- An effective device to decrease hearing loss in musicians or audiences.
- A low-cost prosthetic limb to make mobility possible for millions unable to afford traditional technology.
- A medical equipment business that makes it affordable to get a used wheelchair, bathroom lift or other medical aid.
These are all innovations that have led to improved health, especially for individuals in our community or around the world with a low income. But which among them is a social enterprise?
- They all generate revenue through the sale of a product or service. As such, they are enterprises.
- They all seek to improve health of individuals in our community. As such, they have a social mission.
- They all require investment of time, resources and assets in order to bring their social benefit to market. As such, they have had to get grants, donations, loans or other forms of start-up capital.
If they walk like a duck, and sound like a duck, then surely they are a duck?
The first case is that of Ear Peace, a company that produces various simple earplugs that reduce decibel levels. It is a product that looks like a thousand others in the marketplace, but its salesman tells me that this private company exists to ensure that people’s hearing is protected. Their slogan sounds altruistic: “Hear Today. Hear Tomorrow.” They are available for about $12-20 a set online. Their website features logos of a variety of non-profit hearing loss agencies and associations. (inferring-but not expressly stating-some form of endorsement)
The second case is Legworks, a Toronto based company that calls itself a for-profit social enterprise. They have developed a low cost prosthetic limb to “help people walk again.” Mobility, they highlight, empowers amputees to more fully participate in society, work, and family life. They offer this technology to those in need “regardless of where they live or their ability to pay.” This social mission is to be achieved by creating a margin on sales in more wealthy markets in order to cover losses in other markets. They note that some 85-95% of the 10 million amputees worldwide do not have access to an affordable prosthetic device, and they recently won the Para PanAm accessibility tech pitch award.
The last case is now a historical case. STRIDE was a medical aid facility operating in Ottawa, but it closed down because the free rent they enjoyed was lost, and in spite of the value they brought to their customers who paid on a “pay what you can” model, they were not able to generate sufficient revenue to pay for the rent increase. The inventory of medical aids were distributed to agencies across the city upon their closure. The business ran on largely volunteer labour, and dozens of agencies would refer clients to STRIDE to access medical aids needed after suffering an injury or contracting an illness.
All of these businesses could be considered a social enterprise based upon their stated mission. But are they social enterprises? One way to determine whether these are businesses with “a primary goal of achieving a social mission” is to question where the money goes. Ear Peace appears to create profits for its owners. Legworks might be profitable, it might not—only time will tell—but it has received financial support from publicly funded bodies and it is unclear where any future profits might go. STRIDE was certainly in the business of social benefit, but it was unable to remain in business without jeopardizing its social mission; this tragedy was precipitated because of a lack of a profit motive.
These businesses are but a few in a large array of those marketing medical improvements, breakthroughs and innovations. As consumers and social enterprise supporters, we are challenged to determine which of those businesses are motivated by social mission and which simply create better health outcomes for a profit. This is the challenge of trying to define social enterprise.
What we do know is that if each of these companies were to flourish and grow, then we would have a healthier society, and that is a good outcome regardless of the labels we might apply.