Social entrepreneurs in service: motivations and types

Peter Samuelsson (Karlstad Business School, Karlstads Universitet, Karlstad, Sweden)
Lars Witell (Business Administration, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden, and Service Research Center, Karlstad University, Karlstad, Sweden)

Journal of Services Marketing

ISSN: 0887-6045

Article publication date: 26 April 2022

Issue publication date: 19 December 2022




This study aims to describe social entrepreneurs' motivation during the social entrepreneurship process and identify different social entrepreneurs in terms of their social characteristics.


The descriptive research design uses a directed qualitative interpretative approach based on 17 cases of social entrepreneurs active in healthcare innovation hubs.


The study describes the social entrepreneurs in a service context. Based on their key motivational characteristics, the study identifies three types of social entrepreneur: discoverers, seekers, and rangers. The study finds that not all of the three types regulate high levels of motivation during the social entrepreneurship process.

Research limitations/implications

Depending on the type of social entrepreneur, the social entrepreneurship process requires different forms of support. In practice, the traditional R&D process deployed by innovation hubs is suitable for rangers; discoverers and seekers commonly regulate low levels of motivation when developing and introducing their social innovations to the market.


Most service research on social entrepreneurship focuses on the outcome; in contrast, this empirical study focuses on the individual entrepreneurs, their motivation and process. While previous research has treated motivation as an antecedent for engagement in the social mission of entrepreneurship, the present study investigates social entrepreneurs’ motivation in relation to the social entrepreneurship process, providing insights in the behavior of social entrepreneurs.



Samuelsson, P. and Witell, L. (2022), "Social entrepreneurs in service: motivations and types", Journal of Services Marketing, Vol. 36 No. 9, pp. 27-40.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Peter Samuelsson and Lars Witell.


Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence maybe seen at

1. Introduction

One emergent research stream in service research has focused on improving consumer and societal welfare through service (Rosenbaum et al., 2011) and enhancing well-being for all citizens (Anderson et al., 2013), based on concepts such as transformative service research and service inclusion (Fisk et al., 2018). Social innovations that enable service inclusion require tools and methods beyond new service development and service design. As more service firms commit to corporate social responsibility, green initiatives and other social values, there is increasing interest in social entrepreneurship (Altuna et al., 2015; Phillips et al., 2015), which combines resources in new ways to meet social needs and stimulate social change (Mair and Marti, 2006), unlike traditional entrepreneurship, which pursues economic gain. Many social innovations occur in service contexts (Windrum et al., 2016), where employees or customers act as social entrepreneurs (Fuglsang and Sørensen, 2011), based on their unique knowledge of value-creating processes (Mulgan et al., 2007). Social entrepreneurs engage through contests, innovation hubs, and other platforms, and many service organizations encourage employees to start their own businesses alongside their everyday work (Sundbo, 2008). There is evidence that such activities can have a social impact, improving sustainability (Hart and Milstein, 2003), increasing profitability and providing shareholder value (Phillips et al., 2015). However, despite increased research interest in social entrepreneurship, few empirical studies have looked at social entrepreneurs and their processes (Lumpkin et al., 2013; Windrum et al., 2016; Gallouj et al., 2018).

Existing research on individual social entrepreneurs has commonly emphasized the role of motivation. Building on the success stories of individuals such as Mohammad Yunus (founder the Grameen Bank) (Bornstein, 2004), the research perpetuates the stereotype of social entrepreneurs’ drive and motivation as entirely altruistic, surely this is not the case for all social entrepreneurs. While such success stories present an appealing image, they are in academic terms biased (Dacin et al., 2011) and are of limited practical use to managers seeking to foster social entrepreneurship. Among noteworthy exceptions, Zahra et al. (2009) described the differing motives driving social entrepreneurship, and Lumpkin et al. (2013) investigated whether and how social entrepreneurship differs from traditional entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship can be a complicated process and often provides little or no financial reward; it can be iterative, lengthy, and at times exhausting, and most social entrepreneurs are likely to fail (Sundbo, 1997; Toivonen, 2010; Renko, 2013). The social entrepreneurship calls by so for motivation not as it was a sprint, but as it was a marathon.

Self-determination theory suggests that motivation is regulated by the specific tasks at hand (Ryan and Deci, 2000). This idea has recently attracted interest among service researchers in explaining the motivation to participate in service development (Engström and Elg, 2015), employees’ motivation to participate in the implementation of service innovations (Cadwallader et al., 2010), and consumers’ willingness to adopt sustainable IT services (Wunderlich et al., 2013). We argue here that self-determination theory can help to identify different types of social entrepreneur and to describe how they remain motivated throughout the process of social entrepreneurship. On that basis, the article describes social entrepreneurs’ motivation throughout the process and seeks to distinguish different types of social entrepreneur in terms of their motivational characteristics. Using a directed qualitative interpretative approach (Silverman, 2006; Hsieh and Shannon, 2005), the study looks at17 cases of social entrepreneurship in the healthcare sector.

This study makes three main contributions to service research. First, by empirically describing social entrepreneurs in a service context, it bridges an empirical gap in the existing literature (Dacin et al., 2010; Windrum et al., 2016; Gallouj et al., 2018), looking beyond anecdotal evidence based on success stories (Bornstein, 2004) to provide a more nuanced view of social entrepreneurs. Second, the study identifies three different types of social entrepreneur, moving beyond prevailing stereotypes that fail to capture the everyday struggles of social entrepreneurs and how they build and maintain their motivation in pursuing social innovation. Third, by drawing on self-determination theory, the study responds to the call to apply established theories to social entrepreneurship (Short et al., 2009). Rather than characterizing social entrepreneurs’ motivation as an antecedent for social entrepreneurship, it is understood here as continuously regulated by the tasks at hand. This is crucial in unraveling how these individuals remain highly motivated throughout the social entrepreneurship process.

