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Canadian social enterprises: taking stock

Peter R. Elson (Institute for Nonprofit Studies, Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada)
Peter V. Hall (Urban Studies Program, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada)

Social Enterprise Journal

ISSN: 1750-8614

Publication date: 9 November 2012



The purpose of this research is to measure the economic and social/environmental/cultural activity of the social enterprise sector at a provincial level in Canada.


The research was implemented in three phases. In phase one, the structure and content of the mapping instrument was developed and tested. In phase two, the survey was circulated to all verified social enterprises in the sample frame to achieve a large and fully representative probability sample of social enterprises in both provinces. Data were subsequently collected for cleaning, entry, and analysis. Phase three involved the circulation of the survey results to social enterprise‐related networks in both provinces through both participant feedback and de‐briefing workshops.


Social enterprises surveyed had a number of non‐exclusive purposes. Eight (22 percent) Alberta (AB) social enterprises focused on employment and related activities while 51 (51 percent) of social enterprises in British Columbia (BC) had a similar focus. A total of 39 percent in AB and 47 percent of social enterprises in BC generated income for their parent organization. The highest percentage of social enterprises in both provinces (92 percent in AB/71 percent in BC) described themselves as having a social mission while 25 percent of social enterprises in AB and 35 percent in BC had a cultural mission. Environmental activities were pursued by 22 percent social enterprises in AB and 38 percent in BC.

Research limitations/implications

Notwithstanding the inclusion of the non‐profit corporate form in the paper's definition, social enterprise organizational form and legal structure tell us little about the activities or the impact of the organization. This is a tentative finding; it is indicative perhaps of the current, “pre‐institutionalized”, phase of social enterprise development, but more research needs to be conducted to fully examine and to elaborate on this proposition.

Practical implications

Measuring the size, strength and scope of social enterprises contributes to the important constellation of evidence, policy options, and political will that is necessary to put a policy on the political agenda. In BC, the survey results provided policy advocates with the first empirical evidence of the scope, size, and capacity of social enterprises in the province. This, together with existing anecdotal information, case stories, and stakeholder events, helped to convince policy makers that social enterprises are a viable and legitimate entity, worthy of serious policy support.

Social implications

The aim of this research was to provide relevant and timely information, not to define social enterprises as an end in itself. The operational definition of social enterprise was thus developed with the explicit purpose of conducting this investigation and as such, the authors are confident that it served its purpose. To this end, the authors trust that this survey, and its embedded structural‐functional definition, will contribute to the ongoing exploration of the number and nature of social enterprises in Canada and elsewhere.


This research set out to take stock of the structure, purpose, and operational activity of social enterprises in BC and AB. This was undertaken using a structural‐functional definition of social enterprise as “a business venture, owned or operated by a non‐profit organization that continuously sells goods or provides services in the market for the purpose of creating a blended return on investment; financial, social, environmental, and cultural”.



Elson, P.R. and Hall, P.V. (2012), "Canadian social enterprises: taking stock", Social Enterprise Journal, Vol. 8 No. 3, pp. 216-236.



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Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited