Back to top

Five challenges faced by social innovators in the Netherlands

Arjan Biemans and Erna Bosschart

In a report written by a knowledge centre FORUM (Utrecht, Netherlands) in 2013, we found the results of 250 interviews with social innovators with the central question: What problems do you face concerning your project? Certain problems appeared to show up almost everywhere. First of all continuity and sustainability: how to succeed after the pioneering phase. Initiatives that do overcome these internal obstacles successfully are likely to face subsequently external challenges, boundaries grounded in how we organized our society so far.

These are the 5 challenges we recognize:

  1. Rules and legislation hold social innovators back. In the beginning, it is not apparent but once the project begins to grow, it will be judged by current legislation and law, whereas before it was the exception, an experiment.
  2. Social innovators are at risk of becoming an institution again (or at least institutionalized); often as a result of the existing structures that question the legitimacy of initiatives. E.g. initiatives are asked to be accountable to local government or institutions in a very detailed way. 
  3. Social innovators are often seen as competitors to existing companies, especially when it comes to social projects concerning health care, youth care, care for the elderly etc. This is due to the fact companies are most often subsidized and they don’t want to share that money with other providers.
  4. Existing infrastructure provides services based on existing interests, especially when it is managed by existing organizations, with their own dynamics. Social innovators must be able to communicate their new meaning and position in this area.
  5. When social innovative projects are established in an area where paid professionals play an important role, tension arises in finding new roles: can the volunteer do the same work as the professional? Are professionals able to be open to civilians needs or do they stick to the internal logic of their organization?

These five challenges we addressed above are not only challenges for grassroots initiatives, but are challenges that our societies face as well. Most of the time, there are no simple solutions or central government regulation that bring the new answers we need. The questions of today are multi-level, multi-layered, and interdependent. Traditional approaches to building solutions are having difficulty coping with this kind of complexity. So not one central player is able to come up with the right solutions. We will find these solutions at the local level by being open to all kinds of initiatives, unleashing creativity and potential that is not bound to organizational or disciplinary boundaries, but cuts across them. So the world will become step by step like the world we envision to live in.  Local solutions will incorporate needs and capacities that are present at this level.

The SIAC Project (SEiSMiC)

Within SEiSMiC we started a trans national working group to start new kinds of social labs, based on these insights and the approach of the Flemish Social Innovation Factory. More information can be found here

If you have remarks or questions, please get in touch at