PhD in Pathways towards resilient social enterprises


Social enterprises are a growing trend in business as a way to address societal issues. They combine a financially sustainable model with an ambition to create high societal impact and address many of today’s social and systemic problems (like poverty, health, inequality, climate problems). They face, however, a number of common  problems that limit their impact, in particular related to their governance form and financial set-up. What combinations of finance and governance have the best chance of creating and sustaining a resilient social enterprise. What pathways can be distinguished along the way: (a) at the start of a social enterprise, (b) during the ‘valley-of-death’ period and (c) in a scaling phase. Can different pathways be distinguished depending on the kind of issue the SE is aimed at and how can investors take these pathways into account and/or help SEs along the way improve their business model? This PhD is linked to the new chair in ‘Social enterprise and Institutions for Collective Action’ and is aimed at helping the sector in the Netherlands to advance on the basis of solid, but also innovative, scientific research. The PhD-project will be embedded in broader research projects around the chair and in collaboration with other research projects around ‘purpose driven’ and ‘value-based’ organizing and cross-sector partnerships.


Social enterprises, value-based organization


Social Enterprises come in various forms and sizes, but in the Netherlands only half of them have the limited company (BV) as legal form (Source: Social Enterprise Monitor 2019). The other half consists of foundations (up to a quarter), cooperatives and other legal forms. This naturally leads to the questions: what leads to the choice for one or the other form? And what is the effect of their choice on both their functioning as a financially sustainable business and on their goal to achieve societal impact? Is their choice linked to the sector or rather to their orientation to work, e.g., with a specific target group as their employees. Does one governance form lead to more opportunities to achieve more impact or is there no difference?

Important in the path towards a resilient organization, is the investment strategy. What kind of innovative ways of investment are needed to enhance resilience of SEs? Which financial models (such as crowdfunding, blended finance, impact investment) are most successful not only in launching an SE, but also in enhancing its impact over longer periods of time? When do SEs demand which type of investment? Can this contribute to compensate for SEs competitive disadvantages (e.g., financing opportunities) in a free market-economy? Does the variety in stakeholder involvement across types of SEs also influence their investment strategy? SEs tend to rely on a diversity of investments, both from financial institutions, as from citizens through for example crowd funding, or, as in the cooperative form, from the consumer-stakeholders themselves. In addition, many SEs also engage more actively with ‘volunteers’ which provide in-kind contributions that, however, are often difficult to sustain and scale, while this could also influence the impact of the SE. In the literature these transition questions are alternately referred to as (1) the valley of death, (2) mission-drift or (3) crowding out effects. Can these effects be anticipated at the start of a SE, can they be managed and can they be governed by chosen the right governance/legal form that provides the organization to remain flexible and adjust to changing circumstances?

One additional governance challenge is created by the growing need of SE to engage in partnerships with other organisations to increase their impact and effectiveness. This trend is also supported by more traditional for-profit organisations that become more purpose driven, while aiming at reaching societal goals like the Sustainable Development Goals. From both sides the literature talks about the ‘hybridrization’ trend, which creates governance problems along two lines: (1) how to prevent the hybrid organizational form from being ‘stuck in the middle’ and (2) how to organize and finance  effective partnerships between SEs and mainstream companies that can increase the impact of the SE?

The PhD-student in this position will aim at identifying the various models that exist in financing a social enterprise, assess whether it is possible to assess the longer term resilience of the SE business model at the start, and will study the relationship between the various investment models and the type of governance models that can be developed to enhance the resilience and impact of  SEs as organisations over longer periods of time.


A mixed-methods approach is adopted, with an interdisciplinary orientation and triangulation as principle. The exact methodology will be decided upon depending on the exact research questions on which the PhD will be working. The societal stakeholders that have supported the chair in social enterprise and institutions of collective action – in particular Social Enterprise.NL and ABN Amro bank -  will play an active role in facilitating this PhD-project: (a) through access to their databases and supporters, (b) through participation in joint (action) research projects. The first year of the PhD-project will also be dedicated to a systemic literature review and delineating feasible empirical data gathering.

Required profile

  • Master degree in Social sciences
  • Keen interest in studying societal problems, in particular related to sustainability
  • Inquisitive nature
  • Social skills to engage stakeholders and experiment with new research approaches
  • People skills to work in a team
  • Sufficient discipline to master a broad base of scientific literature
  • Multi-disciplinary attitude

Expected output

  • 3 high-level ERIM-list articles
  • A number of action research projects that lead to immediate results – in the form of manual or short briefings - for the participating organizations
  • The development of an investment assessment model for financial institutions to enhance their ‘intelligence’ in assessing the resilience of an SE’s business model in various stages (pathways)


The project is embedded in the department of Business-Society Management and is part of the ORG (Organisation) track of the Research school (ERIM). ABN Amro and Social Enterprise.NL will act as initial societal stakeholders in the project. Other organizations will be actively engaged. Cooperation is also established within RSM with the Partnerships Resource Centre that considers the pros and cons of partnerships in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Societal relevance

Social enterprises are receiving increasingly attention from both business and government in achieving the sustainable development goals. The above problem statement already identified a number of the societal issues that might negatively affect the functioning of Social enterprises: (1) mission drift, (2) financial difficulties, (3) scaling problems, (4) partnering problems which ultimately can be related to a better understanding of the (5) business and governance model of the SE. The latter also depends on the type of societal issue (SDGs) that the SE is supposed to contribute to.

Scientific relevance

This project contributes to a variety of theoretical and empirical domains that focus on improving the performance of social enterprises. This relates in particular to the Organization discipline and the business-in-society management discipline. The project aims also at developing a number of insights on the basis of novel research methods (in particular based on action research and other forms of living labs). The investment model should be based on ‘financial intermediation’ theory and help banks increase their societal relevance – in particular when looking at more complex sustainability issues like poverty, climate, inequality (as prime aim of most SEs).

Literature references & data sources

De Moor, T. (2015). The dilemma of the commoners. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Maas, K. Relou, C., Sadiq, T.,  Van Tulder, R. en Hillen, M.  (2018) Sociaal ondernemen: van ambitie naar meervoudig rendement, Assen: Van Gorcum  

Jaques Defourny and Marthe Nyssens, "Fundamentals for an International Typology of Social Enterprise Models" 2016.

Employment conditions

ERIM offers fully-funded and salaried PhD positions, which means that accepted PhD candidates become employees (promovendi) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Salary and benefits are in accordance with the Collective Labour Agreement for Dutch Universities (CAO).

Contact Information

For questions regarding the PhD application and selection procedure, please check the Admissions or send us an e-mail via

Erasmus Research Institute of Management

The Erasmus Research Institute of Management (ERIM) is the joint research institute of the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) and the Erasmus School of Economics (ESE). The research undertaken by ERIM is focused on management of the firm in its environment, its intra- and interfirm relations, business processes, strategies, finances, consumers, markets and their interdependent connections.

Since its founding in 1999, the objective of ERIM is to carry out first-rate research in management and to offer an advanced doctoral programme in Business and Management. The Erasmus Doctoral Programme in Business and Management is a highly advanced international programme designed to train future researchers. The English-taught programme includes systematic coaching and academic and personal development from leading academics. Within ERIM, over 350 senior researchers and PhD candidates are active in five research programmes, spanning all areas of management research. From a variety of academic backgrounds and expertise, the ERIM Community is united in striving for excellence and working at the forefront of creating new business knowledge.