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What is the Social Economy?  

Relation to the Private and Public Sectors


Consider your own community   

Why Research?   

Further Information

What is the Social Economy?

The Social Economy, which puts "people before profits", has a long and illustrious history, especially in Europe. In Canada we are not as used to the concept, but that does not mean that the social economy has not been important to Canada! This section of our website will help you explore what this term means. Your comments and reflections are welcome – contact us.

The research of the Social Economy and Sustainability Research Network is partnered research, research that answers questions that are important to the community-based members of the team, and contributes knowledge that they can use “on the ground”. We do not all define the social economy in the same way, and for most members of the team the concept is not a familiar one. However, we find the term social economy to be useful as an inclusive term that challenges us to think in different ways about the many facets of the economy – the processes and institutions through which we meet in our needs. After all, we humans create our economy, so why not open up new ways of thinking, of valuing the many ways we do this?

Drawing on a wide range of writings on the social economy, including ones mentioned below, L. Brown (Director, Social Economy and Sustainability Research Network) finds it useful to think of the social economy in the following way:

"Rooted in local communities and independent from government, Social Economy organizations are democratic and/or participatory, pull together many types of resources in a socially owned entity, and prioritize social objectives and social values. While they may intend to make a profit, they do so in a context that sees profit as a means to meet social goals, not primarily as a means to create individual wealth. They may rely on volunteer labour as well as, or instead of, paid employees. The Social Economy is characterized by mutual self-help initiatives, and by initiatives to meet the needs of disadvantaged members of society." (L. Brown, MSVU, 2008)

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The Social Economy in Relation to the Private and Public Sectors

Mook, Quarter and Richmond devote Chapter 2 of the second edition of their book What Counts? to the subject of the social economy. While the lines between the private public and social economy sectors are often blurry, they offer a classification system that can be very useful. For these authors, the social economy includes public sector nonprofits (e.g. museums, Children’s Aid Societies, food banks) that typically depend on government monies for a substantial portion of their revenues, market-based associations that generate most, if not all of their income from the market (e.g. most co-operatives, Blue Cross, the YMCA), and civil society organizations which overlap neither the market nor the public sector (e.g. non-profit mutuals such as a religious congregation, and volunteer organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, and Amnesty International). For Mook et al., the term social economy is “A bridging concept for organizations that have social objectives central to their mission and their practice, and either have explicit economic objectives or generate some economic value through the services they provide and purchases they undertake”--Laurie Mook, Jack Quarter, Betty Jane Richmond, What Counts: Social Accounting for Nonprofits and Cooperatives 2nd edition (Sigel Press, London, 2007), p.17.

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There are many definitions of the social economy. Many of these can be found on the websites of the Social Economy Hub, the Chantier de l’économie sociale and l'Alliance de recherche universités-communautés en économie sociale (ARUC-ÉS).

Here we present numerous definitions to give a sense of the range of variation.

1. A definition in broad use in the province of Québec is one developed by the Chantier de l’économie sociale: “The Social Economy (SE) refers to association-based economic initiatives founded on values of solidarity, autonomy and citizenship, embodied in the following principles:  a primary goal of service to members of the community rather than accumulating profit; autonomous management (as distinguished from public programs); democratic decision making processes; primacy of people over capital and redistribution of profit; and operations based on the principles of participation, empowerment, and individual and collective accountability.”

2. In an interesting article on defining the SE, the federal government department, Western Economic Diversification Canada, includes the following as examples of SE organizations:  "… co-operatives, foundations, credit unions, non-profit organizations, charities and social enterprises. They are not part of the private sector or government, but form a third sector.  A social economy enterprise operates like a business, produces goods and services for the market, but manages its operations and redirects its surpluses in pursuit of social and environmental goals".  For the complete article by Fiona Salkie, Senior WD Policy Analysis in Edmonton, see their newsletter, Access West, Apr-June 2005 (pdf 564KB)

3. Human Resources and Social Development Canada has explored a variety of federal government-supported initiatives studying the social economy in Canada.  In a fact sheet about the Social Economy developed in 2005, they indicate that:  “The social economy is a grass-roots entrepreneurial, not-for-profit sector, based on democratic values, that seeks to enhance the social, economic, and environmental conditions of communities, often with a focus on their disadvantaged members.”

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Consider your own community – What organizations do you think are part of the Social Economy?

*       Think about how the local school is run – are there any volunteer organizations there?

