The Social Enterprise Zoo
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The Social Enterprise Zoo

A Guide for Perplexed Scholars, Entrepreneurs, Philanthropists, Leaders, Investors, and Policymakers

Edited by Dennis R. Young, Elizabeth A.M. Searing and Cassady V. Brewer

The Social Enterprise Zoo employs the metaphor of the zoo to gain a more comprehensive understanding of social enterprise – especially the diversity of its forms; the various ways it is organized in different socio-political environments; how different forms of enterprise behave, interact, and thrive; and what lessons can be drawn for the future development and study of organizations that seek to balance social or environmental impact with economic success. Recommended for students, researchers, policymakers, entrepreneurs and managers of social purpose organizations.
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Chapter 12: Social impact of the social enterprise zoo

John E. Tyler III


Social enterprise (SE) emerges where there are opportunities to find new ways to balance otherwise competing interests and to achieve social purposes in ways that are better than and distinct from traditional approaches. Understanding whether the zoo and its elements are achieving these purposes, making progress, or causing harm is complicated and difficult. The challenges begin with assessing essential things that cannot be measured easily or well. They continue with how SE simultaneously has social impact at so many levels: individual, organizational, communal, within and among parts of the zoo, and society as a whole. They are exacerbated by the need to account for gains in one social impact area possibly being accompanied by harm in another. Of course, being complicated or challenging or even presently unprovable is no excuse for not trying. In that spirit this chapter approaches assessing the social impact of SE, its potential, and its distinguishing character at three key levels: the broad zoo itself for which the search for assessment tools is ongoing; the specific habitats and animals for which metrics, measures, and standards might be more accessible but for which accurate cross-purpose benchmarking is still a challenge; and the broader contexts within which the SE zoo exists, including traditional business, philanthropy, and the governmental regulatory environment. It is with respect to the latter – particularly with regard to priority of purpose and public accountability – that the social enterprise zoo has had its clearest impact so far.

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