Social Enterprises Are Fixing What Government Destroys

Why should the poor have to live in a blurry world? VisionSpring’s mission is to ensure that “equitable and affordable eyeglass is available to every individual to live a productive life.” The company has sold over a million cheap, ready-made eyeglasses to people throughout the world who typically earn less than $8 per day.

VisionSpring exemplifies the idea of “social enterprise.” But what exactly does it mean to be social, and how do social ventures compare with ordinary businesses?

Enterprises are labeled “social” when they seek to address broad public needs in addition to the narrow needs of their customers. In practice, this usually means running a conventional business in a special way in order to solve a social problem. VisionSpring, for example, is an enterprise in the sense that it operates as a profit-seeking business rather than as a charity. But it’s social in that it prioritizes helping people to regain their sight over maximizing profits.

The varying motivations of social enterprises sometimes clash and often leave them without clear measures of success and failure. As a result, reactions to social ventures are mixed: some see them as exciting alternatives to corporate bureaucracy and greed, while others dismiss them as naïve attempts to replace traditional business with misguided social philosophy.

Neither position captures what social enterprise really does.

It’s true that philosophies of social enterprise are sometimes based on faulty reasoning. One common confusion involves treating the pursuit of profit as if it were at odds with social goals. As economists have argued for centuries, the profit motive is actually a powerful source of peaceful cooperation and human flourishing. Yet, social entrepreneurs frequen…