What is a Social Enterprise in the UK?

A social enterprise is a business that trades with the primary purpose of making a social or environmental impact. In the UK, there are over 131,000 social enterprises, contributing £78 billion to the economy and employing 2.3 million people. These businesses prioritize the welfare of people and the planet, reinvesting the majority of their profits towards their mission.

Social enterprises operate in various sectors, such as consumer products, community resources, creative agencies, arts organizations, healthcare providers, and more. They combine commercial success with social and environmental impact, making a significant difference in communities.

In this article, we will explore the characteristics of social enterprises, discuss how to set up a social enterprise, provide examples of successful social enterprises in the UK, and highlight the importance of supporting these businesses in creating a sustainable and inclusive economy.

Characteristics of Social Enterprises

To be classified as a social enterprise, a business must possess distinct characteristics that set them apart from traditional enterprises. These characteristics define their purpose, impact, and business model. Here are the key characteristics that make social enterprises unique:

Social and Environmental Mission

A social enterprise is driven by a clear social or environmental mission, which is explicitly outlined in its governing documents. This mission reflects the organization’s commitment to creating positive change and addressing pressing social or environmental issues. Whether it’s promoting education, poverty alleviation, environmental sustainability, or any other cause, the mission guides the enterprise’s activities and shapes its long-term objectives.

Independence and Trading Activities

Social enterprises operate independently of government control and rely on trading activities as their primary source of income. While their ultimate goal is to create a positive impact, they embrace entrepreneurial principles and seek financial sustainability through viable business practices. By generating more than half of their income through trading, social enterprises demonstrate their ability to combine social goals with commercial success.

Profit Reinvestment or Donation

Another distinguishing characteristic of social enterprises is their commitment to reinvesting or donating a significant portion of their profits towards their social or environmental mission. Typically, social enterprises reinvest or donate at least half of their profits to maximize their impact and create sustainable change. This practice ensures that the enterprise remains focused on its mission and continues to make a difference in communities and society at large.

Transparency and Accountability

Social enterprises prioritize transparency and accountability in both their operations and impact measurement. They are transparent about their social and environmental goals, financial performance, and the allocation of resources. By being accountable to their stakeholders, including employees, beneficiaries, customers, and investors, social enterprises foster trust and credibility. They also track and measure their impact to evaluate the effectiveness of their initiatives and make data-driven decisions for continuous improvement.

Social Impact and Business Model

Social enterprises have a significant impact on society. Their efforts contribute to reducing economic inequality, improving social justice, and promoting environmental sustainability. These businesses do not focus solely on maximizing financial returns; instead, they seek to create both financial and social value. The social enterprise business model is designed to integrate social objectives into core business operations, ensuring that positive outcomes are achieved alongside financial success.

social enterprise impact

The characteristics of social enterprises make them powerful agents of change. By combining business acumen with a social or environmental mission, these enterprises are paving the way for a more inclusive, sustainable, and responsible economy.

Setting up a Social Enterprise

Setting up a social enterprise involves committing to a set of principles to make a positive social or environmental impact while generating income. To ensure the successful establishment of a social enterprise, there are several crucial steps to follow.

1. Defining Your Mission

First and foremost, it is essential to have a clear social or environmental mission that aligns with your values and goals. This mission will guide your business decisions and define the impact you aim to make.

2. Choosing a Legal Structure

There are various legal structures available for social enterprises in the UK, including Community Interest Companies (CICs), Companies Limited by Guarantee (CLG), and cooperatives. Each structure has its own advantages and requirements, so it is crucial to choose the one that best suits your organization’s needs.

3. Registering Your Social Enterprise

The process of registering a social enterprise will depend on the chosen legal structure. For example, if you decide to set up a CIC, you will need to register with the CIC regulator at Companies House. It is important to familiarize yourself with the registration requirements and ensure compliance with the relevant regulatory bodies.

