Just what exactly is a social enterprise? More clarity needed, NUS researchers say

SINGAPORE - The term "social enterprise" pops up more in the media these days - from 36 articles in The Straits Times and The Business Times in 2008 to 169 in 2013 - but not everyone is clear about what is a social enterprise, say researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Greater clarity is needed in the use of the term, said researchers from the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy, an arm of the NUS business school, at the launch of a paper titled Landscape Of Social Enterprises in Singapore on Tuesday.

Companies such as T-Ware, a firm which specialises in creating therapy jackets for people with autism, call themselves social enterprises. As do firms like GrabTaxi. It allows users to call a cab via their app and offers taxi drivers extra income when they accept a certain number of jobs.

"We need more clarity - investors and consumers need to know what they are getting themselves into when they say that they support a social enterprise," said the centre's research associate Roshini Prakash, who wrote the paper with colleague Pauline Tan.

Said social entrepreneur Carrie Tan, 32 : "Some companies misuse the term. Investors might feel cheated and they become wary supporting social enterprises in future. The real ones trying to do good will suffer."

In contrast, South Korea has rigid rules for defining what a social enterprise is. Government-certified social enterprises must re-invest two-thirds of their profits into a social purpose and at least 50 per cent of revenues must come from business, and not purely charity.

Singapore's serious social enterprises usually join the Social Enterprise Association, a national body championing the sector. Some 180 out of 300 self-identified social enterprises here are registered with it. Companies need to have a viable business model and define their intended social impact in order to be listed.

The association also checks if companies meet their intended social goals each year, said Interim Executive Director Alfie Othman.

To clarify the concept of social enterprise, the centre is launching a two-month public consultation process to gather views on social enterprises here, with the goal of submitting a White Paper to government agencies.

The discussion will also tackle questions like how to grow the sector. Feedback can be submitted at www.seconversation.sg till August 3.