Frequently asked questions

If you’re new to the world of social enterprise or want to know more about the Social Enterprise Mark, then you can find more information in our frequently asked questions (FAQs), below. You can also read the FAQs about the Social Enterprise Gold Mark.

Q. What is social enterprise?

Social enterprise is defined as a business that trades primarily for social and environmental purposes. Social enterprises work in almost every industry in the UK, from health to transport to IT to recycling to education and employment.

Social enterprises work to a triple-bottom line (people, planet, profit), providing a sustainable business model for the future.

Some of them are well known, like The Big Issue, Age UK Enterprises, Eden Project and Bristol Community Health. But there are many more which are not high profile that are working across the UK and beyond to provide innovative solutions to some of the most pressing issues we face. Read social enterprise case studies.

Generally speaking, a social business is not the same as a social enterprise. There is no UK-wide legal social enterprise definition but the criteria for the Social Enterprise Mark were developed and agreed by representatives across the social enterprise sector.

Q. How can I set up a social enterprise?

When setting up a social enterprise, you can use the Social Enterprise Mark to help you. The Mark’s criteria act as a template and show how a social enterprise operates. We can provide advice and guidance for setting up a social enterprise.

Q. What is the Social Enterprise Mark?

The Social Enterprise Mark is the UK and international certification authority, backed up by the independent Certification Panel. It proves when a social enterprise creates social value. It is the pathway to becoming a more effective social enterprise.

The Social Enterprise Mark guarantees when a business operates as a social enterprise, using profits or surpluses to improve society and protect the environment, rather than making profits for shareholders or owners.

The Social Enterprise Mark is for organisations which are committed to genuine social enterprise principles and want to safeguard their integrity.  It provides differentiation from competition. Customers trust the Social Enterprise Mark and are assured that businesses displaying the Social Enterprise Mark have proved they are trading to benefit people and protect the planet. See the Directory of social enterprises certified with the Social Enterprise Mark.

You can apply to be assessed and verified by the Social Enterprise Mark, which is subject to annual review and renewal. The Social Enterprise Mark CIC is a certification authority, providing a licence which acts as a social value guarantee; it is not a membership organisation.

Q. Can anyone buy the Social Enterprise Mark?

NO! Not everyone who applies for the Social Enterprise Mark is successful, but we always give advice on required changes. Organisations have been turned down in the assessment process, as well as by the Certification Panel. In addition, we rigorously remove the Mark from organisations that no longer fulfil our criteria. This is why we have an annual renewal process to ensure qualification and to protect the Social Enterprise Mark standard.

Q. What is the reason for the Mark?

Social enterprises are businesses doing really extraordinary things in new and innovative ways.  As the social enterprise sector grows in size, there is a danger of it becoming diluted by businesses using social enterprise as a disguise for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Anyone can call themselves a social enterprise, so how do we identify one, if there is no benchmark or standard?

The Social Enterprise Mark CIC believes it is beneficial to our economy, our society and our environment to have a certification scheme for organisations which are committed to genuine social enterprise principles and want to safeguard their integrity.

For many businesses, Social Enterprise Mark certification is just the start of the journey. Our Social Enterprise Gold Mark encourages social enterprises to strive for excellence.

In response to the Public Services (Social Value) Act, social enterprises can prove they create social value by achieving the Social Enterprise Mark.

Q. What is the Social Enterprise Gold Mark?

The Social Enterprise Gold Mark is the route to social enterprise excellence. The Social Enterprise Gold Mark offers enhanced accreditation to Social Enterprise Mark Holders who can show best practice in proof points across three areas: governance, business ethics and financial transparency. This is not just about social impact, it’s about measuring what makes a great social enterprise excellent. Your organisation will be externally assessed by our Certification Panel and asked to set new goals for continuous improvement on a rolling basis every three years. Read more about the Social Enterprise Gold Mark.

Read the Social Enterprise Gold Mark frequently asked questions.

Q. How does the Social Enterprise Mark prove social value?

To qualify for the Mark, social enterprises must meet the criteria, which includes proving that between 50-100% of profits are spent on social purposes. The Social Enterprise Mark is the only way to guarantee this, acting as a benchmark when bidding for contracts.

Q. How much does the Mark cost?

The licence for the Social Enterprise Mark is renewable and payable annually. The Mark provides independent verification that a business genuinely operates as a social enterprise, and also provides marketing advice and support – see the key benefits. The annual cost of the licence for the Mark varies according to the annual income of your business:

Annual income Fee (+ VAT)
less than £150,000 £350
£150,001 – £500,000 £450
£500,001 – £999,999 £550
£1,000,000 – £4,999,999 £690
£5,000,000 – £9,999,999 £1,200
£10,000,000 – £14,999,999 £2,000
£15,000,000 – £29,999,999 £3,000
£30,000,000 and above £4,500

If you are a member of Social Enterprise UK, Social Enterprise West Midlands, Plymouth Social Enterprise Network, or Milton Keynes Community Enterprise Network, you are entitled to a 10% discount off your first year’s licence for the Social Enterprise Mark. Likewise if you are a Mark Holder, you will receive a 10% discount off new membership to these organisations. Similarly, if you are a member of Social Enterprise Yorkshire & the Humber (SEYH), you are entitled to a 5% discount off your first year’s licence for the Social Enterprise Mark and if you are a Mark Holder, you will receive a 5% discount off new membership to SEYH.

