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What is a Social Enterprise?

The idea that responsible 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, let’s examine what it means and how this type of travel often affects more change than traditional forms of service like international volunteering.

Social Enterprise: A social enterprise sells good or services and uses a portion of the profits to reinvest in the local community by addressing social issues, improving locals’ quality of life, conserving natural resources and the environment, preserving the community’s cultural integrity, and more. The social enterprise holds its strong underlying mission above financial gain, investors, or traditional commercial business ideals. Instead, the common good is the primary focus and when a social enterprise succeeds, so to does the local society.

what is social enterprise

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

This is my definition, but there are a lot of others that offer nuance and highlight different facets of the social enterprise concept (the Wikipedia page has a long look at all of those other circumstances). This definition is simplest to relate social enterprise and 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 your tourism dollars at social enterprises has 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 leave our tourism dollars in the hands of local working hard to better their community and country?

What Types of Travel Businesses are Social Enterprises?

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 prioritize these businesses when given the opportunity. If you’re going to sleep somewhere, why not find the business best supporting your ideals of socially responsible travel. It’s on each travel to make the time and effort to research the local businesses finding creative ways to advance social, environmental, and human justice agendas.

How to Find Social Enterprises Around the World

Here on Grassroots Volunteering, we offer the world’s largest database of social enterprises and local organizations . These local organizations are community-driven and truly using tourism as a force for good.

Other ways to travel responsibly and support social enterprises while on the road include:

  • Use a guidebook: All of the leading guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, Moon) include 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 region’s wealthy elite. All it takes is a 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!