The Sunday Times says

Balancing trade and charity

Larger social enterprises here, like NTUC Fairprice Co-operative, routinely seek top business professionals to help extend their reach. Just good social intentions alone wouldn't have made it the largest supermarket retailer. It also takes business savvy and market experience to grow any organisation that is dedicated to delivering social, community or environmental impact.

This is being recognised by other social enterprises too. It is a natural development as the movement picks up steam, attracting impact investors, incubators and supporting agencies. The hard-headed realism that corporate types can bring to a values-driven organisation is essential to help it thrive commercially in order to do more charitable work. That logic, however, must not overwhelm its mission. The aim should be to marry the discipline of professionals with the passion of social activists so that businesses can succeed even in highly competitive fields.

To consumers and corporates supporting social enterprises what matters is that these hybrid organisations are faithful to public perceptions of their objectives. There's the rub: It can be hard to tell who are doing charity by doing business and those doing charity while doing business. The presence of corporate honchos in social enterprises might further blur the line. The trouble is there is no consensus on the definition of a social enterprise, apart from what is set out for co-operatives by legislation. Social enterprises must deliver both financial value and social value, but in what proportion? Some might expect a degree of community involvement to be a distinguishing feature, among others. Top managers entering this sector ought to contribute to this discussion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'Balancing trade and charity'. Print Edition | Subscribe