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Skills for social entrepreneurs

Are social entrepreneurs a species of their own or what skills do you need to manage a social enterprise? Do you have them – or would it be more promising to work in a team combining all the skills?

Doing good through innovative business approaches, is seen as a major instrument to face the current challenges in society, economy, and the environment. However, being a social entrepreneur is not easy and not comparable to running a business in your hometown. In literature we find many listings of skills and qualities a social entrepreneur should have. An early example is the following list by Scott Sherman (2011). He names seven skills:

1. Leadership
Social entrepreneurs identify problems and take action against unjust social issues. They address social circumstances that exclude or marginalize a portion of humanity. Instead of complaining, they take the lead and search for alternative solutions.

2. Optimism
These people follow a vision for change and are convinced that they will achieve their aims, even when many other people doubt them. They have a strong sense of self-efficacy and a belief that they have the control to change their circumstances.

3. Grit
This is a combination of perseverance, passion, and hard work – it is the drive to push forward, learn every day, and proceed in your business. Social entrepreneurs are not likely to be satisfied with finding a solution that works. Instead, they aim for a positive change that goes beyond the pure business model.

4. Resilience in the face of adversities, obstacles, challenges, and failures
When things get difficult, they take responsibility and search for gaps of opportunity. Many obstacles can get in the way of social entrepreneurs: financial resources, budgeting, lack of donations, and inadequate organizational structures, to name a few. But each of these challenges provides an opportunity to win against adversity.

5. Creativity and innovation
For social entrepreneurs, the intuition to find a business opportunity is not enough; they must also develop creative solutions to address social problems. This is often done by thinking outside the box. Developing new business ideas and rearranging processes leads to value creation for both, the enterprise and the constituents.

6. Empathy
These people are able to motivate other people through creating narratives, communicate shared goals, and involve others through participation. Social entrepreneurs must be effective public speakers. For inspiration to take root, they must be able to effectively communicate their vision.

7. Emotional and social intelligence
Social entrepreneurs need excellent skills in connecting people and building networks. Without strong ties, they will not succeed in creating leverage and scale of their business ideas.

These skills raise the bar for individuals to value themselves as social entrepreneurs. But why is it necessary to load all burdens on the shoulder of one person? Building strong teams helps combining existing strengths and pooling risks. Developing and integrating new projects within existing nonprofit organizations offers the opportunity to integrate different people and build on existing structures. Social entrepreneurship can work in a startup or individual organization as well as within the structures of an existing nonprofit organization. While the former offers a greenfield strategy and a higher external awareness for the single project, the latter gives a strong foundation to build on and a broader set of skills that can be integrated in the entrepreneurial project.

Which skill do you think is the most important one? Are there skills you would like to add to this list? Please leave a comment.


Sherman, S. (2011). Teaching the Key Skills of Successful Social Entrepreneurs. In Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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This article is from the free online course:

Entrepreneurship in Nonprofits

University of Basel