Program Strategy

Program Strategy

From a programmatic perspective, social enterprise addresses one of the most pressing issues nonprofit organizations face--how to achieve ongoing sustainable impact. In some organizations social enterprise is highly compatible with the mission and hence, is a natural program fit. For example, program activities concerned with economic development revolve around work and wealth creation. The missions and objectives of social welfare and human development organizations focused on employment training and welfare-to-work transitioning also mesh neatly with social enterprise as a program methodology. Agricultural organizations offer ample opportunities to marry program activities of sustainable crop cultivation and livestock rearing with social enterprises that process food or sell fair trade products, etc. In these cases, organizations often employ embedded and mission-centric social enterprises as a principal program strategy to accomplish their missions while simultaneously increasing their financial self-sufficiency.

Opportunities to utilize social enterprise as a program strategy may be less evident in some organizations than in others. Here social enterprise is an auxiliary activity that compliments or expands the organization's mission and social activities, but is not the core social program. For example, an arts-and-culture organization may commercialize its products--i.e. sell art--, yet its primary activities are education and training programs aimed at preserving traditional artisan crafts methods. An environmental organization may launch an eco-tourism enterprise as a vehicle to educate people about environmental conservation and employ community members but its main social activities are concerned with reforestation and anti-erosion.

Where social enterprise is not a seamless match with an organization’s mission, the impetus to begin a social enterprise might be financially motivated, nevertheless the social enterprise may enhance or compliment the organization’s social programs and strengthen its mission. In these cases, social enterprises are often integrated within the organization, their activities related to the mission, but are not used as a core program strategy to accomplish the mission.

Program Areas

Program Areas

Program activities described in this section are not comprehensive, rather they relate only to social enterprise programs. All technical program areas have numerous activities not elaborated herein.

Economic Opportunities

Economic opportunities programs focus on starting social enterprises for the express purpose of creating fair-wage jobs or employment opportunities in a geographic target area. Other program activities center on developing transferable skills, job placement, or opportunities that foster self-employment. Economic opportunities programs may be single-focused on business or integrated with other social services such as insurance, literacy, health education, etc.

Community and Rural Development

Community and rural development programs develop community-based social enterprises aimed to provide local jobs, increase purchasing power, reduce urban flight, increase community wealth, and strengthen community cohesion. These social enterprises may be designed as community businesses intended to benefit the entire community by investing surplus revenue in wells, schools, libraries, community centers, gardens, etc., or as more traditional small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs).

Market Development

Market development programs start or support social enterprises that spur and facilitate growth in underdeveloped and under-served markets. These social enterprises operate in markets that are unattractive to private companies due to high market penetration costs (often related to rural distribution and educational marketing), slim margins, or both. The objective is to provide access to vital good and services to marginalized communities while strengthening markets to entice private sector players. Social enterprises working in market development consider private sector competition or cannibalization an exit strategy. Socially responsible fair trade organizations also serve to develop markets, but do not seek to exit markets based on emerging competition.

Access in Under-served Markets

In markets unattractive to the private sector, but where social need and demand coexist, the social enterprise fills a vital niche by providing access to products and services. Poor and rural markets are largely under-served due to high transaction costs, low purchasing, and low margins, making access difficult for many people in need of products and services, such as medical services, health inputs, financial services, etc.

Employment Development

Employment development creates employment and vocational training for disenfranchised, disabled or at-risk populations. These so-called "hard-to-employ" people earn a livable wage and develop marketable skills through their employment in the social enterprise. Employment development models of social enterprises were popularized in the US, and have proven successful in Latin America.

Microenterprise Development

Programs that foster the growth and development of microenterprises (businesses that employ 1-10 people) and self-employed people (microentrepreneurs) through the provision of affordable credit or business support services (training, technology, market information, etc.)

Institutional and Organizational Development

Institutional development programs are aimed at building the capacity of nonprofit organizations to self-govern and become sustainable. In addition to training and technical assistance in organizational development and nonprofit management, programs focus on income-generation and financial self-sufficiency, thus may incorporate social enterprise.



