Doing good, staying well: how support organisations can look after social entrepreneurs' wellbeing

Business schools, ecosystem builders, incubators, accelerators and impact investors can all play a meaningful role in filling the 'wellbeing gap' that leaves social entrepreneurs struggling, ashamed of failure or burnt out. Jian Li Yew, Dr Andreana Drencheva and Dr Wee Chan Au share five places to start. 

Social enterprises often aim to enhance the wellbeing of their communities or specific groups of beneficiaries. Yet the wellbeing of social entrepreneurs themselves is rarely considered. 

Wellbeing is not just the absence of illness, but a state where individuals can cope with the normal stresses of life, realise their potential and contribute to their community with a sense of vitality and authenticity. Social entrepreneurs work tirelessly to catalyse positive social change, meet the needs of multiple stakeholders (such as employees, customers, beneficiaries and partners) and ensure the sustainability of their organisations. This can leave little time for their own wellbeing needs, potentially resulting in burnout. While research on social entrepreneurs’ wellbeing is still emerging, research on entrepreneurs more broadly shows the importance of wellbeing for their persistence, creativity and the performance of their organisations.

This wellbeing gap is where support organisations – such as business schools, ecosystem builders, incubators, accelerators and impact investors – can play a meaningful role. While they mostly focus on the hard skills of starting and sustaining a social business, support organisations also need to support the wellbeing of social entrepreneurs, because that has a direct link to the sustainability of social businesses and to the talent pipeline. 

There are many ways support organisations can enhance the wellbeing of social entrepreneurs. From our own research, co-created with social entrepreneurs, we’ve identified five places to start. 


1. Change the narrative

There are two sides of the same coin. One celebrates the work of successful social entrepreneurs with admiration and enthusiasm and portrays them as heroes. On the other, social entrepreneurs are exhausted, often from the less glamorous work of maintaining their organisations. The former narrative is reinforced by the media and even by support organisations when they invite as guest speakers and mentors only successful social entrepreneurs. The latter narrative is usually concealed and known only to the social entrepreneurs themselves. This lack of balance in how social entrepreneurs are portrayed can result in social entrepreneurs feeling pressured to do more – as well as feeling ashamed and lonely in their experiences of ‘ill-being’, thus creating a vicious cycle of silence and heroic portrayals of social entrepreneurship. 

The hero narrative is reinforced by support organisations when they invite only successful social entrepreneurs as guest speakers and mentors

In response, support organisations can contribute to a more balanced narrative of social entrepreneurship that moves beyond the heroic portrayal (for example, by creating opportunities to discuss failures and challenges, not just successes and achievements). This can lessen the pressure social entrepreneurs impose on themselves and make it easier for them to seek support when struggling.


2. Set holistic expectations 

Support organisations, even business schools, require achievement of milestones and thus impose expectations on social entrepreneurs related to the success of the social business. Yet, they fail to set realistic expectations of the wellbeing and emotional aspects of the work of social entrepreneurs, including challenges related to emotional labour and power dynamics when supporting beneficiaries, training new employees, and balancing mission and financial sustainability. Consequently, many social entrepreneurs start their journeys unprepared for these important aspects of their work, which can result in disappointment and depression

It is therefore important for support organisations to prepare potential social entrepreneurs for the emotional aspects of the work, such as the feelings of guilt and the need for emotional labour when working with beneficiaries.  Thus, potential and early-stage social entrepreneurs will craft more realistic and holistic expectations of what is involved. This can help social entrepreneurs to avoid discrepancies, set more realistic workloads and invest in developing the soft skills required to successfully engage in the role.

Support organisations should prepare potential social entrepreneurs for the emotional aspects, such as the emotional labour when working with beneficiaries


3. Integrate wellbeing skills and tools into support programmes

While many programmes emphasise business-relevant skills, such as building business models and creating financial projections, and impact-relevant skills, such as crafting a theory of change and implementing impact measurement plans, wellbeing skills are often neglected. This means that support organisations help social enterprises, but not social entrepreneurs as individuals. This neglect leaves social enterprises vulnerable. 

Support organisations need to increase awareness of the importance of wellbeing as well as equip potential and current social entrepreneurs with the skills and tools to maintain their wellbeing throughout the entrepreneurial journey. This can be done as stand-alone modules and workshops or integrated into other programmatic components, such as reflective practice and coaching. An important aspect of this work is to invest in evaluation of these tools and approaches to ensure their effectiveness as well as to invest in research so that tools appropriate specifically for social entrepreneurs and their needs are developed.




4. Support the multiple identities of social entrepreneurs

Social entrepreneurs’ sense of self is strongly tied to their social businesses, while other aspects of their identities – such as being a sister, a runner or a Muslim, for example – may be neglected and enacted infrequently. Identifying closely with one’s work is not necessarily bad. But blurred work-life boundaries and the loss of other identities may lead to devastating consequences, such as conflict in one’s personal life, additional pressure and lack of authenticity. Nurturing multiple identities is also important because it creates a buffer against challenges at work. When things are not going well in the social enterprise, social entrepreneurs with multiple identities have more opportunities to detach from work and recover, to experience the challenges as less personally painful, and even to identify novel solutions. 

When things are not going well in the social enterprise, social entrepreneurs with multiple identities have more opportunities to detach from work and recover

Organisations can support social entrepreneurs’ multiple identities and encourage the nurturing of these identities by creating space for these identities. For example, they can ensure programmes are more family-friendly and organise family and friends events, or help social entrepreneurs to reflect on and review their values along their entrepreneurial journeys. 


5. Provide access to mental health support 

Support organisations can provide access to mental health support for social entrepreneurs. For prevention of poor mental health and enhancement of wellbeing, peer support groups allow for a safe space for social entrepreneurs to reflect and share with like-minded peers. This approach can also have ripple effects by lessening the stigma around mental health and reducing the occupational loneliness that social entrepreneurs can experience. For treatment of poor mental health, support organisations can provide professional mental health support (or at least enable access). In many parts of the world, mental health is still a taboo and professional support is a privilege to access. As such, support organisations are a good starting point to bridge such gaps. 

Looking after one’s wellbeing is not selfish or a sign of weakness. It is a radical act of challenging social norms that are harmful. However, social entrepreneurs do not need to be alone in this lifelong process. Support organisations can play an active role in equipping social entrepreneurs with the tools and creating a culture of wellbeing for all.

Header image: Young people participating in a social entrepreneurship event focused on wellbeing, in 2019, hosted by Monash University in Subang Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia

  • Jian Li Yew is the managing director of Citrine Capital, a profit with purpose investment firm, and co-founder of Social Innovation Movement, a think tank that focuses on research impact. 
  • Dr Andreana Drencheva is a lecturer in entrepreneurship at the University of Sheffield, whose research focuses on how social entrepreneurs navigate the process of catalysing positive social change while maintaining their wellbeing and authenticity. 
  • Dr Wee Chan Au is a lecturer in the Department of Management, Monash University Malaysia, who has been actively involved in empirical studies about the work and wellbeing of social entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs. 

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