2. Literature review and theoretical framework

2.1 Social entrepreneurship

The social entrepreneurship literature has grown substantially over the past 20 years. Previously regarded as a public sector phenomenon, social entrepreneurship is now explored in many contexts and from several theoretical perspectives (Zahra et al., 2009; Dacin et al., 2010). Dacin et al.’s (2010) literature review on social entrepreneurship highlighted four key issues:

  1. primary mission and outcome;

  2. operating context;

  3. processes and resources; and

  4. characteristics of the individual social entrepreneur.

Most of the existing research addresses the first two of these while the process and individual perspective have been largely overlooked. Beyond the focus of traditional entrepreneurship on improved financial performance through new products or services (Schumpeter, 1934), social entrepreneurship also looks to create new forms of social value or social innovation (Thake and Zadek, 1997; Mair and Marti, 2006; Zahra et al., 2009). The mission of social entrepreneurship can therefore be described as a continuum, ranging from economic to social value (Chell, 2007; Mirvis and Googins, 2018). For example TOMS donate one pair of shoes for every pair sold; to date, the company has donated more than two million pairs of shoes to people in need (TOMS, 2018). Targeting social issues such as poverty and sickness, the company also creates economic value by giving goods that would otherwise be out of reach for less resourceful people.

Gallouj et al. (2018) have argued that social innovation and service innovation are closely related and to some extent overlap, where social means and ends result in new services. Beyond social value as an outcome of social innovation, service research also addresses the social element of the entrepreneurial process (Rubalcaba, 2016; Toivonen, 2018; Windrum et al., 2016). Most of the existing research has focused on conceptualizing the relationship between social innovation and service innovation (Table I). As in the social entrepreneurship literature, service research tends to focus on the outcome of social innovation (Lumpkin et al., 2013; Windrum et al., 2016; Gallouj et al., 2018). However, there is a need to focus on the individual characteristics and motivations of social entrepreneurs to better understand how managers can support and nurture social entrepreneurs (Dacin et al., 2010; Lumpkin et al., 2013).

2.2 Social entrepreneurs: characteristics and motivations

Given their unique knowledge of value-creating processes and their ability to operate flexibly outside bureaucratic constraints, individual social entrepreneurs may be better equipped than established service organizations to develop social services (Mulgan et al., 2007). The seminal literature on social entrepreneurship (Dees, 2001; Mair and Noboa, 2006) departs from traditional definitions of entrepreneurship by adding the element of social mission as the motivation for social entrepreneurship, viewing economic incentives solely as a means to an end (Dees, 2001).

Most existing research addressing the characteristics of social entrepreneurs is based on success stories (Bornstein, 2004; Dacin et al., 2010; Dacin et al., 2011) of social entrepreneurs such as Mohammad Yunus or Bill Drayton. Yunus founded the Grameen Bank, which provides micro-loans to individuals who are rejected by conventional lending institutions, and thousands of self-sufficient small businesses have been successfully financed in this way. Bill Drayton founded Ashoka, an organization dedicated to identifying and supporting social entrepreneurs. Both of these individuals have been described as altruistic, innovative, skillful, and passionate in successfully changing the world for the better, and Yunus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his endeavors.

This narrow sample presents an appealing but biased account of individual social entrepreneurs and their processes (Dacin et al., 2011). Previous research has emphasized motivation as the primary driver of social innovation. Based on the motivation of individuals to discover, define, and exploit opportunities for social innovations, Zahra et al. (2009) identified three types of social entrepreneur: the social bricoleur, the social constructionist, and the social engineer. Similarly, Lumpkin et al. (2013) identified the quest for social change as an antecedent of social entrepreneurship. The present study argues that beyond being an antecedent, motivation is a key success factor throughout the process of social entrepreneurship.

Many social entrepreneurs are employees of service organizations that provide innovation hubs (Altuna et al., 2015; Mirvis and Googins, 2018). As well as promoting entrepreneurial behavior, these hubs must provide resources, structures, and support for those embarking on the process of social entrepreneurship (Tushman and Moore, 1988; Van de Ven et al., 1989; Alpkan et al., 2010). To provide the requisite support for successful social innovation, it is essential to understand what motivates the individual social entrepreneur throughout the process.

2.3 Using self-determination theory to understand social entrepreneurs

Because social entrepreneurs commonly pursue their mission in their spare time, outside the work environment and its systems of control, it has been argued that understanding their behavior depends on understanding their motivation. Self-determination theory provides a theoretical framework for developing practices, structures, and policies to promote high-quality performance (Deci et al., 2017). The present study extends the theory’s application to a range of service contexts, offering new insights into social entrepreneurship.

The underlying rationale of self-determination theory is that greater freedom from external influence when making choices – that is, greater self-determination – increases motivation and therefore performance (Ryan and Deci, 2000). The theory is grounded in three basic psychological needs that inform regulation of motivation in relation to a task: competence, autonomy, and psychological relatedness (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Competence refers to feeling effective in one’s environment and being able to function or perform at a high level. Autonomy is the feeling that one’s behavior is self-endorsed and congruent with one’s sense of self. Psychological relatedness can be described as feeling cared for and connected to others, and belonging in an environment while performing a given behavior. Individuals who experience this sense of choice when regulating their behavior are likely to be highly motivated (Deci et al., 1989; Deci and Ryan, 1985). Figure 1 illustrates the regulation process, which determines one’s type of motivation to the social entrepreneurship process and the tasks within it.

