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Trails, Social Enterprise, and Collective Impact: Insights from the Literature

In this blog post, Dr. Kelsey Johansen, Chair of the Trail Research Hub, explores the key academic concepts underlying the Trails and Social Enterprise Research Project.

View of Lake Superior from the Group of Seven Lake Superior Trail © Kirsten Spence 2023

Social Enterprise

The term Social Enterprise, often abbreviated as SE, refers to a business model that's primary purpose is working towards social objectives like improving human, environmental, and societal well-being. Social enterprise models help organizations achieve community-based goals or benefits to either the whole community or a sub-set of it. This has implications for the way organizations operate, especially their guiding frameworks, governance structures, and intended outcomes.

Traditionally, SE-informed business models include:

  • Local initiatives;

  • Social missions; For-profit businesses; and,

  • Non-profit businesses.

It is important to note that a Social Enterprise model can be implemented in a both non-profit and for-profit organizations, despite for-profit organizations having a very different objective as it relates to economic gains. Oftentimes, a for-profit approach helps to ensures that a Social Enterprise approach provides social benefit through the accomplishment a social mission, while avoiding operating at a financial deficit.

The missions of Social Enterprises can vary from social services to environmental benefits, or other community-identified objectives which aim to create overall positive influences impacts on or within a community. Social Enterprise models allow organizations to create a platform to positively influence their communities, while generating financial revenue for SE members and/or the organization. The goals of social enterprises are often to accomplish a mission that both, directly and indirectly, results in positive benefits for communities.

A Social Enterprise is therefore a flexible system, balancing pro-social behaviour and efficiency and can be explained as an organization driven by accumulating ‘profit with purpose’.

This differs considerably from for-profit organizations without a social enterprise outlook who typically try to maximize profits for shareholders, or investors.

Social Enterprise in Trails

No uniform definition of a Social Enterprise exists within trails. This is because numerous types of social enterprises exist in trails, with their own regional and or local influences and focus.

Trail-based Social Enterprises aim to address local social, environmental, economic, or trail-based concerns, while also generating revenue.
Social Enterprise in Trails © Trail Research Hub 2021

Revenue generated through trail-based initiatives is typically reinvested in the trail, and used for on-going trail maintenance, education and outreach, environmental stewardship, event hosting, and / or development of new and emerging trail-based businesses and community-based ventures, meaning that revenue goes back into the community and directly benefit trail users, and local trail-based businesses.

What separates social enterprises in trail-based organizations from traditional trail-based enterprises, is their ability to prioritize revenue-creation as a means to support social and / or environmental benefits along a trail.

Basic human needs and overall positive changes in society are facilitated through the support of Social Enterprises incorporated in trail organizations irrespective of whether the parent organization is a NGO, for-profit organization, or non-profit organization.

For example, trails can support the local economy, decrease social vulnerability of communities, and enhance sustainability of the surrounding ecosystem.

Environmental and social benefits are therefore prioritized over making profit.

There are three primary streams that Trail-Based Social Enterprises can be divided into: Social and Financial, Community, and Innovation.

  • When a trail-based social enterprise focuses on ‘Social or Financial’ concerns, they work toward addressing society-level social and economic stressors with the support of trail-based organizations.

    • Through the work of trails, individuals are enabled to expand their social network and interactions with community members and are empowered through business and job creation to address economic challenges.

  • The ‘Community’ stream strives to support the community through trail development to reduce economic tensions and promote public health objectives such as increased access to low-cost / no-cost threshold recreation and leisure opportunities.

  • Lastly, ‘Innovation’ aims to create new services or products in relation to trails, which create greater social and economic value in the community. Innovation can also reflect the goals of the Social Enterprise or the Social or Eco Entrepreneur.

Social Entrepreneurs in Trails

Social Entrepreneurs are the drivers of trail-based organizations which employ a Social Enterprise model. Social Entrepreneurs use Social Enterprises as a way to innovate and deliver their projects in trails.

A Social Entrepreneur is an individual, or a group of individuals, motivated to make positive social and / or economic change in their community through trails, with the support of traditional entrepreneurial business strategies.

Three traits used to describe Social Entrepreneurs working in trails are:

  • Innovative,

  • Resourceful, and

  • Result-Oriented.

Revenue generated by these individuals is used as a means to an end, namely achieving improvements to the overall collective good of the community, whether that's social, economic, and / or environmental. Trail-Based Social Entrepreneurs can either:

  • Address social, environmental, and / or financial concerns in the community by providing resources to individuals;

  • Focus on the community by developing and implementing services to address economic, environmental, and / or social concerns; or

  • Take an innovative approach by bringing social, economic and / or environmental value to innovative products and services.

