Social Enterprises = Sharing Economy Organizations?

By Johanna Mair, Nikolas Rathert and Georg Reischauer.

Sharing Economy Organizations

Uber, Airbnb, and Lyft are frequently cited and popular examples of new organizational forms operating in the sharing economy, which is growing at a stunning pace. One way to make sense of the sharing economy is to conceive it as a web of markets in which individuals use diverse forms of compensation to transact the redistribution of and access to resources (Mair & Reischauer, 2017).

These transactions are mediated by a digital platform run by an organization that focuses on the governance of these transactions (Reischauer & Mair, 2018a, b). Besides the focus on platform-enabled business models, the sharing economy has also spurred discussions about the implications of the sharing economy for society. Many commentators have argued that the sharing economy can become key in making modern societies more environmentally sustainable (Frenken & Schor, 2017) and inclusive (Etter, Fieseler, & Whelan, forthcoming). This debate parallels the debates on another important organizational form, social enterprises (Mair & Rathert, 2019).

Social Enterprises

Social enterprises encompass a diverse set of legal and organizational forms that use market means to effect social change (Mair & Marti, 2006). They address a range of social problems on different scales, including local communities and countries, and target societal groups that usually remain outside the reach of both commercial markets and state-run welfare schemes (Mair, Wolf, & Seelos, 2016). Social enterprises use a variety of commercial activities, including the selling of products and services, and include beneficiaries in various stages of the value creation chain (Mair & Martí, 2006; Mair, Battilana, & Cardenas, 2012). As this discussion suggests, social enterprises might have much in common with sharing economy organizations.

Social Enterprises = Sharing Economy Organizations?

Social enterprises and sharing economy organizations are both alternative forms of organizing that have developed to overcome the deficiencies of contemporary capitalism (Mair & Rathert, 2019). But what are the similarities and differences of these forms, especially with respect to dimensions that have been identified as relevant for both forms, community (Fitzmaurice et al., forthcoming; Venkataraman, Vermeulen, Raaijmakers, & Mair, 2016) and growth (Mair & Reischauer, 2017; Seelos & Mair, 2017)?
We shed light on this question with a comparative analysis of a sample of German social enterprises and sharing economy organizations, which we surveyed in 2015/2016 (social enterprises) and 2018 (sharing economy organizations). This sample encompasses 108 social enterprises and 233 sharing economy organizations that can be meaningfully compared along several indicators, including age and profit orientation. These organizations span a variety of activity fields (e.g., health care and education in the case of social enterprises, or mobility and accommodation in the case of the sharing economy).

Social Enterprises ≠ Sharing Economy!

Our analysis provides first insights that social enterprises and sharing economy organizations are, in fact, quite different animals when it comes to community and growth.
Asking both about the role of community for improving existing products, the community seems more relevant for social enterprises (Figure 1). In fact, on a 7-point scale, social enterprises’ score is over 6 on average, compared to 3.9 for sharing economy organizations. This difference remains significant after controlling for age, profit orientation, and activity field.

Figure 1: Role of Community for Product Improvement

There are also differences when asking about the role of community for entering new markets. As shown in Figure 2, sharing economy organizations use the community for this purpose to a slightly greater extent (using a yes/no variable whether or not they use the community for this purpose, with the difference being statistically significant). At the same time, the salience of the community for this purpose appears as overall lower than for product improvement.

Figure 2: Role of Community for New Market Entry

There are notable differences when it comes to growth orientation. While 79% of the surveyed social enterprises have a strong growth orientation, this is only true for 36% of sharing economy organizations. When we regress growth orientation on profit orientation and fields of activity, we find that the lack of growth orientation appears to be driven by membership in the field of room sharing, while the fields of mobility, development and housing, and health appear to be associated with a greater growth orientation.

Besides, not all growth challenges are the same (figure 3). Our analysis suggests some that some growth challenges are specific to sharing economy organizations and social enterprises, respectively. Social enterprises are more worried about three aspects: preserving program quality, securing capital, and managing growth internally. Sharing economy organizations, in contrast, care more about fidelity to the mission and managing growth internally. When accounting for profit orientation, we find that those who are profit-oriented worry about securing capital, while those that are not worried about fidelity to the mission as they grow.

Figure 3: Growth Challenges

Our analysis further identifies the variation concerning geographical growth (Figure 4). Sharing economy organizations are not looking to change their geographical scope. At most, some are considering changing from a local orientation to a regional orientation. Social enterprises are more ambitious here, often looking to scale their model to a national scale or even beyond.

Figure 4: Aspirations for Geographical Growth

Embracing Alternative Organizational Forms

Our comparison of sharing economy organizations and social enterprises for the role of community and growth indicates that alternative forms of economic organizing differ in various ways. We take this as a positive sign that also reflects a societal ability to nurture and institutionalize alternative forms of organizing that can potentially overcome well-known deficiencies of capitalism. Future research will tell how these two forms will develop, create impact, and contribute to a more sustainable society.