*       What about people who are shut-in at home or have reduced mobility? Are there any groups that help them out?

*       Do you have a United Way in your community? What groups do they support?

*       Are there any co-operatives or credit unions in your community? What do they do?

*       Has anyone set up a business that has as its main objective a social purpose? If so, is that part of the social economy – maybe as a social enterprise?

Organizations that are usually considered to be part of the Social Economy are: co-operatives, credit unions, non-profit organizations, volunteer organizations, charities, foundations, social enterprises, service clubs, environmental groups, recreational and sports associations. How important are these types of organizations to the quality of life in your community?

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Two publications provide an introduction to the role of non-profit and co-operative organizations in Atlantic Canada:

The Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector in Atlantic Canada - Regional Highlights of the National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations, P. Rowe, 2006 (PDF, 785 KB)

The National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations (NSNVO), conducted in 2003, is the first comprehensive study of nonprofit and voluntary organizations in Canada. This report, one of a series of regional reports, profiles the Atlantic region. Close to 13,000 incorporated organizations and registered charities operated in the four Atlantic
Provinces in 2003, creating a powerful social and economic force with combined annual revenues of $5.7 billion.

SES/ÉSD Network Working Paper #2008-01 - A Portrait of Co-operatives and Credit Unions in Atlantic Canada: Preliminary Analysis, L. Thériault, R. Skibbens, L. Brown (2008). (PDF, 265 KB) (Ce rapport est aussi disponible dans le français).

This document is the second publication in our Network's Working Paper Series. 

Accompanying maps (see fact sheet for project 1.1) for A Portrait of Co-operatives and Credit Unions in Atlantic Canada: Preliminary Analysis  Special thanks to PhD student Lei Jiang at University of New Brunswick - Fredericton, NB, for technical assistance in creating this preliminary set of 20 maps.

Social Enterprises and the Social Economy:

One type of social economy organization that is receiving a lot of attention right now is the social enterprise. For example, the Fraser Valley Centre for Social Enterprise is promoting social enterprises. They offer this as one definition: “A social enterprise is a revenue-generating business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to deliver profit to shareholders and owners.”

See the site Enterprising Non-profits for discussion of social enterprises as a means to strengthen non-profits and the communities they serve.

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Why Research the Social Economy?
There are many gaps in the knowledge known about the social economy and the impact it has on individuals, communities and society. Research can help to expand the understanding of the contributions of social economy organizations to:

*       The quality of life in communities

*       The health of the population

*       Creating opportunities and empowering communities

*       The delivery of a wide range of health and social services

*       The relations these organizations have with the public and private sector

*       Community economic development

*       Job creation, and integration of people into the labour market

*       Social cohesion in communities

Research can also support:

*       The development of new theories about the social economy

*       Conceptualizing & describing the social economy

*       Policy inventory & analysis

*       Community mobilization around issues of common concern

*       Measuring & financing the social economy

*       Modeling & researching communication & dissemination

*       Methods to improve the effectiveness of social economy organizations

*       Methods to improve the efficiency of social economy organizations

Further Information: (check out the Social Economy LibGuide)

A Review of the Theory and Practice of Social Economy / Économie Sociale in Canada (PDF 294.54KB) by William A. Ninacs with assistance from Michael Toye (2002).

Living Economies: Perspectives on Canada’s Social Economy, J. J. McMurtry (ed.) Edmond Montgomery Publications (2008)

What is the Social Economy? (PDF, 139 KB) -  Jack Quarter, Laurie Mook and Betty Jane Richmond (2003).  Centre for Urban and Community Studies, Research Bulletin #13, March 2003 - Based on "The Social Economy," Chapter 2 of What Counts:  Social Accounting for Nonprofits and Cooperatives, Prentice-Hall, 2003.

ÉS and RQRP-ÉS: (PDF, 1674 KB)

Database on Social Economy Organizations: The Qualification Criteria (pdf, 423 KB)  * Also Available Online
M. J. Bouchard, C. Ferraton, V. Michaud

Chaire de recherche du Canada en économie sociale (through Université du Québec À Montréal)

Bouchard, Marie J., et al. (2006). Database on social economy organizations: The qualification criteria. Working Papers of the Canada Research Chair on the Social Economy, Research Series no. R-2006-03. Translated by Donna Riley. Available online


Fact sheets for Atlantic Provinces

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