Social Entrepreneur Characteristics:
What Are The Potential Issues?

Social Entrepreneur Characteristics

Social Entrepreneurs possess a distinctly different set of personal traits and qualities when compared to traditional entrepreneurs.

However, with an extremely high number of social enterprises failing within the first three years of starting I would like to propose that the uniqueness of these personal traits may be just as disadvantageous as they are advantageous.

In the current business climate Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) features highly on the agenda 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 crucial 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.

They identified a range of personality traits that were consistent across many social entrepreneurs.

When you consider these traits in relation to social enterprise they may initially appear to be beneficial but I would like to also explore their potential pitfalls and suggest they may be the reason for both the start-up and downfall of social enterprises.

For the purpose of this article I will focus on the four most predominant traits identified in the study:

  1. Desire to help others
  2. Gut instinct
  3. Strong moral compass
  4. Emotional Intelligence

You will be able to see from the four characteristics outlined below that social entrepreneurs who possess them are highly effective at starting social enterprises.

They have a strong desire to help others, they feed off their feelings, live by their values and relate to other people in an meaningful way.

These have huge benefits but as many social enterprises are failing within the first few years of starting I would also like to highlight some of the potential pitfalls in these characteristics in relation to long-term sustainability and growth.

1. Desire to Help Others

Traditional entrepreneurs primarily focus on financial objectives whereas 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. This quality is often the driving force to the initial start-up of the enterprise.

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 they also run their business in the same manner. 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 Social Entrepreneur Characteristics

While possessing a desire to help others is an admirable quality social entrepreneurs can be blinded by this need.

Often the essential financial stability of the enterprise can be compromised in order to fulfill social objectives. The enterprise may have originally been set up to provide social reform but if financial commitments are ignored by the entrepreneur for the pursuit of 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. It is a common misconception that you should always ‘go with your gut instinct’ as it leaves vast room for illogical error. One of the main reasons for this is the ‘pie in the sky’ approach social entrepreneurs may use when starting a business. If the core business concept is founded on intuition and qualitative information 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 their stakeholders 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.

Final Thoughts on Social Entrepreneur Characteristics

I truly hope this article does not come across as though I am being negative about the common characteristics that social entrepreneurs have as I believe them to be the driving force behind many great business start-ups.

But I did want to highlight that these same characteristics, that are so beneficial when starting a social enterprise, can also be the very reason that they fail in the years that follow.

Running a social enterprise can be a highly rewarding experience and 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. 

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.