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Ecosystems in support of social entrepreneurs: a literature review

Abel Diaz Gonzalez (Department of Business, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium)
Nikolay A. Dentchev (Department of Business, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium)

Social Enterprise Journal

ISSN: 1750-8614

Article publication date: 1 March 2021

Issue publication date: 9 August 2021




Social entrepreneurs (SEs) often face various challenges whereby they rely on the support of others to realize their objectives. In this context, ecosystem thinking is very helpful to understand how various stakeholders can assist SEs. The purpose of this paper is to develop a classification of the different types of support that third parties can provide to SEs.


The authors have developed the arguments in this paper based on a literature review of 258 articles on ecosystem thinking and social entrepreneurship. Articles have been retrieved from the Web of Science database, using as search parameters on the one hand publications in top journals, and on the other articles with more than 60 citations. In addition, the authors have received recommendations for relevant good-quality articles following a snowball procedure.


This paper contributes by distinguishing three support categories for SEs – fuel, hardware and DNA – based on what we know from ecosystem thinking. This paper elaborates on the building blocks of each support category, points at the relevant actors and discusses the interrelatedness across support categories.

Research limitations/implications

The three support categories are developed by building on predominantly ecosystem literature. This study implies that the scalability of SEs’ social impact does not only depend on their strengths but also on how well they are supported.

Practical implications

The three support categories are complementary to the strengths of individual SEs. SEs can therefore start with what they have, and then gradually expand their support structure by surrounding themselves with stakeholders that can assist them with fuel, infrastructure and DNA.


Social enterprise theories have elaborated on the various challenges that SEs face. Lack of resources, lack of staff, lack of professional management, underdeveloped networks and mission drift are seen as the most pressing. Although the relevant literature does rightly point out the indispensable support of others, it does so without differentiating between the kinds of support that can help SEs increase their social impact. This paper offers to remedy this by creating three separate support categories: fuel, hardware and DNA.



The authors are grateful for the support of the Editor-in-Chief, associated editor and anonymous reviewers of the Social Enterprise Journal, who provided valuable and constructive feedback and that allowed the authors to improve this paper. The authors are grateful to their colleagues at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel for their advice on the development of this review, especially to Professor Dr Marc Jegers and Professor Dr Thomas Crispeels. The authors’ special thanks go to their colleagues in the annual conferences of IABS and EMES, and their colleagues at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels for their support and encouragement, especially to Drs Philippe Eiselein, Dra Claudia Alba Ortuño and Drs Jason Roncancio. The authors thank the founding partners of the VUB Chair of Social Entrepreneurship in Belgium (Close the Gap, Euroclear and BNP Paribas Fortis) for their trust, support and funding of the authors’ research activities.


Diaz Gonzalez, A. and Dentchev, N.A. (2021), "Ecosystems in support of social entrepreneurs: a literature review", Social Enterprise Journal, Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 329-360.



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