In this paper we aim to contribute to the literature on social entrepreneurship by nuancing both existing micro-level characterizations as well as its presumed macro level societal impacts. Moreover, we explore connections between the micro and macro levels of analysis to see which types of social entrepreneurs are more likely to achieve what kinds of societal impacts. We present findings from an illustrative sample of 28 interviews with Dutch social entrepreneurs working in International Development. At the micro level, our qualitative findings do not support a perception of social entrepreneurs – often found in the Anglo Saxon literature - as heroic ‘lone rangers’ who ‘go it alone’ and with ‘dogged determination’ fight for a self-defined social cause. Instead, most social entrepreneurs in our study are acutely aware of the need to cooperate with other stakeholders and often use existing ‘off the shelf’ social causes and theories of change, even when they do develop innovative ways to try and achieve these goals. At the macro level, two starkly contrasting views exist on the possible societal impacts of social entrepreneurs. The first is an, often implicit, extension of the ‘lone-ranger’ perception of social entrepreneurs as people who ‘change the world’ or at least significantly contribute to social and economic transformation. At the other end of the spectrum in the literature we find those who argue that social entrepreneurs are potentially counterproductive to international development interventions as their social mission is not the result of a ‘collective deliberative process’, their activities are likely to displace NGO and/or government interventions and might even give governments an excuse to not intervene and ignore deeper levels of political contestation and societal inequalities. The paper is structured as follows. We first explain the rise in social entrepreneurship in international development, and we introduce the central assumptions in the literature on how social entrepreneurs define their social mission and on their likely societal impact. Next we present our data to show that our interviews do not support existing assumptions about the characteristics of social entrepreneurs nor about their possible societal impacts. Finally, we explore the usefulness of the typology proposed by Zahra et al, and we conclude that this typology indeed helps to further systematize a more nuanced understanding of the characteristics and likely roles of social entrepreneurs.

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Keywords Dutch social entrepreneurs, international development, social enterprise, social entrepreneurship
Publisher International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University (ISS)
Persistent URL
Series ISS Working Papers - General Series
Journal ISS Working Paper Series / General Series
Helmsing, A.H.J, Knorringa, P, & Gomez Gonzalez, D. (2015). Dutch social entrepreneurs in international development : Defying existing micro and macro characterizations (No. 612). ISS Working Paper Series / General Series (Vol. 612, pp. 1–37). International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University (ISS). Retrieved from