4. Funding Your Social Enterprise

Funding is a critical aspect of setting up and running a social enterprise. There are various funding options available, including grants, loans, investments, and crowdfunding. Research and explore the funding opportunities that align with your mission and business model to ensure financial sustainability.

5. Seeking Professional Advice

Setting up a social enterprise can be complex, and seeking professional advice is highly recommended. Organizations like Social Enterprise UK provide resources, guidance, and support for individuals and organizations looking to create a social impact through business.

how to set up a social enterprise

Examples of Social Enterprise Structures

Table: Comparison of Social Enterprise Legal Structures

Legal Structure Description Advantages
Community Interest Company (CIC) A company specifically designed for social enterprises, allowing them to operate with a social purpose.
  • Legal recognition as a social enterprise
  • Ability to lock assets to the social mission
Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG) A legal structure commonly used by nonprofit organizations, which does not have shares or shareholders.
  • Clear governance structure
  • Ability to apply for charitable status
Cooperative A business owned and democratically controlled by its members.
  • Shared decision-making and equal ownership
  • Focus on community engagement and collaboration

By following these steps and understanding the different legal structures available, you can set up a social enterprise that effectively combines business success with positive social and environmental impact.

Examples of Social Enterprises

Social enterprises in the UK represent a diverse range of industries and sectors. These businesses combine commercial success with a social or environmental mission, making a positive impact on society. Here are a few notable examples of social enterprises:

  1. Cockpit Arts: Cockpit Arts is a social enterprise in the craft sector that supports and promotes designer-makers. It plays a crucial role in the UK cultural landscape and economy, nurturing creative talent and contributing to the sustainability of the craft industry.
  2. City Health Care Partnership CIC: City Health Care Partnership CIC is a social enterprise in the health and care sector. It aims to improve the health and wellbeing of communities by providing high-quality healthcare services and promoting preventive measures.
  3. Wildhearts Office: Wildhearts Office is a social enterprise in the office and business supplies industry. They use business as a force for good by supporting both British young people and those in poverty globally. Through their operations, Wildhearts Office creates a positive social impact.

These examples showcase the variety of social enterprises and their commitment to creating a better society. Each of these businesses operates in a different sector but shares a common goal of using their resources to make a positive difference.

examples of social enterprises


Social enterprises in the UK have emerged as a powerful force, driving positive change in the business landscape. With their clear social or environmental missions, these businesses prioritize making a meaningful impact alongside financial success. By addressing a wide range of social issues, they contribute significantly to the economy and job creation, making a tangible difference in people’s lives.

The growth of social enterprises reflects a shift towards a more sustainable and inclusive economy where profit and purpose can coexist. These businesses embody the vision of a fairer society and a more sustainable future for all. They demonstrate that it is possible to combine entrepreneurial spirit, innovation, and social responsibility to create lasting positive change.

By supporting and promoting social enterprises, individuals and organizations can align themselves with the shared mission of creating a better world. Every purchase, every investment, and every partnership with a social enterprise helps to advance their goals and drive positive social and environmental outcomes. Together, we can make a real difference in building a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable future for our communities.


Can you give some examples of social enterprises in the UK?

Some notable examples of social enterprises in the UK include Cockpit Arts, City Health Care Partnership CIC, and Wildhearts Office.

How do I set up a social enterprise?

Setting up a social enterprise involves committing to a social or environmental mission and generating the majority of income through trading. Various legal structures are available, and professional advice should be sought during the process.

How can social enterprises be funded?

Social enterprises can be funded through grants, loans, investments, and crowdfunding. It is important to explore funding options and seek professional advice when considering financing for a social enterprise.

What is the impact of social enterprises?

Social enterprises have a significant impact on reducing economic inequality, improving social justice, and promoting environmental sustainability. They contribute to the economy, create jobs, and address a wide range of social issues.

What is the mission of social enterprises?

The mission of social enterprises is to combine financial success with social and environmental impact. They aim to create both financial and social value, prioritizing impact alongside financial sustainability.

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