Between a rock and a hard place. The hybrid character of social enterprises

Between a rock and a hard place. The hybrid character of social enterprises
Philip Marcel Karré | Valérie Mossel

ECSP-6EMES-05 | Karre & Mossel 2017


In this article we focus on the hybridity of social enterprises, on how social entrepreneurs and local government deal with hybridity and what it means for social enterprises’ contributions to processes of social innovation. We discuss the results of a study of social enterprises in Rotterdam, The Hague and the Drechtsteden region the Netherlands. In this study, we use document analysis, interviews and a survey to identify what drives social entrepreneurs, how they generate results and deal with the tensions due to hybridity. In our study, we also focus on how local governments as important stakeholders and partners view the efforts of social entrepreneurs and the impact of their actions. Our aim is to understand what is going on within a social enterprise and what it means to be a hybrid by using an inductive approach. We will compare our findings with the literature on the motivations, processes and outcomes of social entrepreneurship. By comparing our results with the experiences and insights of our peers at the conference we together can come to a more nuanced perspective on social innovation and social entrepreneurship based on empirical data.


In The Netherlands, there is increasing political and media attention for social initiatives at the local level, whereby citizens themselves take responsibility to address social issues (Boer and Lans, 2014; Miazzo and Kee, 2014; Schleijpen and Verheije, 2014; Uitermark, 2012). Urban neighborhoods and communities are seen as important laboratories or breeding grounds for new social and economic practices under the label of social innovation. By this we mean new ideas to deal with social challenges that are “created mainly by networks and joint action in social realms beyond business and government routines [and that], at any given moment, raise the hope and expectations of progress towards something ‘better’ (a more sustainable/democratic/effective society)” (Brandsen, Evers, et al., 2016: 6–7) In The Netherlands, these practices are commonly described as a new way of ‘city making’ (‘het nieuwe stadsmaken’) (Franke et al., 2015), a kind of social innovation characterized by a new culture (in which others than the traditional actors of governments and property developers play a dominant role in urban regeneration and development), a new, civic economy (in which economic and social goals are combined) and a new kind of entrepreneurs (who combine economic and social values).

One kind of social initiative very much in the spotlight are social enterprises, that integrate “economic and social value creation” (Mair and Martí, 2006: 36) and, according to the widely used definition of
the international EMES research network, share a number of common features (Defourny, 2014: 25– 28):

  • Their primary goal is to generate social impact rather than profit for the company’s owners or shareholders.
  • They trade goods and services on the market and do so in an enterprising and innovative manner.
  • Profits are mainly used to achieve social goals.
  • The organization’s management is transparent about its actions and is accountable to its employees, customers and other stakeholders.

Social enterprises are hybrid organizations (Battilana and Lee, 2014a; Pestoff, 2014; Teasdale, 2012a): social entrepreneurs create public value at the interface of government, market and society by engaging in commercial activities (Schulz et al., 2013: 5). That means they try to combine two contradictory logics: the entrepreneurial and social logic, which can be regarded as each other’s antonyms.

International research (Doherty et al., 2014) as well as a survey conducted by the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER), which is the Netherlands’ government’s main economic advisory council, and exploratory talks we conducted at the outset of our study, show that their hybrid character can be a double-edged sword for social enterprises. Combining an entrepreneurial and social logic creates a number of opportunities: it can foster the kind of synergy and innovation through which social entrepreneurs can really make a difference. Its hybrid character is the essence and the
unique selling point of social entrepreneurship.

But hybridity can also lead to a number of risks (eg. mission drift and conflicts between goals and values) and other challenges. Hybrids are always viewed with suspicions (‘are you really social or, above all, an entrepreneur?’). The Dutch social entrepreneurs surveyed by the SER felt that, due to their hybrid status, it was difficult to explain what they are doing and why, as it is generally easier to explain what the hybrid is not than what it is. Because of this, they often felt misunderstood and put down as benevolent amateurs or failed entrepreneurs looking to make a profit from exploiting vulnerable groups. The social entrepreneurs we talked to at the outset of this study echoed this sentiment, as did those spoken to during earlier studies undertaken by our research group (Brabander, 2009; Sterk et al., 2013). (…)

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