Some Trail-Based Social Entrepreneurs take a combined approach, doing two or more of: providing resources; implementing existing services; and / or, innnovating new products and services.

Eco Entrepreneurs in Trails

Trail-Based Ecopreneurs are entrepreneurs who create a Social Enterprise, with the hopes of addressing a particular environmental problem. This is slightly different from Social Entrepreneurship, as it aims to solve environmental problems, rather than or in conjunction with social and economic issues faced by the community.

Ecopreneurship focuses on increasing sustainability, while using effective management strategies for the development, production and consumption of their product or service.

This type of entrepreneur prioritizes resources at the local level through involvement of community members. Micro-Enterprise Programmes are a framework used by NGOs that allow Ecopreneurship endeavours to be incorporated within larger organizations, promoting financial stability. For example, trail-based ecopreneurs or micro-enterprise programmes may focus on environmental conservation, trail corridor and associated lands stewardship, or environmental education programming, while offsetting the costs of these programs through the revenues generated by social and economic programs housed within the same Social Enterprise Organization.

Primary Outcomes of Social Enterprises in Trails

When employing social enterprise approaches to trail organization's governance and operations, establishing and revisiting clear social, financial, environmental, community, and innovation goals is essential. To ensure this happens, the following seteps should be taken:

  1. First, organizations need to consult key stakeholders about priorities; and,

  2. Second, incorporating the proposed priorities into a strategic plan is essential.

It is essential that organizations set key performance indications, or KPIs, for their social, financial, environmental, community, and innovation goals; this will help with performance measurement, or the cyclical implementation-evaluation-review process, that helps to ensure that organizations reach their strategic targets. This also means establishing baseline levels of social, financial, community and innovation impact, identifying a meaningful and specific measurement strategy for assessing whether KPIs have been achieved, and agreeing to a cyclical review process.

Together, these actions, taken organizations in consultation with key stakeholders, can ensure not only the viability of the social enterprise, but the achievement of its intended social, financial, environmental, community, and innovation impacts.

Collective Impact

Although the term Collective Impact was coined in 2011, the concept itself has existed for some time, becoming popular among non-profit organizations, including trail-based organizations, because of its considerable potential to create lasting positive impacts.

Collective Impact in Trails

Collective Impact Initiatives and Organizations in trails typically work toward creating long-term and sustainable solutions for greater social, environmental, economic or trail-based problems. Different trail organizations, and stakeholders, are leveraged while working toward a common goal, which aims to address the social, financial, or environmental concerns that lead to the formation of the Collective.

Partners involved in the Collective Impact Initiative or Organization must look beyond individual gain and have an understanding of the benefits of the trail initiative for all parties. This typically requires adopting a collective mindset shift, and ensuring that the Initiative or Organization works towards embodying five key characteristics, both of which are explained in the diagram below.

Collective Impact in Trails © Trail Research Hub 2021

Collective Impact models in trails allow for the development of volunteer management programs, facilitation of internal and external communications with trail maintenance and management teams, and a reduction in overall need for funding compensation. They also help to reduce competition for volunteers, and in-kind contributions, between trail organizations within a region while maximizing the positive impacts for all members of the Collective Impact Initiative or Organization.

An American example of Collective Impact in trails is the White Mountain Trail Collective. This organization has been able to address multiple social, financial, and environmental issues in the communities around the trail by using trails to generate overarching positive impacts with a special emphasis on trail stewardship, and sustainable trails through collective funding, and shared resources.

Collective versus Isolated Impact in Trails

One of the biggest goals of Collective Impact Initiatives or Organizations is that they aim to reduce or eliminate traditional isolated impact approaches to problem solving. Many social, economic and environmental problems are complex, and it is nearly impossible for a single organization to solve them working alone.

Isolated impact occurs when a single organization works towards addressing a social, economic or environmental problem, rather than in collaboration with other organizations and / or trail stakeholders.

This approach generally provides short-term solutions incorporating the expertise and weaknesses of the single organization, and leads to competition between organizations for resources and scope of service / practice.

Collective Impact is a more favourable approach because of its detailed nature, the wider range of resources that comes with it, and the capacity for organizations to work together to overcome individual weaknesses.

Organizations working together using a collective impact approach are able to sustain stewardship, volunteer resources, and continuous education and can promote sustainable trail development, construction, use and maintenance.

In comparison to isolated impact organizations, collective impact organizations or initiatives allow multiple smaller groups to leverage funding opportunities, leading to greater financial support for an overarching and collaborative project. Through the collaborative involvement of different trail stakeholders and wider access to external resources, long-term robust and responsive solutions, that are socially, economically, and environmentally meaningful to the community, can be achieved.