This regulatory process depends on the individual’s subjective interpretation of their task and whether it accommodates their psychological needs (Ryan and Deci, 2000). For example, while one individual may interpret a task or event as beyond their competence and sense of self, entailing a low level of motivation, another may perceive and respond differently to the same task or event (Deci and Ryan, 1985). This internal process of regulation is associated with three different forms of motivation: intrinsic, extrinsic and amotivation. These three types of motivation define a continuum of self-determination (see Figure 2) and ensuing individual performance (Ryan and Deci, 2000). For example, a social entrepreneur who feels that they lack the right competences to take their new service to market may experience amotivation, leading to poor performance of critical activities. In the same situation, intrinsic motivation might lead another social entrepreneur to perform with persistence and engagement.

Amotivation refers to a lack of intention to act. The causes of amotivation may include not valuing an activity (Ryan, 1995), not feeling competent to perform an activity (Bandura, 1986), or feeling that an activity will not achieve the desired outcome (Seligman, 1975). An individual may also experience amotivation when the activity is nonintentional (Ryan and Deci, 2000). This “non-acting” behavior or acting without intent (Ryan and Deci, 2000) means that the individual engages only passively in activities (Deci and Ryan, 2002). There are several possible reasons for amotivation, but the underlying type of regulation is always non-regulation.

Extrinsic motivation is outcome-oriented (Ryan and Deci, 2000) and is characterized by relative autonomy (Ryan and Connell, 1989; Vallerand, 1997). The underlying regulatory types range from compliance with authority (e.g. following dubious orders) to congruence with one’s self-image (Ryan and Deci, 2000). In their typology of extrinsic motivation, Deci and Ryan (1985) identified four distinct forms of regulation:

  1. external regulation (processes of compliance and reward or punishment by external entities);

  2. introjected regulation (largely external regulatory processes of self-control, ego-involvement, and internal reward and punishment);

  3. identified regulation (an internal regulatory process in which an activity is experienced as personally significant or the outcome is consciously valued); and

  4. integrated regulation (the most autonomous form, in which the individual fully assimilates the activity as reflecting all of their values and beliefs) (Ryan and Deci, 2000).

Intrinsic motivation derives from the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself (Ryan and Deci, 2000). People are generally willing to engage in activities that include elements of assimilation, mastery, spontaneous interest, and exploration, all of which are key sources of enjoyment and well-being. In the context of service marketing, Cadwallader et al. (2010) (following Vallerand, 1997) identified three forms of regulation associated with intrinsic motivation:

  1. to know (engaging in activities for the inherent satisfaction of understanding and learning new things);

  2. to accomplish (engaging for the enjoyment of creating something and surpassing oneself); and

  3. to experience (engaging in activities that stimulate the senses).

2.4 Motivation and the process of social entrepreneurship

To understand social entrepreneurs’ motivations, it is necessary to link behaviors to tasks. As noted earlier, recent research at the individual level has tended to focus on employees and customers and their use of established organizations as platforms when launching social innovations (Altuna et al., 2015; Mirvis and Googins, 2018). Many of the participants in the present study were found to be answering an organization’s calls for social innovation, encouraging them to innovate and to access organizational resources through an innovation hub. However, not all social entrepreneurs are employed by the funding organization (Mirvis and Googins, 2018); for example, one of Sweden’s largest banks runs a contest for customers and others seeking start-up capital to pursue a social innovation. Winners are awarded capital and a platform with a tailored business development program. In such cases, the organization’s goal is to promote their commitment to corporate social responsibility by addressing social issues (Phillips et al., 2015; Altuna et al., 2015).

Mair and Marti’s (2006) seminal article defined social entrepreneurship as a process, but there has been little research to date detailing that process (Phillips et al., 2015). While the motives for social entrepreneurship do not prioritize personal or shareholder wealth, the process is similar to traditional entrepreneurship (Lumpkin et al., 2013). Building on service innovation research in such contexts as public services, financial services, and knowledge-intensive business services (KIBS), the process of innovation aligns with the traditional research and development (R&D) model (Miles, 2008), which can be said to involve three stages (Toivonen and Tuominen, 2009); for present purposes, we have defined these as ideation, development, and diffusion. In service contexts, these three stages may be iterative and may not always follow the same sequence or include the same activities (Toivonen and Tuominen, 2009) in terms of resource use and distribution.

As the social entrepreneurship process is inherently socially embedded, its stages and activities can be understood as social events (Toivonen, 2018; Rubalcaba, 2016; Windrum et al., 2016). In the ideation stage, social entrepreneurs come up with an idea, often based on interactions between frontline employees and customers or between different groups of employees (Sundbo, 2008). Public sector innovation builds on bottom-up ideas of this kind (Fuglsang and Sørensen, 2011), which are also assessed and evaluated at this level (Sundbo, 2008). In the development stage, activities require varied resources and partners must cooperate (Toivonen and Tuominen, 2009) to provide access to the required knowledge and skills (Sundbo, 2008). When developing prerequisites for social innovation (Edvardsson et al., 2000), management focus and enthusiasm are crucial in attracting partners and creating commitment to that development (Stjernberg and Philips, 1993). Another key element is the ability to make choices based on what happens during the project (Sarasvathy, 2001) – in other words, organizations or entrepreneurs must be able to deviate from a predefined vision (Fuglsang and Sundbo, 2003). Finally, in the diffusion stage, the social innovation is implemented in the organization and/or diffused in the market. As organization are inherently resistant to change (Sundbo, 2008), implementation depends on employee acceptance and willingness to use the innovation (Cadwallader et al., 2010), supported and encouraged by social entrepreneurs. Diffusion plays a vital role in this process, especially in service contexts where the potential benefits for all stakeholders depend on embedding new resource configurations in practice (Toivonen and Tuominen, 2009).

