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What is the difference between Social Enterprises, Non-profits, and Corporate Social Responsibility?

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

I have spent some time at the "City Catalysts: Empowering Social Entrepreneurs in Urban Spaces" event, curated by AirAsia Foundation recently in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. When I asked one of the volunteers on that day, do you know what is 'Social Enterprise'? The person shook his head, hence I started the whole explanation about the concept and examples. This is not the first person in Malaysia that I have spoken with who is not aware of social enterprises, and commonly they are confused with non-profits or corporate social responsibility programs.

A group photo of the event curated by AirAsia Foundation
Photo Credit: AirAsia Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the AirAsia Group

Social enterprise, non-profits, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are three distinct approaches to addressing social and environmental issues, each with its characteristics and objectives. Here is an overview of each concept:

(A) Social Enterprise:

  • Definition: Social enterprises are businesses that operate with the primary goal of addressing social or environmental issues. They blend the social mission of a non-profit organization with the market-driven approach of a for-profit business. It can be legally structured as a 'for-profit' or 'non-profit' entity.

  • Objective: A social enterprise's primary objective is to achieve social and financial sustainability. Profits generated are reinvested in the business to further its social mission.

  • Revenue Model: Social enterprises generate revenue through the sale of goods or services. They often aim to be financially self-sustainable rather than relying solely on donations or grants.

  • Example: TOMS Shoes is a well-known social enterprise that follows a "One for One" model, donating a pair of shoes for every pair sold.

(B) Non-profits:

  • Definition: Non-profit organizations (NPOs) exist to address a particular social or environmental cause. They do not distribute profits to private individuals and typically rely on donations, grants, and fundraising to support their activities.

  • Objective: The primary goal of non-profits is to fulfill their mission and contribute to the well-being of society. They may focus on issues such as poverty alleviation, education, healthcare, or environmental conservation.

  • Revenue Model: Non-profits depend on funding from various sources, including government grants, private donations, and philanthropic organizations.

  • Example: The Red Cross is a global non-profit organization dedicated to humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

(C) Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR):

  • Definition: CSR refers to the initiatives and activities that a profit-oriented company voluntarily undertakes to operate in an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable manner. It involves businesses taking responsibility for the impact of their operations on various stakeholders. You may also understand more about CSR short and long-term planning from the previous blog post.

  • Objective: The main objective of CSR is to contribute positively to society while maintaining the business's profitability. This can involve activities such as ethical sourcing, environmental sustainability, and community engagement.

  • Implementation: CSR initiatives may include philanthropy, community development projects, environmentally friendly practices, and fair labor practices.

  • Example: Unilever is known for its sustainable living plan, which includes goals for reducing environmental impact, improving health and well-being, and enhancing livelihoods.

Key Differences:

Social Enterprises



Primary Focus

Social enterprises focus on addressing social or environmental issues through a sustainable business model.

Non-profits prioritize fulfilling their mission and rely on donations and grants.

CSR involves businesses incorporating responsible practices to balance financial goals with societal and environmental considerations.

Legal Structure

Social enterprises can be structured as for-profit or non-profit entities.

Non-profits are structured as charitable organizations.

CSR is integrated into the operations of for-profit corporations.

Revenue Model

Social enterprises generate revenue through the sale of goods or services.

Non-profits rely on donations, grants, and fundraising.

CSR is integrated into the business operations of for-profit companies, with the costs often absorbed as part of regular business activities.

Profit Distribution

Social enterprises reinvest profits into their social mission.

Non-profits do not distribute profits and use funds to support their cause.

Corporations engaging in CSR do not necessarily redistribute profits directly to social causes but invest in initiatives aligned with sustainable and responsible business practices.

In summary, social enterprises, non-profits, and CSR are distinct approaches, but they can also complement each other in creating a more holistic approach to addressing societal challenges. They all aim to contribute to social and environmental well-being but they differ in their structures, funding models, and the extent to which their activities are integrated into business operations. Nevertheless, each plays a unique role in driving positive change.



OpenAI. (2023). ChatGPT [Large language model].


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