FROM tackling pollution to improving access to healthcare, social entrepreneurs try to use businesses to help solve some of the world’s greatest problems but many agree the magnitude of doing so with limited means can take a personal toll.
At the Skoll World Forum, Britain’s leading conference on social entrepreneurship, about 1,200 leaders from social enterprises and non-profit organisations from more than 80 countries last week discussed their greatest challenges.
In a 2016 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll on the best countries for social entrepreneurs, about 900 experts said their biggest challenges were that people did not know what they did.
Charmian Gooch, co-founder and director of Global Witness, a UK-based charity that investigates natural resource-related conflict and corruption, said change was slow and fighting big problems with limited means was an uphill struggle.
“The biggest challenge is seeing how much needs to be done and changed and being realistic about our resources and capacities,” said Gooch, on the sidelines of the 16th annual Skoll forum held over four days in Oxford.
“There is so much out there that needs tackling and one is always trying to do more and do it effectively, and keeping that sense of frustration in perspective.”
The past decade has seen a surge in the number of social enterprises, with an estimated 470,000 in Britain in 2017 employing about 1.4 million people, according to government data. There was no comparison figures due to new methodology.
Social sector organisations account for more than 5% of economic output in several countries, including Canada, Germany and the US, according to the British Council, a state-funded body that promotes British culture overseas.
But balancing personal needs, alongside running a healthy organisation that delivers social impact, is a challenge, said Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris, the US-based anti-trafficking group.
“You are taking on these enormous entrenched challenges, from a place of scarcity, with enormous demand on yourself, and enormous demands on your own organisation,” he said.
“How do you balance all of those different things at once and achieve the impact you are trying to achieve?”
Olawale Adebiyi, chief executive officer of Wecyclers, a Nigerian recycling business that collects and repurposes household waste, said the challenge was also getting good people to work for less pay.
“When you try to scale and grow globally, you need the best talent, but as a social enterprise we can’t compete,” he said.
He said that people, like himself, a trained engineer, have to be motivated enough by the social mission of the business as they cannot pay as highly as other bigger companies.
But social entrepreneurs also recognised that they cannot solve these problems alone.
For Harambee, a South African jobs and training social enterprise, both policy change and support from the private sector were needed to help it solve the youth unemployment crisis, said Sharmi Surianarain, solutions design lead.
“It is not enough for one small part of the problem to be solved because the problem is huge and requires all the parts of the broken system to be addressed,” said Surianarain, whose organisation won one of this year’s five Skoll awards.
Being a social enterprise “definitely adds another layer of challenge” to running a business, said Kola Masha, managing director of Babban Gona, a Nigerian social enterprise that gives business and financial support to smallholder farmers.
“If you have the wrong investors, you are trying to drive towards a mission and they are trying to optimise short term financial return. Fundamentally, if you are working on the long term, mission and returns on investment can co-exist,” he said.
As businesses with a mission to do good become increasingly trendy, social entrepreneurs said they were finding it harder than ever to tackle one of their major problems – explaining what they do.
For years, social entrepreneurs have faced the same question: are you running a charity or a business?
There is no universally accepted definition, but a social entrepreneur can be described as someone who applies commercial strategies to tackle social and environmental problems and can operate as a for-profit or not-for-profit business.
A Thomson Reuters Foundation poll in 2016 found almost 60% of social enterprise experts in the 45 biggest economies said there was a lack of public awareness about their work, which made it harder to raise funding and sell products and services.
While the sector has continued to grow in recent years with rising interest from socially-conscious consumers, some of the 1,200 people at the conference said this had made explaining their work even harder.
Cassandra Staff, chief operating officer at Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, a US-based training scheme at Santa Clara University, said as social entrepreneurship became trendy, there was more confusion about its definition.
“There has been a lot of conflation within the definition as it has become more trendy, and fragmentation as everyone tries to work out what it means to them,” she said.
The Big Issue Group, one of Britain’s leading social enterprises tackling homelessness by producing and selling street newspapers, regularly gets mistaken for a charity, said Nigel Kershaw, its executive chairman.
“It’s often an assumption when you are doing something for the people and the planet you must be a charity,” said Kershaw on the sidelines of the Skoll Forum.
He explained this created a problem because the Big Issue aimed to build self esteem in the homeless vendors who sell its magazine. If it gave money to them instead, like a charity, it would be “perpetuating a dependency”.
Precious Lunga, co-founder of London and Nairobi-based Baobab Circle – which uses mobile and artificial intelligence technology to improve healthcare – said investors tend to see social enterprises as a charity while users viewed it more as a business.
“There is no collective understanding about what a social enterprise is because it encompasses a wide range of types of organisations from non-profit to for-profit,” she said.
“Many of my contemporaries see themselves as entrepreneurs first.” — Reuters