Doing Good and the Saviour Complex: What Social Entrepreneurs Need to Know

 Photo by  Cristian Newman

Is there such thing as a truly selfless good deed?

Social entrepreneurs may need to think this one through. Sure, it is awe-inspiring that initiatives have been created to bring an end to many social, economic, environmental injustices that happen here and abroad. But is it really that simple? Is there an end to the conflicts that social entrepreneurs pledge to eradicate, or is this just the beginning of another problem? Let’s investigate.


Shift Your Mindset

A problem that seems easily solvable shouldn't necessarily be an invitation for us to try and solve it. The issue here is two-pronged: 1) we tend to oversimplify global issues having not lived them in our everyday routine, and 2) we take it upon ourselves to save the day because we think the advantages we’ve been given in life gives us the right to do so.

It is slightly delusional, albeit in a well-intentioned way. After all, we grew up watching Michael Jackson’s music video, Man in the Mirror. If the King of Pop challenged us to “take a look at yourself, and then make a change,” who were we to do otherwise?

Pop culture aside, the problematic repercussion of the saviour complex is not meant to discourage social entrepreneurs from doing good but rather to encourage us to think from all sides of the parties involved. Because we have a perceived advantage - whether it is our education, technology, financial status, or mobility - we may think that without us stepping in to help, other people’s problems won’t be solved. Doing the right thing doesn’t mean that the solution is easy. In fact, thinking this way will do you and others more harm than good.

As social entrepreneurs, we need to be very aware that tackling certain issues requires real-world education. The latter meaning the full understanding of how to tactfully address issues, listen, and understand local laws and legislations in an affected area. not inadvertently open a new can of worms during your crusade.


Remove The “Save the World” Mentality

Unlike superhero movies, it isn’t up to one person to save the world nor should it look sexy when doing so. Social entrepreneurs need to self-assess why they are fighting for a cause. If helping others and starting a social enterprise makes you look good, then your work isn’t entirely altruistic.

This is not to say that giving up your time and resources on social change doesn’t deserve applause. In fact, it is very admirable. But don’t do it just for the applause. Do it because you think you have something valuable and unique to contribute towards making that change.


It Takes a Village

It really does. Social entrepreneurs are encouraged to work with local communities and collaborate efforts in fighting their cause. Most of the time, and understandably so, these communities want to remain self-sufficient. For a more sustainable future, make the effort to share the load, especially with the people who are affected. In other words, your enterprise can help people help themselves but only if they feel welcomed and listened to. Consider yourself a guest, not a saviour.

Teddy Ruge, an advocate for social change and global equality says it best:

“[I]t’s a global village, we all want to engage. The more that we are continually infantilized and we are put in a lesser role than everyone else – we want to be equal partners, we want to contribute to the global village, we don’t just want to simply be recipients from the global village.”

Social enterprises may provide resources and ensure management of project but be sure to include local communities in the conversation. Work together to create a plan, and take the time to learn from each other. 


Develop a Legacy

Social entrepreneurs should seek to create a lasting change in the world. In order to do so, they must understand that it is a commitment that may be long and arduous. There are many questions to be asked while collaborating with communities and local leaders, and thankfully, this all part of the process. Spending extra time to understand the environment in which you are working in, will help you to create a product or service that has proven impact. 

Doing good goes beyond basking in the perceived glory of helping others. Genuinely doing good requires commitment, ability to withstand difficult times, fighting tactfully through resistance, listening to others, and working collaboratively to create a lasting impact in the world. It isn’t a perfunctory stunt nor is it for the faint-hearted.

Shirley Lui