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.