In summary, to regulate motivation that leads to high levels of performance, well-being, and personal development (Ryan and Deci, 2000), social entrepreneurs must feel that they have the competence, autonomy and psychological relatedness to manage activities in the various stages of the social entrepreneurship process. Individual differences mean that social entrepreneurs will interpret these activities differently, resulting in different forms of motivation (Deci et al., 2017).

3. Methodology

Because of the lack of individual-level research on social entrepreneurs, the present study is descriptive, adopting a qualitative interpretative approach (Silverman, 2006) to capture the interactions between social entrepreneurs, regulation of different types of motivation, and the social entrepreneurship process (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Using critical case sampling, the study describes 17 cases involving one or two social entrepreneurs. Maximizing the information from a relatively small number of cases facilitates logical generalization based on in-depth study of a number of critical cases (Patton, 2002). The use of multiple cases also ensures variance in the data and makes it possible to identify recurring patterns (Yin, 2009).

3.1 Data collection and sampling

Critical case sampling seeks to identify cases that are information-rich (Patton, 2002). To be included in this study, candidates had to have at least one year of experience as social entrepreneurs to ensure that they could provide detailed information about the process. The participants were recruited from three innovation hubs embedded in public healthcare organizations. These hubs engage and coach social entrepreneurs and provide access to various resources, including financial investors, manufacturers, resellers, and knowledge. The innovation hub helps social entrepreneurs to manage the process of developing innovations and bringing them to market. However, these innovation hubs were exclusively for social innovation, and there was no ownership interest; ownership, potential profits, costs, and other issues were entirely the responsibility of the entrepreneurs themselves. All of the selected cases had been successfully screened for novelty and potential to create social value – that is, the idea had to be accepted as a social innovation in order to access support from the innovation hub. At the same time, whatever the potential for social value creation, the individual entrepreneur's initial motivation might relate to financial or other gains.

All of the social entrepreneurs worked on their inventions in their spare time, as well as being employed as nurses, teachers, or physicians. Recruited with the help of innovation hub managers, all of the selected social entrepreneurs were interviewed and, where possible, they were asked to demonstrate their social innovations in practice. The interviews were semi-structured and included open-ended questions about the participants’ experiences of the social entrepreneurship process. More specifically, the interview guide was designed to reveal the regulation of motivation in the three stages of the social entrepreneurship process. The interview guide also included questions about the social value and novelty of the innovations. Interviews lasted between 35 and 94 min and all were recorded and transcribed.

3.2 Content analysis

Following the ladder of analytical abstraction (Carney, 1990), the first step was to read through the material to gain an overview and to make coding easier. The coding process adopted a directed approach (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005), proceeding from a theoretical perspective on self-determination and the social entrepreneurship process. This included predetermined codes for the deductive categorization of data (Mayring, 2000) as a more structured approach than conventional qualitative content analysis (Hickey and Kipping, 1996). These codes referred to the eight types of regulatory processes (Figure 2) from self-determination theory and the three stages of the social entrepreneurship process, yielding 263 items in total.

The next step of the analysis was to identify and describe the different types of social entrepreneur. To begin, each social entrepreneur’s statements about regulation in the different stages of the entrepreneurship process were sorted and grouped to reveal patterns of regulation throughout the process. In coding the patterns, inter-rater judgments of the coded material were used to strengthen reliability; in practice, the authors separately grouped the pattern of the individuals to identify different types, achieving overall inter-rater agreement of 94 per cent. Coding continued until the authors had reached agreement on all patterns of regulation for each individual. Three recurring patterns of regulation were identified, corresponding to three types of social entrepreneur, and multiple cases confirmed the classification (at least five cases of each type). The authors then created semiotic descriptions from the data to capture the essence of the different types; these were later read to catch potential inconsistencies within the types while remaining true to the data and preserving reliability.

4. Findings

Our findings confirm the diversity of social entrepreneurs and reveal that not all were thriving throughout the process. Many of the study’s participants had struggled for a long time to realize their initial idea. Two worked for close to a decade without managing to diffuse what seemed straightforward ideas; others had managed to diffuse their social innovations within a relatively short time and were now working on another one. The investigation of how participants regulated motivation during the social entrepreneurship process identified three types of social entrepreneur: Discoverers (n =6), Seekers (n =5), and Rangers (n =6). These three types were differently motivated at the various stages of the process, and each exhibited a different pattern of regulation and motivation in managing and driving the process forward.

4.1 The Discoverer

This type of social entrepreneur finds that their work (e.g. as a nurse or physician) has equipped them with a specific skillset that they feel unable to fully exploit. Social entrepreneurship allows Discoverers to put their knowledge and skills to good use and provides a challenge beyond their everyday work. Several described their working environment as dull; they had been there for a long time, with no development or career prospects. Many of them said that they had no other hobbies and that this was their source of fun. They became entrepreneurs to experience the process rather than to reach a specific outcome. As one social entrepreneur explained:

I see this as a really fun process during my working life, and I could have worked more with this because it gave me so much […] Perhaps I will come up with something else [and start a new journey]. [Dental nurse]

Discoverers are motivated by the social entrepreneurship process itself and exhibit more intrinsic motivation during the ideation and development stages. Discoverers perceive ideation activities as rewarding for the senses; as one put it: “The time I spent with them [people at the innovation hub] was so great that, whatever happens with my innovation, I will always look back and cherish that time”. [Dental nurse]

