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Academic insight: Professor Dennis Young

In this interview, Dennis R. Young talks about his concept of the ‘zoo’ and its analytical implication for nonprofits and social enterprises.

In this interview with Georg von Schnurbein, Dennis R. Young, Professor Emeritus at Georgia State University and Visiting Professor at Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, Case Western Reserve University, talks about his concept of the social enterprise zoo and what this means for the analysis of nonprofits and social enterprises.

Professor Dennis R. Young

You talk about the social entrepreneurship zoo. Please explain what you mean with this concept.

Actually, I call it the social enterprise zoo. So, I am going to make a little bit of a distinction here between social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. Social entrepreneurship is seen as a process of what social entrepreneurs do in creating social enterprises and social ventures. Social enterprise is a venture. The social enterprise zoo is the variety of ventures that are created to carry out different kinds of social missions and projects. That requires that we define what we mean by a social enterprise. I offer a very general and simple definition. A social enterprise is a financially sustainable economic venture that is intended to have a positive social impact. The concept of the social enterprise zoo is that there is a great variety of ways in which that can be accomplished. And it is actually developed in different ways around the world through different strategies, organizational forms and organizational designs or legal forms.

What differences do you see between social enterprises and nonprofits?

The zoo is meant to promote the notion that social enterprise is a very general term that is defined in many different ways by many different researchers and policy makers. The paradigm of the social enterprise zoo is a framework and nonprofits fit into this framework together with many other forms that can also be called social enterprises. So, I would consider nonprofits social enterprises along with social businesses, social cooperatives, and many other private public partnerships. It is hard to say where the boundaries are, but nonprofits fit within those boundaries.
Let’s think about nonprofits as one of many types of social enterprises. The question is not, if nonprofits are different from social enterprises. They are one of several types of social enterprises and they can learn from, work with, collaborate with, perhaps compete with other types of social enterprises. They can think about how they can benefit from or perhaps be concerned with other types of social enterprises. For example, in the United States, the first thoughts about social enterprises in the nonprofit sector came from whether nonprofits could generate more of their own income by creating their own commercial types of ventures where they could bolster their financial strength through commercial sales. That’s the way they thought about social enterprises, whereas in other parts of the world social enterprises were thought about quite differently.

What can nonprofits learn from social enterprises?

Different types of social enterprises have different comparative advantages. Just like nonprofits know more about raising voluntary resources and donations better than social business, social businesses are probably better at attracting investors, so there is that kind of learning. This is one of the things we talk about in our book. We try to draw a picture of the zoo using a framework that sketches out the whole territory between maximum profit or maximum social impact. It is a frontier construct of the trade-off that you achieve if you want to emphasize one over the other. If you look at that, different types of social enterprises will be in different parts of the territory. Nonprofits will be more toward the social impact part and social businesses will be closer to the for-profit part. Some will be closer to maximum efficiency and others will be under the frontier. The idea is that some types of social enterprises may be more efficient, others may be more innovative. But the different types of social enterprises can learn from each other in terms of how innovative they are, how efficient they are, how they make trade-offs between becoming more socially responsive versus more profitable. One of the major contributions of the social enterprise zoo is that we should not think about social enterprise as a homogeneous concept. There is not one ideal way of doing social enterprise, but one can learn from another. Every form has its legitimate idea, both for self-interest and social interest purposes.

Thank you for the interview!

Further reading

Young, D. R., Searing, E. A. M., Brewer, C. V. (2016). The Social Enterprise Zoo. A Guide for Perplexed Scholars, Entrepreneurs, Philanthropists, Leaders, Investors, and Policymakers. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

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