This section describes a number of nonprofit sectors and some social enterprise applications in those sectors. This is by no means an exhaustive list; social enterprise can be applied in any nonprofit sector, particularly if is it used as a financing strategy. The sectors highlighted in this section are generally conducive to incorporating social enterprise as a program strategy.

Economic Development

Economic development is a sector that uses social enterprise as a sustainable program strategy to create economic opportunities and community wealth-building to enable poor people to attain economic security for themselves and their families. In many cases, business activities are "embedded" within the economic development organization; the social enterprise is the program--the means to effect social impact. Some of the possible social impact goals include increased household income, asset accumulation, investments in productive activities, job creation, increased school attendance, improved health, and quality of nutrition.

Environmental Conservation

"Eco enterprises" offer a wealth of creative methods to both raise money for, and awareness of, environmental issues. Eco-tourism's growing popularity provides lucrative opportunities to social entrepreneurs interested in capturing intrepid travelers. The tourist market, unlike many nonprofit "client markets," has money; therefore this business easily marries the social enterprise's financial and social objectives. Many environmental social enterprises also sell products, such as shade-grown coffee or items made from recycled materials. In other examples, environmental social enterprises operate organic markets or home delivery food businesses to finance sustainable agriculture and education programs.1

Social Welfare and Human Development

In some social welfare and human development organizations, there is crossover with employment development and job training programs, whereby the social service organization creates jobs and develops skills for clients--homeless, physically and mentally disabled, and at-risk populations--through a social enterprise. Human development organizations that target recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, former welfare recipients, or ex-convicts use social enterprises as rehabilitative programs. In other cases, the social welfare organization may commercialize its social services to a private pay market to fund its programs.

Arts and Cultural Preservation

Within the context of the cultural organization, social enterprise offers a range of possibilities to serve social and financial objectives. Selling cultural products through outlets such as an art gallery, cinema or theater; or educational services such as art, drama, music, cultural history, etc. are common social enterprise examples.


In the health sector, nonprofit organizations have been incorporating social enterprise for many years. Hospitals and clinics are common examples. Pharmacies, medical supply companies, and group-purchasing businesses are also widely applied models. Selling health services is a growing industry in social enterprise: nutrition counseling, physical therapy, mental health counseling, care management, and alternative therapies.


Agricultural production, sustainable farming, food processing and animal rearing offer many social enterprise opportunities for rural communities in developing countries where few other economic opportunities exist. In the United States, social enterprises in the agricultural sector range from nonprofit or cooperative organic farms to economic development organizations that support entrepreneurs and small scale producers (cheese, jam, salsa, beer, etc.).


Educational institutions have long used social enterprise as a means to diversify their income and strengthen education programs. Tuition or "fee-for-service" is the obvious method used by schools, colleges and universities. Many universities obtain research contracts with the government or private sector. Specialized skill or technology institutions provide an option to follow the service subsidization model by repackage classic education to new markets for a fee.

Children and Youth

Many nonprofit organizations serving adolescents and young adults, particularly from low-income families, conduct entrepreneurship and vocational skills training, or run hands-on business programs such as youth run enterprises or incubators. These types of program provide multiple opportunities for integrating social enterprise programs within the organization. Other children and youth organizations operate child-focused enterprises such as birthday parties, camp, after school programs, test preparation, tutorials, classes, extra curricular activities and sports.

Democratization and Governance

Democracy and governance programs are concerned with facilitating democratic and self governed organizations, advocacy, enabling legal environments, human rights and rule of law. Although democracy and governance organizations are not an intuitive fit for a social enterprise program, many provide paid legal services, training, consulting to nonprofits, government bodies and private companies. Creative examples exist in this sector; one social enterprise sells encryption services to human rights organizations.

  • 1Etchart, Nicole and Lee Davis, Unique and Universal: Lessons from the Emerging Field of Social Enterprise in the Emerging Market Countries, NESsT, 2003.