In the development stage, the motivation is similar, as Discoverers regulate intrinsic motivation on the basis of positive experiences of activities. However, motivation in the development stage varies considerably. For example, Discoverers experience the journey as enriching when they get to work with a knowledgeable external partner, and intrinsic motivation when the process runs smoothly, as they tagged along with partner companies and had a great time. In contrast, they experienced amotivation when the work itself was less satisfying or less smooth than expected. This happens when a task is perceived as challenging and difficult and the Discoverer has no prior knowledge or experience of the situation. As one participant said, “I’ve had previous projects, and you have to have that backup [support from the innovation hub] – otherwise, nothing will ever happen”. [Physiotherapist]. Another reported that she had been in contact with a potential manufacturer who said they would look into possible production methods and call her back:

Then I did not hear anything from them; months passed, perhaps even a year, and I did not really put any effort into it either. How much drive you have and so forth depends on where you are in life. [Dental nurse]

Discoverers often come to the end of their journey in the diffusion stage, when they must bring their innovation to market. Because they do not see themselves in the role of diffuser but only as inventors, they experience implementation and diffusion activities as something about which they have no knowledge or interest, prompting amotivation or lower levels of extrinsic motivation. They hope that someone will make use of their social innovation, but they do not actively work to make this happen. For instance, one social entrepreneur described feeling that there was a Berlin wall between the medical equipment industry and himself as a social entrepreneur because there was such a clash of interests between his own and the company’s view of what the process was for. Another entrepreneur explained:

To make it out on the market is hard – really hard, in fact. I think the product was stuffed away in the closet for a year (after an initial attempt to find a reseller). [Occupational therapist]

However, when Discoverers find someone to manage the diffusion phase, they experience intrinsic motivation because their journey has proved helpful to others, which appeals to their core values.

4.2 The Seeker

These social entrepreneurs search for their identity within their organization and in their working life. Like the Discoverer, the Seeker feels that their ordinary work does not provide what they are looking for. However, they differ in terms of what they want from their work; unlike the Discoverer, the attraction of the social entrepreneurship process is not activities as such but relates to their sense of identity at work. For example, one social entrepreneur explained that no one was thinking about development activities in his department at the hospital, and as a creative mind, he felt it was up to him to look for better solutions to their problems. Many Seekers occupied lower places in the hierarchy and implied that they felt diminished by their working environment. As one explained:

I am only a dental nurse […] If I had been a hygienist or, even better, a dentist or a specialist dentist […] for example, we have gatherings every year where about 500 people come together […] people go on stage and get flowers and stuff, presenting studies and so on. It is almost always dentists, but this time a “plain” dental nurse had come up with something. [Dental nurse]

By taking on the more nuanced role of social entrepreneur, Seekers can also leverage greater legitimacy in the workplace. By adding the identity of “social entrepreneur” to their self-image, they hope to experience greater engagement in their work, as they are no longer “just” a nurse or doctor. Whenever they inhabit this role, they experience high levels of external motivation. As one social entrepreneur described it:

We continued all night shooting a presentation movie for the innovation; it was a real pain for just one minute of footage, but now, when you Google my name, you can actually find me presenting my product! [Theatre nurse]

Because they identify strongly as creative and innovative, Seekers experience high levels of extrinsic motivation in the ideation stage. For instance, one Seeker reported that she was always thinking in new ways, breaking the mold, and that the social entrepreneurship process finally gave her a chance to play this role. Having invested a lot in their self-image as innovators, Seekers are selective about how the service innovation takes shape and progresses. This can create amotivation in the development stage, when the process diverges from the original idea or the ideal, creating dissonance with their self-image. For instance, one participant described how he struggled during prototyping of his product because of the fabric suggested by the manufacturer did not feel professional, and he could not picture himself promoting the innovation, which put it on hold for a long time. Seekers experience higher levels of extrinsic motivation during other development activities that acknowledge their ideas and their efforts to put them into practice, creating a positive self-image as a successful social entrepreneur that manifests in their persona. Several Seekers noted the value of meetings with other entrepreneurs, less for their inputs on how to move forward than for the chance to meet and interact with like-minded individuals, which provided an extra boost of energy. In the implementation stage, Seekers are strongly influenced by the feedback they receive and their ability to play their part. Positive feedback and appearances as an entrepreneur cause their motivation to peak; as one participant noted:

When the project was about to finish, I got to deliver my first presentation to tell the story of the innovation […] It has been really hectic since; there was an innovation fair at another hospital […] Of course, a contract was agreed, so I make some money on every sale, which is great, but that small amount of money is […] I mean, compared to all of the other things, that gives me so much. [Nurse]

On receiving negative feedback, however, Seekers instantly distance themselves from the social entrepreneurship process and experience amotivation. One participant said that the first company she contacted to suggest collaboration already had a similar product in their portfolio and was not interested in changing their setup for something similar. As a result of that feedback, she stopped working on her innovation for about six months. Another entrepreneur attracted interest from a major manufacturing company and was invited to pitch the idea to top executives; this was described as a thrilling experience, as someone had finally seen the innovation’s intelligence and potential. No collaboration ensued, but she was motivated by the positive feedback and soon managed to find another partner.

4.3 The Ranger

This type of social entrepreneur is similar to the Seeker, as both experience social entrepreneurship as something that can be added to their persona. In the Ranger’s case, however, what matters is their competence in contributing to the greater good rather than self-image alone. The Ranger is more like the “traditional” entrepreneur than the Seeker, placing more emphasis on a successful outcome, as they feel they cannot claim competence without having something to show for it. For example, one participant described how he was always trying to implement some real game-changing innovation wherever he worked; in this particular case, he invested all of his efforts in providing a better working environment for his crew on sight, and he felt that nothing was accomplished until that had been achieved. He described the process itself as a pain, but he felt that the outcome made all the hard work worthwhile.