This research was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Grant Number 01UT1408C) and the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (Grant Agreement 613500).

About the authors

Johanna Mair is Professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership at the Hertie School of Governance, Germany. She is also the Co-director of the Global Innovation for Impact at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and the Academic Editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Nikolas Rathert is Assistant Professor for Organization Studies at Tilburg University.

Georg Reischauer is a postdoctoral research associate at Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) and at Johannes Kepler University Linz (JKU).


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Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Hybrid organizing in the face of grand challenges

By Ali Aslan Gümüsay.

Sharing is not always caring

In 2015, thousands of refugees arrived in Europe. A recent paper by Kornberger and colleagues (2017) zooms in on the “Train of Hope”, a civil society organization that organically gained exclusive operational command at Vienna’s main train station during this refugee crisis. The paper is a critical reflection on much of the current sharing economy ‘hype’. In contrast to cases of “collaborative consumption”[1], where platform companies such as AirBnB or Uber offer (share?) other people’s resources, this is an exemplary case of engagement and sharing without expectations for direct individual return: a sharing of a concern for social well-being.[2] Sharing then becomes caring.

Hybridity everywhere

What is Train of Hope? It is probably something of a platform and social movement blend that combines various skills like first aid, translation and accommodation services. It is a hybrid organization – and such hybrids seem to pop up everywhere lately. These novel forms of organizing combine different logics, orders of worth, value spheres, organizational forms and/or identities – struggling for a value(s) synthesis.[3] I see incubators, social ventures, ateliers, fab labs struggling to organize, represent and scale – and find their diverse pursuits fascinating, enriching and complementary. They do hybrid organizing in and for society and are frequently novel, digital, flexible, fluid, cross-boundary, multi-jurisdictional, and temporary forms.

Grand challenges & novel forms of organizing

Why now? A potential answer may lie in the types of challenges our societies face. Scholars from the field of management and organization studies speak of “grand challenges”[4] that are complex, uncertain, and multi-jurisdictional phenomena.[5] They represent fundamental, global societal concerns of ecological or social nature that require coordinated and collective efforts of multiple actors, including business firms, governments, civil society, and academia – as well as new forms of (hybrid) organizing.

Together with Emilio Marti (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Hannah Trittin (Leuphana University Lüneburg), and Christopher Wickert (VU University Amsterdam), I have initiated a scientific network that will be funded by the German National Science Foundation (DFG). The network will zoom in over the next three years on the interrelationship between grand challenges and new forms of organizing. Such organizations attempt to tackle the various sustainable development goals from climate change, decent work and sustainable growth, gender equality, populism and racism, societal cohesion, responsible consumption and production, to sustainable cities and communities.

A Janus face

The scientific network takes the vantage point in the assumption that such new forms of organizing often have a Janus face. They are both potential cause and solution for certain grand societal challenges. On the one hand, social entrepreneurial ventures[6], online communities such as Wikipedia and Linux[7], crowd science projects like Foldit, Galaxy Zoo and Polymath[8], and social initiatives like “Train of Hope” promise novel means to tackle these challenges. On the other hand, they also create new ones. For example, crowdsourcing and other new forms of platform-organized work crafted along the surge of the digital economy[9] often fuel the proliferation of precarious, self-employed and low-paid work that undermines social welfare systems and thus endanger modern democracies.[10] Likewise, in her recent book “Weapons of Math Destruction”, O’Neil (2016) describes how the (ab)use of new, seemingly efficient big data management techniques can promote, rather than reduce, racism, inequality and discrimination. Clearly then, novel hybrid forms of organizing promise many opportunities to tackle grand challenges – yet also create new (grand) challenges for society.

Ali Aslan Gümüsay is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Hamburg and Research Fellow at Vienna University of Economics & Business. Twitter: @guemuesay


[1] Botsman & Rogers, 2010.

[2] Gümüsay, 2018.

[3] Gümüsay, 2017.

[4] George, Howard-Grenville, Joshi, & Tihanyi, 2016.

[5] Ferraro, Etzion, & Gehman, 2015.

[6] Mair & Martí, 2006.

[7] Garud, Jain, & Tuertscher, 2008.

[8] Franzoni & Sauermann, 2014.

[9] Bauer & Gegenhuber, 2015; Boes, Kämpf, Langes, & Lühr, 2016.

[10] Morozov, 2015.


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Kornberger, M., Leixnering, S., Meyer, R., & Hoellerer, M. 2017. Rethinking the Sharing Economy: The Nature and Organization of Sharing in the 2015 Refugee Crisis. Academy of Management Discoveries.

Mair, J., & Martí, I. 2006. Social entrepreneurship research: A source of explanation, prediction, and delight. Journal of World Business, 41(1): 36–44.

O’Neil, C. 2016. Weapons of math destruction: how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. London: Allen Lane.

Pic: SDGs, circle, by UN WMO; edited.