Business for Good:
Maximizing the Value of Social Enterprises in Asia

Why is this report important?

This study showcases how Asia can realize the great potential of social enterprises. It provides abundant evidence of trends across the region, and identifies gaps to fill and who can fill them—including philanthropists, investors, governments and corporations. 

  • Social enterprises are growing in number across Asia. There are more than 1.2 million social enterprises in the six economies surveyed (Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand and Pakistan) and an additional 3.5 million in India and China.

  • In 2019, governments in the six economies spent more than US$100 million on social enterprise startups and US$900 million for startups of all kinds—a total spend of US$1 billion per year.

  • Despite these numbers, Asia is punching below its weight in impact investment and success stories. Home to 60% of the world’s population and accounting for 50% of the global economy, Asia receives only 16% of global impact investment funds.

A social enterprise is an organization that follows business principles to meet a social or environmental need through a product, service, process, or distribution of profit. Click here to read more on how we define a social enterprise. 

$100mil+

were spent on social enterprise startups by the governments of the six economies in 2019

Asia receives only

16%

of global impact investment funds

 

Topline findings

Philanthropy

channels critical funding
to budding social
enterprises

Ecosystems

in Asia
are young but
evolving

Impact investing

has promise
but is yet to realize
its potential

Government

shapes the social
enterprise ecosystem by
action or inaction

Talent

is in short supply,
but the solution is
within grasp

Mythbusting

with

data

Like all startups, funding is social enterprises’ biggest need—but hardest to access—at the early stage. Grants provide critical support. They make up the bulk of funding flowing to fledgling social enterprises in Asia.

2/3

of surveyed social enterprises consider grants the most critical type of early-stage funding.

Among social enterprises that receive grants, those at the very early stage build most of their budget from grants, with dependence waning as they mature and learn to stand on their own feet. Very early stage social enterprises receive 62% of their income from grants, early stage social enterprise receive 45% and relatively mature social enterprises rely on grants for only 29% of their income.

Grants also prepare social enterprises for receiving private investment. Early-stage grants allowed them to grow their valuation before reaching out to private investors.

 

Impact investment has swelled to an estimated US$502 billion worth of assets under management worldwide, 11 times the foreign aid flowing into the 15 Asian economies profiled in the inaugural Doing Good Index. But it has yet to realize its potential in Asia. At a time when Asian wealth is growing faster than anywhere in the world, the mismatch is notable.

Only 17% of social enterprises we surveyed received any impact investment over the last year.

Social enterprises identify expectations of high financial returns as the biggest barrier to attracting investment.

Impact investors can balance their twin interests of financial return and social impact by building a diverse portfolio of investments to meet their preference for total return: financial + social. 

 
 

Talent is the second-most important need of social enterprises after funding, but there is a talent shortage in this space in Asia. People are often unwilling to take the risk of working for a startup, and social startups lack the networks or funding needed to build a team. 

Asia can bridge the talent gap by tapping into two demographic pools: seniors and youth. Retirees in rapidly aging societies are often seeking encore careers, while workers from the largest youth demographic in the world are poised to enter the workforce. Our data shows that social entrepreneurship is attractive to both: there are significant numbers of older founders across our sample as well as younger ones.

Mindsets are changing. Professionals are seeking more meaningful careers aligned with their social values. 

There are some promising trends. Asia is already seeing significant participation of female founders in social entrepreneurship, even in societies with fewer female executives.

Most social enterprise ecosystems in Asia are young but evolving. Young social enterprise ecosystems tend to lack a diverse set of enablers, and are concentrated in urban areas.

This is gradually changing as a variety of enablers beyond incubators enter the ecosystem, including accelerators, venture philanthropists, universities and corporates.

Mentorship is what social enterprises desire most from the ecosystem. They seek both general business advice and industry expertise in what the OECD calls “braided support.”

 

Governments influence social enterprise ecosystems through action or inaction. Their reach and impact is unparalleled among institutions in Asia. 

Most actors in this space, from social enterprises to incubators and investors, feel the best role of government is to be a facilitator rather than a direct implementor.

A facilitating government could plug the funding gap, procure from social enterprises, offer tax and fiscal incentives, and make it easier to do business

 
 
Myth

Social enterprises want to live on handouts

Myth

Social enterprises think small

Myth

startups are
for the young

Myth

Female founders
are rare

Myth

Female founders
are rare

Mythbusting with data

A paucity of data on social enterprise sectors in Asia has led to some common misconceptions.
Our findings from over 700 surveys and interviews debunk some of these.

Myth

Social enterprises want to live on handouts

Click or hover here

“Profit is like oxygen: we need to breathe oxygen to live, but we don’t live to breathe oxygen.”
– a Japanese founder

"Asian social enterprise founders set out to be financially sustainable as much as wanting to achieve social impact. We find that 95% of social enterprises surveyed are either profitable or have the intention of becoming profitable.

Myth

Social enterprises think small

Click or hover here

Most social enterprises do not think small: they want to grow their business footprint. Many dream big: 44% intend to scale up and operate internationally. 

But others view scale differently; they want to scale their impact by having their model replicated by others, or training their beneficiaries to benefit others. Some want to impact culture or policies and laws. And a few choose to remain small businesses and do not need to scale to meet their missions.

Click or hover here

Myth

startups are
for the young

Age of Founder

29%

20-29yrs

39%

30-39yrs

32%

>40yrs

While many see young people as the changemakers shaking up society, we find that people of all ages have started social enterprises across the region. This matters in Asia like nowhere else: the region is simultaneously home to the world’s largest population of youth and an elderly demographic that is expected to balloon to 923 million by 2050.

Myth

Female founders
are rare

Click or hover here

Gender of Founder

59%

41%

While the commercial and tech startup scenes have yet to approach gender parity, the social enterprise sector sees relatively higher numbers of female founders. In our study, 41% of founders are women, and in Indonesia, the proportion was more than half. Even in societies where women face barriers to leadership in business, the social enterprise sector offers opportunities. For example, in Pakistan, while only 5% of business leaders are women, women make up 20% of social enterprise leaders.

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