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Doing good is taking its toll on social entrepreneurs

by Sarah Shearman and Belinda Goldsmith

Thomson Reuters Foundation

P assionate and dedicated to the cause, businesses leaders on a mission to help society and the environment are increasingly coming up against an unexpected hurdle — burnout.

Globally social entrepreneurship is on the rise, with more businesses being set up with the aim of making a profit that can be used to address problems like unemployment, homelessness, mental health, knife crime and even loneliness.

But juggling these responsibilities can often take a toll on the business leaders’ mental health and wellbeing, according to academics, health professionals, and social entrepreneurs attending two of the sector’s major annual events this week.

“Creating a business that does good while simultaneously ensuring that the business itself is sustainable is not an easy task,” says Gabriella Cacciotti, assistant professor in entrepreneurship at the U.K.’s University of Warwick.”The goals of ‘doing good’ and ‘making money’ may be incompatible, as making progress towards one of these goals requires actions and decisions that can undermine progress toward the other.”

A feeling of burnout weighed so heavily for Rebecca Kaduru that she wanted to throw in the towel on KadAfrica, the passion fruit farming social enterprise she founded with her husband in Uganda in 2014.

“What was so taxing as a social entrepreneur is you’ve (got) this idea and this dream and you have to go out and convince other people to give you money to make it happen,” says Kaduru, now managing director of Solidaridad Network, a Dutch ethical trade group.

“There were times I would wake up with really bad anxiety. We had 43 employees in Uganda. What would happen if we couldn’t make it work?” she says, adding that the lack of long-term security was also hard to take with a family.

It was a serious car crash that brought her role as a social entrepreneur to an abrupt end, forcing her to move back to the United States for surgery. KadAfrica continued without her.

There are no figures to track the burnout rate, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is on the rise, says Dan Gregory, director of international and sustainable development at Social Enterprise UK, the trade body representing the sector.

“People put so much time in and are so passionate about what they do that they do just do not stop,” Gregory says, speaking at the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) in Addis Ababa.

Felecia Hatcher, co-founder of Code Fever and Blacktech Week, organizations supporting black social entrepreneurs, says she has suffered several episodes of burnout in recent years.

Juggling her two Miami-based ventures, which she runs with her husband, with looking after young children, Hatcher says social entrepreneurs often struggle to see signs of burnout.

“We can fail to communicate what we’re feeling and how tired we are, and how hopeless it feels sometimes to be following your dream, without any kind of instruction book,” says Hatcher at the SOCAP (Social Capital Markets) conference in San Francisco.

Financial pressures — whether it is raising capital to run the business or earning enough to make a living — can also take a toll, says Sabrina Chakori, 27, an Australia-based social entrepreneur who runs a “tool library” where people can borrow — rather than buy — DIY equipment and camping and sports gear.

“For a long time impact investors never trusted social enterprises, but in reality social entrepreneurs would give their life to the cause and this can lead to burnout. I feel I am overworked,” says Chakori.

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