As businesses with a mission to do good become increasingly trendy, social entrepreneurs said they were finding it harder than ever to tackle one of their major problems – explaining what they do.

For years social entrepreneurs trying to solve a wide range of issues from affordable healthcare to homelessness have faced the same question: are you running a charity or a business? There is no universally accepted definition but a social entrepreneur can be described as someone who applies commercial strategies to tackle social and environmental problems and can operate as a for-profit or not-for-profit businesses.

A Thomson Reuters Foundation poll in 2016 found almost 60 per cent of social enterprise experts in the 45 biggest economies said there was a lack of public awareness about their work which made it harder to raise funding and sell products and services. While the sector has continued to grow in recent years with rising interest from socially-conscious consumers, some of the 1,200 people at Britain’s top social entrepreneurship conference this week said this had made explaining their work even harder.

Cassandra Staff, chief operating officer at Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, a U.S.-based training scheme at Santa Clara University, said as social entrepreneurship became trendy, there was more confusion about its definition. “There has been a lot of conflation within the definition as it has become more trendy, and fragmentation as everyone tries to work out what it means to them,” she said on the sidelines of the 16th annual Skoll World Forum in Oxford. The confusion “just increases the complexity of barriers to entry”, she said.

Growing confusion

Over the past decade the sector has surged but so has the confusion, said leading social entrepreneurs. Social sector organisations account for more than 5 per cent of economic output in several nations, including Canada, Germany and the United States, according to the British Council, a partly state-funded body that promotes British culture overseas.

People feel we are a charitable organisation and that is one of the difficult parts – we have to emphasise and explain what is our social component and what is our business component.

Shantanu Pathak, co-founder, Carenx Innovations

The Big Issue Group, one of Britain’s leading social enterprises tackling homelessness by producing and selling street newspapers, regularly gets mistaken for a charity, said Nigel Kershaw, its executive chairman. “It’s often an assumption when you are doing something for the people and the planet you must be a charity,” said Kershaw on the sidelines of the four-day Skoll Forum in Oxford.

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