Rangers are motivated by using their know-how and resources to find solutions to problems they consider meaningful. They view themselves as caring for those in need or those who do not “get it”. Many of the Rangers in the sample had left their ordinary working roles in healthcare to pursue their f social innovation goals. Not all of them were working full-time on their innovation, and some acted as consultants for other social entrepreneurs.

Rangers draw their motivation from this sense of being misunderstood and mistreated, viewing themselves as underdogs who will create a greater good through social entrepreneurship. Many of them described healthcare as being somewhat like an oil tanker that has a momentum of its own; it will always be a fight to turn things around, but someone has to do it. As one of them put it:

This is a game of endurance; every day, I meet people who think ‘this idea was not invented by me, so there can't be anything positive about it,’ and then they try to take you down. I run into these people almost every day; sometimes you’re really down, but you just have to pull yourself together and keep on going. [Operation manager]

In the ideation stage, Rangers are motivated by problems they have encountered in their working environment. They experience intrinsic motivation and feel there are better ways of doing things, and that they have better solutions. For example, one Ranger explained that she had gained a unique insight into her own rehabilitation process and that it was her mission to help others to achieve the same outcome through her social innovation. In the development stage, Rangers are ambivalent about cooperating with external partners. They feel that partners are holding them back, and they are uncomfortable with the influence of external actors in the process. One Ranger explained how existing innovation networks were holding her back:

It was the lack of clarity; sometimes I felt like I was a goldfish – just staring at everyone around me, not knowing who they were – but everyone seemed to know me […] You feel diminished, which makes you lose your momentum. [Rehab patient]

The loss of agency pushes the Ranger toward amotivation. They are motivated by activities that attract positive feedback and confirm their competence. They also see themselves as result- and solution-oriented, which regulates extrinsic motivation in the development stage. In the diffusion stage, Rangers seek validation from others; as one said: “I would like to give this [social innovation] to the employees, to give them the chance to reap the benefits – that’s what really drives me the most”. They want to see their social innovation put into use to realize their hopes and wishes, regulating extrinsic motivation. Successful implementation and seeing their innovation in use provides intrinsic motivation for the Ranger.

5. Discussion

This study characterizes social entrepreneurs as individuals who engage proactively in social innovation in a service context. By illuminating the motivations of individual social entrepreneurs, the study adds to recent work on transformative service research, service inclusion, and social innovation (Fisk et al., 2018). While previous research has tended to be either conceptual or outcome-focused, targeting the innovation itself (Gallouj et al., 2018), the present study is empirical, focusing on the individual social entrepreneur in the process of social entrepreneurship.

5.1 Theoretical contributions

In describing the key role of social entrepreneurs’ motivation throughout the social entrepreneurship process, the present study makes three main theoretical contributions. First, it extends previous conceptual research on social entrepreneurship by introducing an empirical perspective at the level of the individual. Previous research has focused on the outcome of social entrepreneurship – that is, the social innovation itself. Instead, this study looks at the process and at individual social entrepreneurs. While previous research has portrayed social entrepreneurs as heroic, altruistic, and skillful (Dacin et al., 2011) in pursuing their quest for social value (Dees, 2001) based on anecdotal success stories (Bornstein, 2004), this interview-based study shows that not all social entrepreneurs can be described as successful, skilled or consistently passionate about their endeavors. This departure from existing stereotypes of social entrepreneurs provides a more nuanced account (Dacin et al., 2011) and serves as an important corrective to the prevailing narrative. While a more positive view may help to recruit new social entrepreneurs, the predominance of success stories is an inaccurate portrayal that may even call into question the legitimacy of this field of research (Dey, 2006).

Secondly, the individual-level perspective enabled us to identify three types of social entrepreneur. This is important because the existing stereotype fails to illuminate the everyday struggles of the social entrepreneur and how they regulate motivation in pursuit of social innovation. Based on studying motivation throughout the process of social entrepreneurship, the typology responds to the call for research in a social context that challenges the assumptions of prior research on social entrepreneurs (Mair and Marti, 2006). As described here, social entrepreneurs’ motivations are more complex than the motives of personal and shareholder wealth, as ascribed to traditional entrepreneurs (Phillips et al., 2015) – or, indeed, than the social mission (Lumpkin et al., 2013). Existing typologies of social entrepreneurs (Zahra et al., 2009) reflect how they pursue the social mission and how they impact the social system while neglecting individual motivation and its implications for the process of social entrepreneurship. Only the Ranger resembles the traditional entrepreneur or those social entrepreneurs who are motivated by implementing the social mission. The two new types of social entrepreneur introduced here (Discoverers and Seekers) are motivated by the social entrepreneurship process itself as a means of putting their knowledge to use or enhancing their self-image and role in the organization. Identifying these two types augments existing research on social entrepreneurship by providing new theoretical insights into why social innovations succeed or fail.

Third, the study’s use of self-determination theory responds to the call for stronger theoretical grounding of research on social entrepreneurship. Unlike the existing view of motivation as a precursor to social entrepreneurship, the present study highlights the ongoing role of motivation throughout the development and diffusion phases, confirming that social value creation is more than an antecedent of social entrepreneurship (Zahra et al., 2009). While the aim of social entrepreneurship process is to create social value, no such value is created until the innovation is implemented in practice and the social entrepreneur must be able to sustain their motivation throughout the process. In contrast to previous research, this study shows how social entrepreneurs regulate different types of motivation throughout the process, with varying performance outcomes, moving beyond the view of social entrepreneurs as motivated by social value creation alone (Lumpkin et al., 2013).

