From purpose to personal, social entrepreneurs struggle to strike a balance

LONDON, April 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – 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 this 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 so raising funds was difficult as was selling to governments.

Charmian Gooch, co-founder and director of Global Witness, a U.K.-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 percent of economic output in several countries, including Canada, Germany and the United States, 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 U.S-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, CEO 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. (Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans. Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit to see more stories)


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