Have you ever considered starting a social enterprise? If so, you may have asked yourself the following question, “Have I got what it takes?” I live and work in the UK as an academic and social entrepreneur based in Leigh On Sea, Essex, and I remember asking myself this very question when I first started out. I have written this article to try and provide some guidance for anyone planning to start a socially focused business venture. Do you possess common social entrepreneurial characteristics and if you do can you avoid the potential pitfalls they can invoke?
Today’s modern world seeks businesses with socially focused objectives and as a result social enterprise has become a rapidly growing sector for new business start-ups. However, an enterprise with only social ambitions is simply not sustainable and a financially robust business model is also vital for long-term survival.
In 2007 a study was conducted by Chambers and Edwards-Stuart which aimed to identify common characteristics of successful social entrepreneurs. Their findings highlighted a range of qualities that were consistent across all social entrepreneurs included within the study. These characteristics are referred to as positive factors but as well as highlighting their benefits I would also like to explore their potential pitfalls with regard to the long-term sustainability of social enterprise management.
Common Social Entrepreneurial Characteristics
1. Desire to help others
Whereas traditional entrepreneurs primarily focus on financial gains, social entrepreneurs have an overwhelming desire to work for the benefit of others. Social entrepreneurs are people-orientated in their business concept and execution. They see a social need that is currently not being addressed and they are compelled to do something about it. Many people observe these issues but do not have the level of desire to actually act to make a difference.
2. Gut instincts
Social entrepreneurs have been shown to be highly intuitive as opposed to being overly analytical. In other words you could say that they ‘feel’ as much as they ‘think’ when it comes to making decisions. They can be imaginative, innovative and creative in their thinking and when they get it right they can often provide fresh and unique approaches to resolving problems.
3. Strong moral compass
Not only do social entrepreneurs conduct themselves with integrity and concrete principles, they also run their business in the same light. A social enterprise will be created with the same vision and values as the person who created it. Fundamentally the social entrepreneur and their social enterprise should look and feel identical.
4. Emotional Intelligence
Social entrepreneurs are fantastic at assessing the emotional needs of key stakeholders. They have the ability to connect with people’s core values and attitudes and can easily engage and inspire others. When it comes to dealing with other socially focused individuals they can be highly successful.
The Potential Pitfalls of Common Social Entrepreneurial Characteristics
Although social enterprise is the largest growing business sector it is also responsible for the most business failures. While having a desire to help others is an admirable quality to possess, social entrepreneurs can be blinded by this need. Often the essential financial stability of the enterprise can be compromised in order to fulfil social objectives. The enterprise may have originally been set up to provide social reform but if financial commitments are ignored by the entrepreneur while pursuing social objectives the enterprise will be short lived.
Acting on gut instinct can produce highly innovative outcomes but when a social entrepreneur gets it wrong they can get it catastrophically wrong. One of the reasons for this is the ‘pie in the sky’ approach social entrepreneurs may use when starting a business. If the business concept is founded on intuition alone it is unlikely to succeed. There also needs to be an analysis and evaluation of the business idea based on more than just hopes, dreams and urges.
Unfortunately business is business and social entrepreneurs will never survive and grow their enterprise if they are not able to deal with others in a more business-focused manner. Even though it is not possible to please everyone all the time, when it comes to social entrepreneurs they will often fail trying to do so. Sometimes it is not possible to help everyone and prioritising objectives can be simply too much for some to handle. In addition, short-term gains and objectives sometimes need to fail in order to focus resources on long-term survival. This can challenge the integrity and morals of the social entrepreneur and leave them feeling as though they have failed.
I sincerely hope that this article does not deter you from starting a social enterprise. Running a social enterprise can be a highly rewarding experience but I feel it is important to highlight some of the major pitfalls typical social entrepreneurs are exposed to. If you are aware of the potential disadvantages of common social entrepreneurial characteristics you may be better equipped to avoid them when you are falling victim to their negative impacts.
I have been blinded on numerous occasions as I have strived for social reform and have had to constantly remind myself of the importance of prioritising the long-term success of my business. Ensuring a healthy balance between social and financial objectives, and having an ability to prioritise and focus on the long-term plan, is essential for social entrepreneurial survival.
I hope this article goes some way to support your future social business endeavours and after exploring these four key social entrepreneurial characteristics you may wish to ask yourself the following question once again, “Do you have what it takes?”
I am an academic, college lecturer and social entrepreneur based in a small seaside town in the UK named Leigh-on-Sea. I write for business and pleasure with the aim of sharing and gaining knowledge and experience with other like-minded individuals.
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