5.2 Managerial contributions

The observed relationship between individual motivation and the social entrepreneurship process also has managerial implications. In general, knowing how social entrepreneurs regulate motivation helps to guide optimal practice for recruitment and support, as different types of social entrepreneur require different kinds of support in the various stages of the process. It is also important for managers of social innovation platforms and related settings to know how to coach and manage the different types of social entrepreneur throughout the process (Sundbo, 2008).

Discoverers need a lot of support at every stage of the social entrepreneurship process, and especially in the diffusion stage. Their competence lies in finding solutions that will create social value, but they do not feel competent in terms of the process of social entrepreneurship itself and experience amotivation when faced with this lack of knowledge. As they are also driven by the journey itself, they are more open to change during the process and will accept the advice of external partners, which can help to make the innovation commercially viable by adapting the outcome to the market (Sarasvathy, 2001; Fuglsang and Sundbo, 2003).

Seekers are perhaps the most difficult to support because their motivation derives from their self-image, which also is tied to their original idea. For that reason, they are less willing to deviate from that original idea. While providing individualized support to strengthen the intrapreneur’s self-image is perhaps beyond the scope of an innovation hub, rapid diffusion may prove fruitful (Toivonen and Tuominen, 2009). In this way, the Seeker gets to validate their idea quickly, and if it is rejected by the organization or the market, they can opt out early or perhaps become more open to change.

As Rangers are outcome-driven, they are less willing to allow the integration of external resources. Because they perceive their area of competence as the social entrepreneurship process itself, they want to be in charge of that process and so experience amotivation when external partners intervene. For that reason, Rangers may be best supported by taking a step back and standing by, assisting only when needed.

The fact that Discoverers and Seekers are driven by the social entrepreneurship process itself means that they do not fit the traditional business focus on diffusion as an outcome or goal. This suits Rangers because it provides a clear target, but as Discoverers and Seekers are not driven by the outcome itself, they need strong partners to manage and drive business-oriented activities such as diffusion and implementation, which are not congruent with their self-image or area of competence.

5.3 Limitations and further research

The present research has certain limitations. Although identifying three types of social entrepreneur, the findings are based on the interpretation of a limited set of cases in one specific context. Researchers and practitioners should therefore transpose this typology to their own context to see whether they can identify these or additional types. Further research can build on the typology presented here to extend research on social entrepreneurship. One promising way forward would be to investigate outcomes from the individual and process perspectives. The present study suggests that Rangers perform best but do not experience the highest levels of motivation throughout the process. They do however maintain their motivation throughout, as they are focused on achieving an outcome. It would also be interesting to establish whether successful social innovation is explained by the match between social entrepreneurial type and process, or whether the motivation itself is the key to success. Finally, it would be useful to validate and extend the typology in different service contexts.


The process of regulation of different types of motivation in relation to the social entrepreneurship process

Figure 1

The process of regulation of different types of motivation in relation to the social entrepreneurship process

The continuum of self-determination

Figure 2

The continuum of self-determination

Social innovation in service research

Authors Research aim Type of paper Definition/operationalization Main contribution
Rubalcaba (2016) To develop a framework for understanding the relationship between social, service, and systems innovation Conceptual Defines social innovation as “the outcome of three elements: social goals prevalence (vs just business goals), social means for complex systemic co-productions (vs nonsystemic) and service and non-technological innovation outcomes (vs mainly goods-oriented outcomes)” A three dimensional model of social innovation as the outcome of three elements
Toivonen (2018) To develop a research agenda for the examination of social and service innovation Conceptual Building on Rubalcaba’s (2016) conceptualization, Toivonen emphasizes the social means of innovation Highlights the need for research exploring the nature of social innovation and development of governing structures and innovation policies
Gallouj et al. (2018) To develop a framework to elucidate the relationship between social and service innovation Conceptual Defines social innovation as “new service solutions to societal challenges aiming to increase welfare by value co-creation and co-implementation through co-production among multiple empowered actors” (s. 553) A taxonomy based on the interaction of type of innovation and locus of co-production
Djellal and Gallouj (2012) To establish a dialogue between the fields of social and service innovation Conceptual Conceptualizes social innovation by emphasizing its social dimension as compared to manufacturing; describes the characteristics of social innovation Identifies similarities in theoretical development between social and service innovation that contrasts with traditional manufacturing innovation research
Windrum et al. (2016) To develop a framework that links social and service innovation research Conceptual, with empirical illustration Conceptualizes social innovation with an emphasis on social aspects of outcome and process, positioning it closer to service innovation A multi-agent model of social innovation, synthesizing key concepts of the social and service innovation literatures
Harrison et al. (2010) To capture one facet of social innovation in the service sector Empirical case study Defines social innovation as “Initiatives taken by social actors to respond to a need while being supported by public recognition” (s. 197) Description of social innovation’s impact at different levels

