Toolkit for improving social entrepreneurs’ wellbeing

Social entrepreneurship is on the rise, but not enough discussion has been raised around social entrepreneurs’ wellbeing. Social entrepreneurs are driven by a tenacity that goes beyond driving revenue and profit. The business serves a broader purpose: to address social or environmental issues that plague specific communities or societies, making it an appealing career choice for aspiring change agents. Thus, they often work with vulnerable and marginalised individuals and communities, including refugees to victims of domestic violence.

It’s a herculean task — social entrepreneurs witness extreme hardship and feel negative emotions as a result. Their efforts to galvanise change is a long-term endeavour that cannot be achieved overnight.

“I realise that being in our position, work really never ends,” said one social entrepreneur to researchers at Monash University Malaysia.

As explained by one social entrepreneur, some parents look down on their children’s decision to pursue this unconventional career route: “It’s about coping with that disappointment in whatever way we can by supporting each other because we didn’t get our parents’ blessing.”

The work may seem thankless at times — there are always more people in dire situations who need help. At the same time, there can be plenty of administrative work, long hours, and demands imposed by others, leaving social entrepreneurs feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, and stressed. This also leaves little time and energy for other aspects of their lives.

“I don’t think we all spend enough time with our families and loved ones,” another social entrepreneur told the Monash researchers.

The gruelling work means social entrepreneurs are ripe for burnout if they fail to care for their wellbeing. It also risks jeopardising the sustainability of their socially conscious business models.

This prompted researchers to put together a wellbeing toolkit for social entrepreneurs in partnership with them.

A wellbeing toolkit for social entrepreneurs

The Doing Good/Staying Well toolkit is a collaborative effort between Dr Au Wee Chan from the School of Business, Monash University Malaysia, University of Sheffield entrepreneurship lecturer Dr Andreana M Drencheva, Social Innovation Movement, and Impact Hub Phnom Penh.

It aims to support the development of change makers’ attitudes, skills, and practices towards wellbeing, which can ultimately lead founders to create and sustain social ventures that catalyse positive social change.

In speaking about the collaborative project, the toolkit was developed after more than 40 in-depth interviews with social entrepreneurs. Monash University Malaysia Department of Management lecturer Dr Au explained that there are plenty of unintended negative consequences for individuals embarking on the social entrepreneurship journey.

Work-life boundaries can be non-existent for social entrepreneurs, as echoed by one individual: “Work-life balance? Non-existent.” Many activities occur outside of the typical 9am-to-5pm weekday schedule.

Some use their weekends to visit their beneficiaries regularly and make arrangements to visit other social entrepreneurs and potential collaborators during personal holidays.

“Many social entrepreneurs highlighted in our interviews that if they quit halfway, the harm to their beneficiaries would be greater than if they had done nothing to begin with,” stated Dr Au. “They continue to push themselves, and it could take a serious toll on their mental health.”

“We developed the Doing Good, Staying Well toolkit to address this issue based on the experiences of social entrepreneurs who participated in our research. We used the toolkit for a six-week cohort-based wellbeing program for social entrepreneurs at the end of last year,” Dr Au shared.

At the core of the toolkit are the needs, experiences, lessons learnt, and practices shared, curated and developed by social entrepreneurs engaged in the social entrepreneurship journey. These insights were supplemented by additional empirical evidence and academic frameworks to make the toolkit more robust and account for the diversity of experiences and needs.

The toolkit has three main sections: Committing to Social Entrepreneurship, Setting up the Foundation, and Navigating the Journey. The tools in each section aim to address specific needs that social entrepreneurs have at different stages of their journeys.

The final section is a bonus with quick ideas for improving the wellbeing of social entrepreneurs’ teams.

This toolkit recognises that aspects of wellbeing intersect differently with the social entrepreneurship journey at different stages and the identities of social entrepreneurs. It creates a space for social entrepreneurs to reflect, learn, engage in action planning, and implement strategies that work for them at a given stage of their journey.

Researchers note that each person is different, and each tool adds different benefits. As social entrepreneurs progress throughout the toolkit, they will be able to identify better which tools are more relevant and applicable to them and pay more attention.

Toolkit users can use the toolkit as a whole or use specific tools multiple times as circumstances can change over time. After each engagement with a tool or the entire toolkit, they can make changes and learn from these changes.

The toolkit is unique, and the researchers have received much positive feedback and interest from the social entrepreneurship community — including those in the Philippines and Vietnam — for their toolkit to be used in workshops, while some have adopted its use in their offices.

For now, Malaysian and Cambodian social entrepreneurs have found the toolkit to be helpful. Researchers plan to create another version of the toolkit and explore how well it can perform for individuals across different contexts.

The research received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) for the international project entitled “Changing The Story: Building Inclusive Civil Societies with, and for, Young People” led by the University of Leeds.