Workplace Innovations · · 5 min read

Legal Structures for Social Enterprises: What You Need to Know

Choosing the right legal structure is a critical decision for any business, and it holds even more significance when you’re launching a social enterprise. Social enterprises are mission-driven organizations committed to making a positive impact on society and the environment while balancing financia

Legal Structures for Social Enterprises What You Need to Know

Choosing the right legal structure is a critical decision for any business, and it holds even more significance when you’re launching a social enterprise. Social enterprises are mission-driven organizations committed to making a positive impact on society and the environment while balancing financial sustainability.

In this guide, we will explore the various legal structures available for social enterprises, their advantages, disadvantages, and what you need to consider when making this crucial decision.

Sole Proprietorship and Partnership

Sole proprietorships are the most common type of business in the US. There are over 27 million sole proprietorships in the US, accounting for over 72% of all businesses.

These are the simplest legal structures and are often used for small-scale social enterprises. In a sole proprietorship, one individual owns and operates the business, while a partnership involves two or more individuals.

Sole proprietorships and partnerships are generally available in every state in the United States, but the specific rules and regulations governing these business structures may vary from state to state.


  • Easy and inexpensive to set up.
  • Complete control over decision-making.
  • Minimal regulatory requirements.


  • Personal liability for business debts and legal issues.
  • Limited access to certain forms of funding.
  • Limited scalability and potential for growth.

Limited Liability Company (LLC)

An LLC combines elements of both partnerships and corporations, offering liability protection for owners (members) while allowing flexibility in management.

Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) are available in every state in the United States.

The LLC business structure has become one of the most popular choices for entrepreneurs and small business owners due to its flexibility, liability protection, and tax advantages.


  • Limited personal liability for members.
  • Pass-through taxation (profits and losses are reported on members’ individual tax returns).
  • Flexible management structure.


  • Complex regulations and reporting requirements in some jurisdictions.
  • Limited access to certain types of investment, like venture capital.
  • Potential for disputes among members without a clear operating agreement.


Legal Structures Social Enterprises

Corporations are separate legal entities from their owners (shareholders), providing strong liability protection but with more formalities and regulatory requirements.

Corporations are available for formation in every state in the United States. Each state has its own laws and regulations governing the creation and operation of corporations, and the specific requirements and processes can vary from state to state.


  • Limited personal liability for shareholders.
  • Easier access to external investment, including venture capital.
  • Perpetual existence allows for long-term planning.


  • Complex and formal administrative requirements, including regular shareholder meetings.
  • Double taxation (profits taxed at the corporate level, then again at the individual level when distributed as dividends).
  • Less flexibility in decision-making due to a hierarchical structure.

Benefit Corporation

Benefit Corporations are a legal structure specifically designed for social enterprises. They are required by law to balance profit generation with social and environmental impact.

The availability of Benefit Corporation status varies by state in the United States.

States adopted legislation at different times to accommodate this specific business entity. Please note that the landscape of business entity options and regulations can change over time.

It’s essential to check with the most current state laws and consult legal professionals or business advisors for up-to-date information on the availability of Benefit Corporation status in your specific state as of 2023 or beyond.


  • A clear legal commitment to a social or environmental mission.
  • Legal protection for directors and officers to prioritize impact.
  • Attracting socially conscious investors and customers.


  • Limited availability in some jurisdictions.
  • Ongoing reporting requirements related to social and environmental performance.
  • May face criticism for not being stringent enough in impact requirements.


Cooperatives are owned and democratically governed by their members, who can be employees, customers, or producers. They are a natural fit for social enterprises emphasizing community involvement and shared ownership.

Cooperatives are generally available to set up in every state in the United States.

Cooperatives, often abbreviated as “co-ops,” are organizations formed to serve the collective needs and interests of their members, who can be individuals, businesses, or other entities.


  • Democratic decision-making and shared ownership.
  • Limited liability for individual members.
  • Focus on social and economic well-being of members.


  • Potential for slower decision-making due to consensus-based governance.
  • Access to external funding can be challenging.
  • The risk of conflicts within the cooperative.

L3C (Low-profit Limited Liability Company)

The L3C is a relatively new legal structure designed to facilitate investments in socially beneficial ventures. It is available in a few U.S. states and blends aspects of LLCs with a specific focus on socially impactful activities.

Businesses that want to operate as an L3C in a state that does not have an L3C statute can incorporate in a state that does have an L3C statute and file as a foreign firm doing business in the state where they want to operate.

L3Cs are a relatively new type of business entity, and they are still gaining traction in the United States. However, they offer a number of advantages for businesses that want to combine the flexibility and limited liability of an LLC with a commitment to social and environmental responsibility.


  • Attracts mission-driven investors.
  • Offers pass-through taxation.
  • Simplifies compliance with program-related investments (PRIs) from foundations.


  • Limited availability in certain jurisdictions.
  • May not provide sufficient legal protection for impact intentions.
  • Complex regulatory landscape in some states.
Key Considerations When Choosing a Legal Structure for Your Social Enterprise

Mission Alignment

Ensure that the chosen legal structure supports your social enterprise’s mission and impact goals.

Liability Protection

Consider how much personal liability you and your team are willing to accept.

Funding Requirements

Assess your financing needs and determine which legal structure is most suitable for accessing capital.

Regulatory Compliance

Understand the legal and reporting requirements associated with each structure, as they can vary widely.

Flexibility and Governance

Consider your desired level of control over decision-making and the structure’s ability to accommodate your governance preferences.

Long-Term Goals

Think about your social enterprise’s growth potential and whether the chosen structure aligns with your long-term vision.

Choosing the right legal structure for your social enterprise is a crucial decision that can significantly impact your ability to fulfill your mission, attract investors, and achieve long-term sustainability.

Careful consideration of the pros and cons of each structure, along with a clear understanding of your enterprise’s unique needs and goals, will help you make an informed choice that aligns with your commitment to creating positive social and environmental change.

Remember to consult with legal and financial experts to navigate the complexities of the legal landscape and ensure your social enterprise’s legal structure serves your mission effectively.

Read next

environment ·

13 Best Shirts for a Cause

In an era where conscious consumerism is more than just a trend, it’s a lifestyle, shirts for a cause has become top of mind and a model for sustainable and impact fashion. This innovative approach to apparel not only dresses individuals in high-quality, stylish shirts but also serves a higher purpo