by unique combination of the vision and goals of the social entrepreneur, the nature of the social problem and circumstances surrounding it, and the chosen social enterprise solution. and thus must be defined in its own context. Generically, sustainable social impact is the resolution of the social problem or market failure.