Shine On You Crazy Diamonds – Why Social Entrepreneurs Burn Out, and How to Avoid It

For this article I am using my NOVA method for structure – Needs, Opportunities, Values, Actions – and I will assume the reader knows what a social entrepreneur is, and what it means to burn out.


N for Needs


The world needs social entrepreneurs who don’t burn out.


All around the world people face acute problems, and need AAA solutions (affordable, accessible & appropriate).  These problems need social enterprise – innovative solutions from pioneering minds tackling the big issues. Social entrepreneurs are focused on long-term impact, with a broad view of stakeholders, shared value, speed and scale. 


We need them, but there are not many of them around. This is because in addition to core professional skills, it takes a lot of insight and hands-on experience to build up sufficient contextual and relational knowledge. Adaptation and sensitivity are core requirements, which are rare skills when combined with a go-getting, competitive entrepreneurial spirit. Add to that the limited financial rewards and high risk profile. So we just don’t have that many people who can set up and lead these projects, and we can’t afford to lose them to burnout.


Time is another factor. It takes time and effort to get any project off the ground, especially with limited resources. Failure is not an option in the same way as with sugar-water startups – lives and livelihoods are impacted, the people involved have lower resources for resilience, so a greater degree of caution and risk management is needed. This makes for a slower flow, and adds a burden of responsibility to the project leader to stay in the game for a long time. Like authors and filmmakers, most social entrepreneurs deliver only a few good projects in their lifetime. So they need to become – and remain – as effective as possible.


Why is burnout a common issue for social entrepreneurs? Because they are passionate, committed, driven by complex inner needs (which may be conflicting or painful) and often highly sensitive. What makes a person see suffering in the world, feel empathy and commit themselves to help, also makes them vulnerable. Yes, compassion can make people strong and there are ways to build this inner strength, but it takes time. That 15-minute meditation to calm the spirit and settle the mind before bedtime, may make all the difference between endurance and burnout. It’s easy to prioritise the firefighting when things are tough. And things are often tough. The nature of the work is that it’s risky and uncharted. They’re jumping out of planes building parachutes on the way down, same as all entrepreneurs – but here there are lives at stake.




Many social entrepreneurs get used to throwing themselves body and soul into a campaign whilst at college – working crazy hours, 100% focused, with no other responsibilities. Once this becomes the baseline method for success, it is hard to reprioritize without feeling extremely guilty.


If later they choose to have children, they may wish to keep up the same level of commitment to the cause. It can feel even more imperative to do so. Those little eyes look up and penetrate the soul, and they ask themselves ever more fervently “Am I doing enough for you?”  They feel ever more acutely the pain of compassion for the mother cradling her baby in the makeshift hospital of a distant refugee camp. The urgent drum of climate change beats faster in their chest.


O for Opportunities

Tools to avoid burnout:

  1. Look at examples, talk to others – learn from others’ mistakes.
  2. Become realistic about how long projects take, and the s-curve of success.
  3. Take a step back / long view, reprioritize, play work-life balance bingo.
  4. Reflect – regularly. Learn how to do this.
  5. Monitor your time carefully and learn from it.
  6. Build your resilience, your networks, get a calming accountabilibuddy.
  7. Try to understand your motivations and patterns – not necessarily to change them but to become aware – try to see burnout coming.
  8. Rest – meditation, holidays, screen-breaks, aimless walks, a slow lunch.
  9. Occupy yourself – fluffy handcuffs, force yourself into corners, hack yourself, force-delegate.

10. Befriend yourself – give yourself a break from judgement at times, always give yourself a way out, embrace your massive ego (yep, you do).


V for Values

  1. Define them. Refine them. Try to be precise.
  2. Prioritise them.
  3. Whilst trying to help others, be kind to yourself too. Gentle. Generous.
  4. You need to enjoy your work to do it well – not everything, but generally.
  5. Communicate them to build a team around the project.


A for Actions

  1. It starts with 15 minutes. Just 15 minutes of reflection. Why you’re doing your project, how you got started, where you’re at now. Are you ticking along nicely, or getting close to burnout? You know the answer intuitively. If you ever say to yourself “I can’t spend 15 minutes on this today”, massive warning bells should be going off.
  2. Track your time for 24 hours. Note it down – everything you do, every 15 minutes. It takes time and it feels like a waste of time and it’s difficult. Accept you won’t want to do it. The reasons you busy yourself to the point of burnout are the same reasons you’ll be terrified to stop, breathe, think. Start with one day. Build up a good picture over two weeks. Don’t worry about gaps. The bald truth will emerge quite quickly. It will surprise you, even though you are currently convinced you know perfectly well what you do all day. This is the essential first step to holding yourself accountable for where you spend your precious time. Do it.
  3. Corner yourself. This is vitally important – your project can’t survive your burnout and what got you here won’t get you there. Make this your priority, over and above the daily firefighting. Reward yourself, or fine yourself – whatever works for you. Dedicate the next month to it, a minimum of 15 minutes a day. Two weeks to observe then two weeks to plan.
  4. Plan your exit. Imagine your project without you in the centre. Imagine yourself in a future project, having left this one humming along nicely. Think about yourself and your activities as if you were another employee or team member – in the third person.
  5. Get a mentor. Get a ruthless truth-teller to kick your ass. I’m very willing to offer the service, for an extortionate fee.


“The world needs you to write this post,” said a follower on twitter, when I first mooted the idea. Yes, the world needs social entrepreneurs. Effective, brilliant, resilient social entrepreneurs. Perhaps not ‘happy’ ones – happiness is overrated – but not suffering, crushed, ragged or bitter.


Don’t burn out.  Look after yourselves, and look out for each other.


Shine on, you crazy diamonds.


Pascale Scheurer, London, 25th April 2013.


Thank you to those who “unlocked” this post – i.e. saw the title on Twitter, clicked and asked me to write the article. 

If you are unclear what I mean or would welcome more specific guidance, just ask.

Equally if you know of useful relevant online resources, please let me know.

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3 Responses to Shine On You Crazy Diamonds – Why Social Entrepreneurs Burn Out, and How to Avoid It

  1. Many thanks Pascale – this is just in time for so many bold visionaries who start from the ground, with nothing more in their hand as a “creative & innovative mind”.

  2. Michael Edwards says:

    Impressively clear thinking – and a lot of this article applies to “ordinary” startups too, including internal (for those working inside a bigger organisation) startups.

  3. Pascale, you may be interested in this related free workshop with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus:
    Saturday 18 May.
    Best wishes, Michael

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