What is a Social Enterprise?

The idea that travelers can and should support social enterprises on the road is a fundamental notion to this entire site, and to the book I published in 2012, “The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.” But for those unfamiliar with the term social enterprise, I’d like to take a look at what it means and how this type of travel can sometimes affect more change than more traditional forms of service like international volunteering.

Social Enterprise: A for-profit business initiative with a strong underlying mission that creates a social, environmental or cultural value within a local community or region. The common good is the primary focus and the business holds its mission above financial gain, investors, or traditional commercial business ideals.

what is social enterprise

A graph showing the blended value of social enterprises over pure profit driven businesses, graphic thanks to ENP

There are other definitions to be sure, and the Wikipedia page has a long look at all of those other circumstances, but I find this definition the simplest to relate back to travel. And in relating this back to travel, since 2008 I have slowly traveled and volunteered all over the world. And on these travels I came to understand that it is often the mere act of tourism and community-level support in developing nations that has the largest positive impact on the people in these places I visited—even more than volunteering.

Within the context of traveling to a developing country, spending some of your tourism dollars at social enterprises can have very a strong, positive impact on that community because these are, by their very nature, community driven initiatives that most often use local ideas and labor to solve a social problem. As we travel we spend money on everything from food to tours (with accommodation, souvenirs, and transportation in between). What if each time we ventured out of the country we found a way to make sure our tourism dollars went into local hands who were working hard to better their country.

Examples of businesses and services that may operate as a social enterprise in a place you are visiting include:

  • restaurants
  • retail shops and boutiques
  • craft centers
  • artisans
  • tour operators
  • guesthouses
  • transportation companies
  • tailors
  • massage parlors
  • cultural shows

This list is far from comprehensive, and it varies greatly depending on the city you’re visiting. But the fact is, you have a choice when you travel of where you invest your money. Though it is unlikely you can only support social enterprises, you can make it a priority and take the time and effort to research local businesses who are finding creative ways to advance social, environmental and human justice agenda.

Here on Grassroots Volunteering we offer the only known database of these small local organizations and community-driven efforts, but if you know of anywhere else online please let us know! Other ways to find and support social enterprises while you’re traveling include:

  • Use a guidebook: All of the leading guidebooks right now (Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, Moon) include large lists of tour companies, restaurants, etc, and as they describe these businesses, they often highlight which ones have underlying social missions.
  • Research on blogs: Head to the blogosphere and find travel bloggers who have visited where you plan to travel; travel bloggers and expat bloggers often dig deeply into the fabric of a city and will share their favorite initiatives in the places they live or visit.
  • Ask a local: Once you’re in a new place the people around you are your best source of information. Ask your hotel desk for restaurants and tour operators doing good in the community. Expat restaurant owners and language schools are also excellent sources for this type of information.

The bottom line is that you can spend your tourism dollars wisely and invest it in local communities rather than Western-run companies or large for-profit businesses run by the regions wealthy elite. All it takes is a bit more planning, research, and motivation.

And if you find a wonderful social enterprise on your travels, we would love to know about it so that we can add it to our database and send other travels to support its efforts!