Only one discount – the largest one – is claimable.

Q. What is the objective of the Mark?

The primary objective of the Mark is to provide an independent guarantee when a social enterprise puts at least 50% of its profits towards social or environmental good. The Mark protects social enterprise principles through the impartial assessment process, backed up by the independent Certification Panel.

The Social Enterprise Mark provides a benchmark for genuine social enterprises according to the agreed social enterprise definition. It is the pathway to becoming a more effective social enterprise.

Having the Mark will give a social enterprise access to a network that connects them not only with each other, but with consumers and other businesses for trading opportunities.

The Social Enterprise Mark CIC is a Community Interest Company and a certified social enterprise with the Social Enterprise Mark itself. It was set up by the social enterprise sector, and delivers its mandate.

Q. How does a social enterprise qualify for the Mark?

  • Does it have social and/or environmental aims?
  • Does it have its own constitution and governing body?
  • Are at least 50% of company profits spent on socially beneficial purposes?
  • Does it earn at least 50% of its income from trading?
  • Can it demonstrate that social/environmental aims are being achieved?
  • If the company ceased trading would remaining assets be distributed for social/environmental purposes?
  • Is it creating social value?

Q. My constitution does not quite fit the criteria, but I want to get the Mark, can you help?

Some Social Enterprise Mark Holders decided to modify their constitution or adopt a new one to meet the Social Enterprise Mark criteria and become certified social enterprises. Find out how.

Q. Who decides if a social enterprise meets the criteria?

If a social enterprise meets the criteria listed then it is easy to get the Mark. If there are social enterprises that are borderline applications or ones which are not straightforward to assess, they are reviewed by a panel of business, legal and social enterprise experts.

Q. Do you have to renew the Mark?

Yes. The licence to use the Mark is granted for one year and Mark Holders will need to be assessed annually. Some of their organisations details will remain the same which means that renewal is a straightforward process. However, it is necessary to check that the social enterprises are still meeting the criteria to retain the Mark’s integrity.

Q. What do we know about social enterprise?

Government figures estimate that there are 70,000 social enterprises in the UK, contributing £24 billion to the economy and employing at least 800,000 people.

Recent data (The People’s Business, shows “the social enterprise sector in the UK is thriving, with a huge proportion of start-ups and high expectations of growth. Social enterprises are attracting more female leaders and more leaders from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities than mainstream businesses. Common indicators of business success – growth, optimism and innovation – are very healthy among social enterprises compared with mainstream businesses. Social enterprises are more likely than SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) to report that their turnover has grown in the last year.”

Q. What are the legal requirements to get the Mark?

Your business needs to have its own constitution (eg not be part of a local authority or a sole trader) and in your constitution you need to show that you have clear social and/or environmental aims, and that a principle proportion (50% or more) of any profit made by the business is dedicated to social/environmental purposes, as well as any remaining assets, if your organisation was to close.

Q. What are the trading requirements to get the Mark?

You need to show that at least 50% of your income comes from trading.

Q. 50% of my organisation’s profits are distributed to members/shareholders – is there a cap on the maximum share dividend?

No, there is no cap on share dividend, only on profit distribution to members/shareholders (50% maximum). The remainder of the profits must be used for social purpose.

Q. What documentation do I need to provide to get the Mark?

Most of the evidence you need is contained in your constitution and your most recent set of year-end or final accounts, typically filed at Companies House/FSA/Charities Commission. We would also like to see an example of any externally verified evidence to show that your organisation is meeting its social or environmental objectives.

Q. Do I need to provide separate pieces of externally verified evidence to show that my organisation is measuring both its social and environmental impact?

No, we suggest that you provide whichever type of impact is most relevant to your organisation and its objectives.

Q. How much of my total income needs to be from trading?

At least 50%.

Q. How do you define trading?

Trading is defined as income from sales, a contract or service level agreement with defined outputs. Trading excludes grants and donations. 50% traded income is accepted as a way of distinguishing a business from a grant reliant organisation. In relation, to total income generated from trading activities:
1. Where an applicant has a high level of income from the public sector, a closer assessment may be required to confirm this is from contract/s not grant income.
2. If you are unsure whether an income stream is a grant or a contract (trade), consider the following: is it competitively tendered, are costs fully recovered, are there numerical targets, are surpluses retained by the delivery organisation?
If the answer to these questions is yes, it is likely to be traded income.

Q. What legal structure do I need to have?

Mark Holders come in all shapes and sizes. We have companies limited by guarantee, community interest companies, industrial and provident societies, companies limited by shares.

Q. Can I get the Mark if I don’t make any profit?

Yes, in fact many social enterprises provide ongoing financial support to social or environmental activities and so will never aim to make significant profits.

Q. I’m a charity, can I get the Mark?

Yes, if you can meet the trading criteria.

