The Wrong Motivations for Starting A Social Enterprise

For the past 8 years, I have seen aspiring social entrepreneurs rise up, burn out, rise up again (for a few), and for some, eventually just burn up (resource-wise, motivation-wise). There are so many reasons for this of course, and one of them is starting with and keeping the wrong motivations.

My title is “the wrong motivations for starting a social enterprise”, but to be honest, there are motivations here that are perfectly fine (I struggled with most of them myself). BUT, each of them alone as the MAIN motivation for starting a social enterprise is weak and may make a social enterprise and a social entrepreneur crumble from within.

Note 1: even if I already have about 8 years of experience of running and building a social enterprise, I am still not an expert. Far from it. This article (among others) that I wrote about social entrepreneurship, meaning, and purpose, are all personal attempts to make sense of my experiences and share a few of the lessons I have learned along the way. BUT. I am still not done learning. I may be a few pages ahead, but honestly, I don’t know how many more pages are in this book! So if you have personal experiences too and lessons you would like to share, please do share them and let’s learn together! 

Note 2: For the purposes of this particular article, the definition of “social enterprise” will simply be an initiative, project, or business committed to creating positive impact or solving a social problem. There are so many schools of thought for the definition itself and it would need a separate entry! 

1) I want to be my own boss

How it looks like/sounds like: I want to be my own boss, handle my own time, have a team (with people I like) I could manage, and call the shots! All these while doing good! What an awesome deal!

What the work is really like: Wanting to be your own boss is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not a bad thing actually. But making it the main motivation could be dangerous to your health, emotions, and team culture.

The truth is, having your own social enterprise (or any enterprise at that) means that while you may hold your own time, you are rarely off-duty. And being an entrepreneur means that yes, on paper, you are kind of the “boss”, but in reality, you have to make sure that your team, customers, communities, stakeholders, board members, are engaged, happy, and productive.

Oh, and chances are, you won’t be able to always choose who you work with and who you serve. On the down side, you’ll get to deal with people from different backgrounds who will appreciate, challenge, frustrate, and make you hopeful, all at the same time. On the bright side, well, just repeat the reasons for the down side, they are the same!

Being the “boss” truly actually means that you are the servant leader of all. You eat last, you sacrifice your own benefits for the sake of your team and community, you recognise the contribution of every single person in your company, and when things fail or go wrong, you take responsibility. Our society sometimes forgets that.

Maintaining an “I’m the boss” state of mind is not only dangerous to your health and emotions (because you won’t really feel that way often), it is also detrimental to your team and culture. People want to work for and with leaders with strong visions and missions, (not big egos) especially if they are with you because they believe in creating positive impact or solving a social problem too.

Reframing the motivation: Instead of “I want to be my own boss”, shift to “I want to be of service – what is the best way for me to serve?”

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2) I want to help people

How it looks like/sounds like: I want to be a social entrepreneur so that I can help people

What the work is really like: It is true though, you can help people.:) And as one of the motivations, this is good! But as the main motivation, it is incomplete. Being a social entrepreneur does not mean that you are the “helper” and you have beneficiaries you are “saving” from poverty. When you go to a community, you are not there as a saviour. You are there as a learner, collaborator, and potential partner.

Reframing the motivation: I want to be part of the change and collaborate with others to create positive impact!

3) I want to win awards, travel the world, and be part of cool groups and fellowships – to further the advocacy

How it looks like/sounds like: I want to win awards, travel the world, be part of cool groups and fellowships so that I can advocate for what I do and spread this to more people! I could network with a lot of people so that I can expand our impact!

What the work is really like: Sure, you’ll get awards, travel the world, be part of cool groups and fellowships. And these are all exciting. But the truth is, majority of the meaningful work happens outside the spotlight. The work could get dull, boring, repetitive, discouraging, and painful at times, but these are all part of the work. Having all the “external rewards” as the main motivations is not just deceiving (you might think you have made it when you are actually far from where you need to be), it is exhausting and time-consuming. If you find yourself attending every single social, every single dinner get-together, every single learning opportunity that takes you out of your work for weeks or months at a time, and applying for every single award and grant while lacking the time and energy in doing the things that matter, it’s time to pause and reflect on what’s really important.

Reframing the motivation: How can I make my work valuable for those who I serve? How can I make real and concrete steps towards fulfilling my Mission?

4) I want to find meaning in life

How it looks like/sounds like: I want to be a social entrepreneur to make my life meaningful

What the work is really like: It might make your life meaningful, but if chasing after this meaning becomes your main motivation, a few demotivating & disappointing events may make you give up.

Creating a social enterprise is not about making one person feel meaningful. It is meant to be for social good. And there will be times when you’ll question your capabilities, endurance, self-worth, and yes, even your purpose. The whole social enterprise ride is a fun one but filled with lots of unexpected roadblocks and apparent detours.

Reframing the motivation: I want to be a social entrepreneur to find meaning and purpose for and with others.

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5) I want to see the immediate results of my actions! It is so hard to wait on the government

How it looks like/sounds like: We have so many things to fix in the country! And the government is too slow/bureaucratic/inefficient. I want to see change and I want it to start with me and my social enterprise!

What the work is really like: Surprise! It also takes a long time to create lasting and sustainable positive impact, wherever you are. And you may not be able to see the real and big results right away. Creating positive impact is a long-term build and commitment. We are not in the business of quick fixes.

Sure, you may think that the “results” are the number of smiles the people gave you because their lives are better, the number of people you have “touched”, and maybe even the number of goods and services you have provided. But all of these are not actually THE results (sorry). Some of them are indicators, some are activities, and the others are great memories you share with your partners. But the real results are the long-term ones that take a while to happen, and they stay even after our time.

Reframing the motivation: What are the real and lasting results of my social enterprise? How can we work towards these? How can I engage with the government and other partners to create systems that support these (yes, you need to engage! You can only do so much in your own little bubble)?

6) I want to feel good inside and feel that I’m doing something awesome for the world

How it looks like/sounds like: I want to be a social entrepreneur so that every day, I go home feeling good about what I have contributed to the world. This is the best way to live!

What the work is really like: It is perfectly fine to want to feel loved and appreciated!:) But if this is the main motivation for building a social enterprise, you’ll probably leave in a few months (or weeks/days). Working towards something long-term and creating something of value for others and for the world, takes a lot of time, patience, and understanding. You will not always be thanked, praised, and even loved. There will be days when you’ll feel alone, under appreciated, and tired. Working with communities and partners is a long-term process of building trust and meaningful relationships. Just like the best marriages and friendships, it will go through a lot of challenges and doubts that will make the relationships even stronger.

Reframing the motivation: What will keep me going? What is my WHY? What is my North Star when the going gets tough and I feel like giving up? What would make me stay when the good feeling goes away?

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