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Building a supportive ecosystem for social entrepreneurs: mobilizing social capital

Published onJun 21, 2023
Building a supportive ecosystem for social entrepreneurs: mobilizing social capital
Leyen, Bart (1);
Dentchev, Nikolay (1);
Diaz Gonzalez, Abel (2);
Roncancio, Jason (1)

Extended Abstract

Social entrepreneurs (SEs) resolve societal issues e.g., poverty, hunger, and inequality (James Austin, Stevenson, & Wei-Skillern, 2006; Mair & Martí, 2006). To do this, SEs rely on the support of others to achieve their goals (Bloom & Dees, 2008; Montgomery et al., 2012) because they have difficulties attracting the necessary resources to address identified social problems (Dacin, Dacin, & Matear, 2010; Saebi, Foss, & Linder, 2019). Therefore, in this context, ecosystem thinking (Adner, 2006; Isenberg, 2011) is a constructive way to understand how various actors can support SEs (Alvedalen & Boschma, 2017; Spigel, 2017).

A supportive ecosystem for SEs addresses the divergent needs of SEs (Austin, Stevenson, & Wei–Skillern, 2006; Bloom & Dees, 2008), as it includes impact capital, volunteers, a social problem pool and services that are free (Audretsch, Eichler, & Schwarz, 2022). This ecosystem has features of an innovation ecosystem since the actors are aligning themselves for a focal value proposition to materialize, i.e., the social missions (De Bruin, Roy, & Grant, 2022). Therefore, SEs should take special care in building their ecosystem (Bloom & Dees, 2008).

Different ecosystem processes are explained in the literature e.g., relationships (Spigel, 2017), culture (Roundy, 2016), policies (Stam, 2015), and the ecosystem as structure (Adner, 2017), however, ecosystems remain largely undertheorized (Colombo, Dagnino, Lehmann, & Salmador, 2019; Roundy & Lyons, 2021). Only a few studies have investigated and suggested systematically how to build ecosystems (Lichtenstein, Lyons, & Kutzhanova, 2004; Roundy, Bradshaw, & Brockman, 2018; Theodoraki, Messeghem, & Rice, 2018), but these black-box studies do not identify causal relationships (Guéneau, Chabaud, & Sauvannet, 2022). The ecosystem-building literature is rather generic, it is often limited to principles (e.g. Feld, 2012; Isenberg, 2010), unclear about the unit of analysis (e.g. Thompson, Purdy, & Ventresca, 2018), and is not focussed on SEs (on exception is Cheah & Ho, 2019). This knowledge gap has been expressed by Spigel & Harrison (2018: 165) who call to unpack the ecosystem: “we must unpack the ecosystem to better understand how entrepreneurs gather resources and support from an ecosystem.”

To address the knowledge gap above, we argue that by unpacking how social capital (SC) in an ecosystem can be mobilized in support of SEs, we contribute with a theory on how ecosystems can be built. To build an ecosystem supporting SEs, we are proposing a three-stepped process model that includes strategizing, socialization, and engagement that explains how SC can be mobilized in support of SEs. We are applying the theoretical lens of SC (Putnam, 1992) since social relations interconnect ecosystems, and by focusing on the density of those interactions, the quality of an ecosystem can be explained (Spigel, Kitagawa, & Mason, 2020).

This paper contributes to SE ecosystem literature by identifying the processes in place for SEs to generate the required SC that trigger support from their ecosystem. By looking inside the ecosystem black box, we extend SC theory as we offer a novel perspective on how SEs can build their ecosystem through the theoretical lens of SC. We extend the model of Theodoraki et al. (2018) by incorporating the needs of SEs into ecosystem-building theories since their barriers are divergent from conventional entrepreneurs (Audretsch et al., 2022; Austin et al., 2006; Bloom & Dees, 2008).


Social entrepreneurship, Ecosystem, Ecosystem building, Social Capital, Social Impact.

Conceptual model:


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