Case sample of social entrepreneurs

Case number Organizational role Description of social innovation Social value/motive
1. Resident physician and specialist nurse A new way of packaging and dealing with fluids in surgery Surgeons can use fluids more routinely for removal of polyps (previously very costly)
2. Dental nurse A new tray for tool management in everyday clinical practice Machine washable, so reducing risk of infection for patients; improvement of work safety for employees by reducing the risk of cuts from sharp instruments
3. Operation manager A new electronic filing system for on-call staff Important information digitalized for easy access at home rather than having to carry different folders back and forth
4. Occupational therapist A holder that prevents the jaw from opening during sleep or for persons with disabilities Consumers with minor snoring issues sleep better. Prevents mouth dryness in people with functional disabilities
5. Engineer A cutting tool for easy removal of clothes from accident victims Faster and more effective care delivery to people in need
6. Theatre nurse A versatile patient strapping tool using magnets instead of Velcro Ability to quickly strap a patient to stretchers, knowing that they will not fall or suffer infection
7. Rehab patient A training tool/program for rehab patients A new training approach to accelerate recovery from accidents
8. Resident physician A wall-mounted holder for disposable instruments Easier for employees to find spatulas when they are kept in the same place; reduced risk of infection and heightens the sense of professionalism in care delivery
9. Nurse A new tray for instruments when collecting samples from patients A safer working environment, less frustration for staff when collecting samples, greater efficiency, and reduced risk of contamination
10. Emergency nurse Color coded tools for easy usage Tools are color-coded for easier recognition in stressful situations
11. Physiotherapist Mobile test station for patient use Patients can use the test station to measure their own blood-pressure etc.
12. Attending physician Pliers for optical surgery When using new fiber optical operation techniques, these pliers provide better visibility and ease of use
13. Physiotherapist A new type of add-on that enables stroke patients to use a walker instead of a cane The add-on compensates for lack of grip, enabling the patient to stand up and walk straight rather than bending to use a cane
14. Specialist nurse A kit for easier handling of deceased patients Rather than having to change the linen between winding sheets and transport to the morgue, the linen kit serves both purposes, so increasing staff efficiency
15. Ward clerk An interior decoration service for medical recovery A new service for decorating environments for quicker recovery.
16. Ward clerk A new schedule planning process Instead of using whiteboards for devising day-to-day clinic schedules, this innovation systematizes management of staff absences etc.
17. Dental nurse A new holder for light management during clinical practice Makes it possible to perform more advanced treatments unassisted

Motivation of social entrepreneurs throughout the social entrepreneurship process

Stage in Process Motivational typology Key insight Regulatory process Type of motivation Empirical illustration
Idea emergence Discoverers Discoverers see social entrepreneurship as a way of putting their specific skills and knowhow to use; the journey of social entrepreneurship is seen as a goal in itself To experience/to know regulation Regulating intrinsic motivation when embarking on this exciting new experience “I want to do something more than just my everyday work. If you are from a small town, your opportunities to find meaningful activities are limited”
Seekers For Seekers, social entrepreneurship offers an attractive role that matches their self-image Identified regulation Regulating high levels of extrinsic motivation at the idea emergence stage “Why aren't we creative and changing things around here? Then, I decided to start up my project”
Rangers Rangers want to change their environment and see themselves as having the requisite competences for social entrepreneurship Introjected regulation/ identified regulation Perceiving their competence as needed, leading to high levels of extrinsic motivation “With my background … I’m an innovator to my very core, thinking constantly about safety and change”
Idea development Discoverers Discoverers’ self-determination depends on their role in idea development – that is, whether they are driven by a strong partner or are managing the process themselves Non-regulation/to experience motivation The outcome of regulatory processes releases either amotivation or intrinsic motivation, depending on their experience of the activities as positive or non-positive “They started to ask for receipts for things I bought … it was such a hassle, I felt drained by it”
“I see this period as one big adventure – a really fun thing to do during my working life”
Seekers Seekers are conscious of developing their social innovation to fit their self-image, making them subject to influence at the developing stage Non-regulation/ introjected regulation They regulate a wide range of motivation, from amotivation to high levels of extrinsic motivation, whether the progress of innovation fits their self-image and whether they receive the recognition they need to build that self-image “The choice of material was very sudden; I would have liked that process and choice to be more professional”
“Now that the process has picked up speed, I receive so much positive feedback, and that really gets me going”
Rangers Rangers depend on their ability to drive the process themselves, and on being able to use their own abilities to further enhance their social innovation Non-regulation/ integrated regulation Their motivation depends on whether the process is perceived as beyond their control or not. They regulate high extrinsic motivation when perceived to be in control and amotivation if not “You feel diminished somehow, and then you lose your momentum”
“I’m a ‘solutions’ kind of guy; otherwise, all the negative things would get you down”
Diffusion Discoverers Discoverers do not value diffusion activities; they experience these activities as difficult and feel they lack knowledge. They want their journey to create social value so that it will not be in vain Non-regulation/ integrated regulation They regulate low levels of self-determination in activities that are foreign to them, which leaves them incapacitated. If external partners manage the process, they regulate medium levels of self-determination “The journey has given me enough; I’ve never had high hopes of selling the innovation”
“If I could help someone else, that would really mean something to me”
Seekers Seekers evaluate activities at the implementation stage in terms of their potential to enhance the image of social entrepreneurship Non-regulation/ identified regulation They regulate amotivation when diffusion activities are not congruent with their self-image. Conversely, when the activities synthesize with their self-image, they are highly extrinsically motivated to pursue diffusion activities “It wasn’t easy for me, selling the innovation. Above all, I wanted to be able to do it more professionally, with empirical support for the things I was claiming”
“This is not another single-use product that tears down the environment, and yet it's really good. That's emotionally important for me”
Rangers Rangers measure success in terms of how much social value their innovation can create; the more diffusion and confirmation of social value creation the better External regulation/identified regulation/To achieve regulation They regulate high extrinsic motivation according to feedback received during the market application stage. When successful, they regulate intrinsic motivation “There is this thing about having an innovation of your own – an innovation that you have constructed and designed, that you can find in different places around the world”
“I would like to give this to the employees, to give them the chance to reap the benefits – that’s what really drives me the most”
“To receive this positive feedback, that’s what gets you going”


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Corresponding author

Peter Samuelsson can be contacted at:

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