5 Characteristics of Collective Impact in Trails

Collective Impact in trails has five key characteristics which better describe the process of achieving successful outcomes. They are:

1. A common agenda,

2. A shared measurement systems,

3. Mutually reinforcing activities,

4. Continuous communication, and

5. A backbone support organization.

Per the diagram above, a common agenda refers to the agreed upon goal of the trail-based initiative; shared measurement is the agreed upon plan for tracking progress; mutually reinforcing activities are decided upon roles for different trail partners and stakeholders; continuous communication is the ongoing communication between trail stakeholders involved in the project; and, lastly, backbone support organizations are those overseeing the work of the collective.

In addition to these characteristics, government resources should be used strategically at different levels to support the trail program and extend its reach beyond the local level. Creating harmony and cohesiveness between the levels of government involved (e.g., municipal, regional, provincial / territorial / state, and federal) should be prioritized to ensure the success of collective impact trail initiatives and / or organizations.

Four-Step Process of Collective Impact in Trails

There is a four-step process for developing and defining the success of a trail-based Collective Impact Initiative or Organization.

  1. First is understanding and articulating the theory of change, which focuses on identifying the process(es) needed for change and defining the pathway(s) to be taken to strategically facilitate positive social, economic, and / or environmental changes by the Collective Impact Initiative or Organization.

  2. Second, implementation requires acting on the plan developed in the first phase, in a purposeful way, the exemplifies the presence and strength of the Collective Impact Initiative or Organization.

  3. Next, evaluation examines the effectiveness of the trail-based Collective Impact Initiative or Organization by assessing achievement of outcomes (often refered to as Performance Measurement).

  4. Lastly, resource and system support refer to the quality of infrastructure supports and capacity building supports provided through to members of the Collective Impact Initiative or Organization through funding, training, technical assistance and coaching, and human resources, technical resources, and fiscal resources.

Employing this approach ensures that trail-based Collective Impact Initiatives and Organizations have a shared and strong understanding of their goals and objectives, the impetus driving the shift from isolated to collective impact, a plan to achieve their goals and objectives and the resources and supports needed to make it happen.

Primary Outcomes of Collective Impact in Trails

Learning is ongoing throughout the process of implementing a collective impact approach in trails. This results in two important primary outcomes:

  • First, the needs of several organizations involved in trails are addressed with new solutions and meaningful connections between different organizations, thus reducing competition for resources, like funding dollars and volunteers; and,

  • Second, uniform incorporation of the proposed solution between and within partners involved in the Collective Impact Initiative or Organization.

Together these outcomes strengthen actions taken by the member organizations involved.

Additional Resources

If you're interested in learning more about this ongoing project, and our past projects, check out the free-to-view recording of our October 2023 Webinar 'Growing Trail-Based Research and Evidence-Based Practice in Canada' presented as a part of the American Trails 'Advancing Trails Webinar Series'.

If you're interested in learning more about the White Mountain Trail Collective, you can check out the free-to-view recording of their February 2021 Webinar 'Collective Impact and Sustainable Trails' also presented as a part of the American Trails 'Advancing Trails Webinar Series'.

You can also learn more about the Value of Research for Trails through our Blog Post of the same name, as well as our ongoing 'Article Breakdown' Blog Series that explores the key findings of recently published academic journal articles focused on all aspects of trails, trail tourism, and trail recreation, and talks about how their findings can be applied to trail organizations in Canada (and around the world).

Look for our forthcoming Blog Post on 'Performance Measurement for Trails: How to Collect Data that Matters!', in which I discuss setting organizational priorities and how to incorporate these priorities into a strategic plan before establishing key performance indicators and designing performance measurement approaches to ensure progress towards strategic goals and priorities. This blog post will be a summary of a talk delivered at the 2023 Recreation NB | Loisir N-B Trail Development Summit at Killarney Lake Lodge.

Get In Touch

If you have questions about how to leverage this information within your own trail organization, including how to apply any of the academic concepts explained in this post to your trail or are interested in learning more about our ongoing Trails and Social Enterprise Research Project, please reach out to us at:


Many thanks to our Trails and Social Enterprise Research Assistant, Courtney Duckett, and Hallam Undergraduate Research Fellow, Tijhiana Rose Thobani, both supervised by Kelsey Johansen during her time in the University of Waterloo's Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, for their support in undertaking the Literature Review that informed the development of this Blog Post and the design and development of the research methods informing the overarching Project.


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