Q. My organisation is only just setting up, should I think about the Mark now?

If you are thinking of setting up a social enterprise, now is a good time to look at the Mark criteria. You can use it as an action plan to inform your choice of legal structure and to be eligible for the Mark when you can demonstrate you meet the criteria of 50% of your income from trading.

Q. Why is it important for me to display the Mark once I have been awarded it?

Make the Mark work for you.  After you’ve been awarded the Mark, you should now play your part by telling your customers and stakeholders that you have proved your social enterprise credentials. The growth of ethical consumerism, demand to see social value and ‘green-wash’ from corporations, all mean it’s important to show your certified social enterprise status.  Customers want to buy with confidence, from a company they trust to put profits back into the community rather than to private owners, and that make decisions based on concern for society and the environment.

Q. I’m a social enterprise advisor, what are the key messages for me?

Ensure social enterprises are separately constituted and can show in their constitution that they have clear social and/or environmental aims, and they have an asset retention clause. Specifically, they should:

  • have social and/or environmental aims?
  • have it’s own constitution and governing body?
  • at least 50% of the company profits spent on socially beneficial purposes?
  • earn at least 50% of its income from trading?
  • demonstrate that social/environmental aims are being achieved?
  • If the company ceased trading would remaining assets be distributed for social/environmental purposes

Q. How do I renew my licence?

Renewing your licence could not be simpler:
One month before your renewal is due you will be sent a reminder email, asking you to advise us of any changes. The online renewal form asks for some basic information about changes to your constitution, your recent accounts and achievements, and information about your social impact. If you remain eligible, you will be invoiced and on payment your licence will be renewed.

Q. How do I apply?

Applying for the Mark couldn’t be easier: complete the simple online form or call our helpline on 0845 504 6536. We’re here to help Monday to Friday, 9am til 5pm.

Simply, agree to the Terms and Conditions and we’ll help you complete the online form.

When you apply for the Mark and you will be sent confirmation details by email. If you have any queries, we’ll help you.

In a nutshell, we need to know:

  • Does your company have social and/or environmental aims?
  • Does your company have it’s own constitution and governing body?
  • Are at least 50% of the company profits spent on socially beneficial purposes?
  • Does the company earn at least 50% of its income from trading?*
  • Can your company demonstrate that social/environmental aims are being achieved?
  • If your company ceased trading would remaining assets be distributed for social/environmental purposes?
  • Are you creating social value?

Q. My business has social and environmental objectives, but the constitution is that of a commercial company, am I eligible?

Social and/or environmental purpose should be expressed in the legal objects of the business. Find out how Holders of the Social Enterprise Mark changed their constitution to be able to get the Mark.

Q. We are an externalisation from the public sector, are we still eligible?

Additional evidence may be required to verify your independence.

Q. Why do we need to show that we are an independent business with our own governing document and governing body?

Independence and self-governance distinguishes business from the public sector and from ‘projects’ within larger organisations. If you are an externalisation from the public sector, additional information may be required to verify your independence.

Q. Is there a minimum trading period for new starts?

NO, however you must be able to provide evidence to show that you have commenced trading. For example, a copy of a contract (if you have one) and management accounts showing earned income.

Q. Does a new start have to be legally constituted?

YES, you must have your own legal identity evidenced by a Company or IPS registration number.

Q. What if we have not reached the required 50% trading level after 18 months of holding the Mark?

At 12 month assessment and renewal you will be reminded of the pledge to be trading at this level; you will then be able to make an informed decision about whether or not to renew, based on your performance to-date and projections for the coming year. If, at the 18 month stage you have not reached the required trading level, we will have to cancel your licence.

Q. We are a consumer co-operative that pay dividends to members, made on the basis of purchases from the society, is this acceptable use of our profits?

Yes profits can be distributed in this way (to a maximum of 50%), the remainder should be used for social purpose.

Q. We are a worker co-operative and make dividend payments to worker members of cooperatives, does this meet your criteria about profit distribution?

Yes, so long as no more than 50% of distributable profit is shared in this way. Remaining profits should be used for social purpose, to ensure that profits are primarily used for wider social benefit.

Q. Is operating to cooperative principles an acceptable social/environmental object, even if the primary object is commercial trading?

Yes, this would meet our criteria of having social objects. We would need evidence for criterion F, to demonstrate how you operate to co-operative principles, in particular Co-operative principle 7, concern for community.

Q. Are co-operatives eligible for the Mark?

Whether or not co-operatives are eligible or not depends very much on the wording of the Constitutions they have chosen; the Constitution does need to meet the relevant criterion. Currently, 9 out of 10 co-operatives that applied for the Mark have been awarded the Mark.

Q. Where did the Mark come from?

Research conducted by COI on behalf of the Office of the Third Sector in 2008 found that even when pitching the concept of (and words) ‘social enterprise’ to sympathetic sections of the population, there was little recognition of the term and even some scepticism by the public that combining business practice with delivering social good was possible.

Further research suggested that a way to raise awareness would be through a ‘social enterprise identifier’ or ‘a social enterprise brand’. What is now the Social Enterprise Mark came out of extensive testing of different visual models and builds on the pilot in the South West, designed by Rise.