Glossary

The fields of social innovation have unique vocabularies to describe various practices and ideas.

The purpose of the glossary is to help give a general overview of key terms that are commonly used in social innovation discussion. Many of these terms will change over time as the field continues to develop and grow.


Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): the process in which businesses ethically build sustainable livelihoods for employees, surrounding communities, and society at large.

Human-Centered Design: also referred to as design thinking; a creative approach to problem solving and the backbone of the work at IDEO.org. It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailored to fit their needs

Innovative: characterizing something that is better or more effective than previous products or ideas; refers to the use of a new idea/method or the application of an existing idea/method to a new situation or context.

Intrapreneur: an individual who drives entrepreneurial or innovative positive change within an existing organization or business.

Impactful: having a positive impact on the world or arena one is working to change. Unlike traditional businesses that measure success in dollar signs, social enterprises attempt to measure the social impact they have on a problem or the individuals they work with. For example, the number of families increasing their earning ability by x percent, or youth recidivism reduced by x percent.

Impact Investing: the active placement of capital in businesses and funds that generates social and environmental benefits while simultaneously generating financial returns. Departing from a strict separation of the financial and philanthropic worlds, impact investing utilizes and blends best practices from traditional asset management, private equity and venture capital investing, business development, international and domestic economic development, and environmental innovation to support enterprises that maximize financial returns and social good.

Microenterprise: defined as small businesses with five or fewer employees. They are prevalent throughout the developing world where large companies that employ hundreds, like those seen in developed countries, are scarce. Forced into starting a microenterprise out of necessity, operators are often unskilled and barely living above poverty.

Microfranchise: broadly defined as small businesses that can easily be replicated by following proven marketing and operational concepts. The overall objective of microfranchising is to promote economic development by developing sound business models that can be replicated by entrepreneurs at the base of the pyramid; therefore, the start-up costs of microfranchises will be minimal. The key principle is replicating success to scale.

Nonprofit: a charitable organization that aims to provide a positive societal impact. Although nonprofits can generate revenue, it cannot be the primary purpose of the organization.

Replicable: capable of replication: in other words, a method or idea that can be reused and repeated in different settings, areas, or industries.

Scalable: capable of being easily expanded; having the potential to be replicated to the scope of the problem.

Social Entrepreneurship: a field of innovators using entrepreneurial strategies and principles to solve intractable problems of society at a systemic level.

Social Innovation: the ecosystem whereby new and innovative solutions to our global society’s greatest problems are solved.  This is an umbrella term used to describe the work that nonprofit organizations, socially driven for-profit companies, philanthropists, and others do to resolve world issues.

Sustainable: able to be maintained over time. (1) An organization that is sustainable is set up in such a way as to allow it to self-perpetuate, making it financially or otherwise viable in the long term. (2) A model with impact that is sustainable has a model that perpetuates change in an individual’s life beyond the period of direct interaction with the model’s intervention.