All over Europe, organisations that can be defined as social enterprises have grown into an increasingly important entrepreneurial dynamic over the past few decades.
However, in spite of the wide use of the term and gradual convergence of meanings under way at the EU level, social enterprises are still conceived in significantly different manners by national legislatures, policy strategies, academics and social entrepreneurs. Moreover, there is a tendency to mix two main approaches, which refer to distinct phenomena. The first approach aims to clearly identify the key features that social enterprises – conceived as new entrepreneurial forms – are expected to show. The second approach – often referred to as ‘social entrepreneurship’ – is meant to designate more general entrepreneurial dynamics oriented to social innovation and social impact.
Based on the Mapping Study and previous research, it can be stated that the approach that is most widely used across EU Member States is the first one (the Commission, 2014). It has led to two main types of definitions of social enterprise, which are illustrated in Table 1:
- Organisational definitions, focusing on the intrinsic features that social enterprises show;
- Sector-specific definitions, looking only at specific types of organisations operating in the field of social inclusion, mainly by facilitating the work integration of people excluded from the labour market (‘work integration social enterprises’, or WISEs). These definitions are often conceived as sub-classifications of organisational definitions.