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Social entrepreneurship as a performance landscape: The case of ‘Front Line’


Since the early 1990s, the Republic of Ireland has enjoyed sustained economic growth and development. With the transformation of the economy and the expectations of citizens as to what it can deliver, analysts have sought to explain the ‘miracle’. In that process, attention has been turned to individual role models, examples of excellence and sheer good fortune—and much time has been given to understanding the phenomenon of entrepreneurship as an exercise in individual achievement. However, many voices within entrepreneurship studies caution against an exclusive focus on the individual entrepreneur and emphasize that we need to understand environment and social phenomenon as well as the individual.

If we shift our focus to the field of social entrepreneurship in general, we may argue that the term ‘social entrepreneur’ has entered the common discourse, at least amongst those who might see themselves as entrepreneurially engaged in a social venture. In Ireland, a support body for the development of new social ventures, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, has been established; individual social entrepreneurs can obtain training and development and an Irish provider of venture philanthropy has launched operations. Concurrent with these developments has been a growing interest in the evaluation of the social ventures, both from within the organizations themselves and from their various stakeholders.

Nevertheless, while entrepreneurship generally has been the subject of detailed and sustained investigation and analysis in Ireland, social entrepreneurship has not. We have very limited data on the individual characteristics of social entrepreneurs or the social ventures that exist, their patterns of organizing, and the impact of the shifting institutional landscape on their development. In this paper, we propose to integrate all of these factors in a coherent and relatively new way, by applying a complex systems framework drawn from existing literature in complexity theory. To this end, we commence by defining social entrepreneurship and by teasing out the tensions that exist between a focus on the individual entrepreneur and the context from which they emerge. We then introduce and discuss a case study of Front Line, an entrepreneurially established social venture. Studying Front Line allows us to look at one case of social entrepreneurship at a time of major institutional change in the Irish context, and to establish the basic elements that will make up the subsequent complexity-based analysis. In the second half of the paper, we use a specific model of complex systems—the ‘performance landscape’ (Siggelkow & Levinthal, 2003)—as the lens through which to study the case of Front Line and draw out the implications for complexity theory, while also identifying insights into the nature and dynamics of social entrepreneurship. In the conclusion, we summarize what the performance landscape framework reveals about the social entrepreneurship dynamics in Front Line, as well as what the case of Front Line tells us about the strengths and limitations of the chosen complexity framework for analyzing organizing phenomena of this kind.

Definition of social entrepreneurship

While the notion of social entrepreneurship entered the research and practice vocabularies in the 1990s (Dees, 1998) and there is now a small number of core texts (Steyaert & Hjorth, 2006; Mair et al., 2006; Nicholls, 2006), there are currently multiple conceptualizations (for more on the ambiguity surrounding the term see the papers by Massetti; Seitanidi; and Trexler in this volume). From roots in the economic and behaviorist traditions in the study of entrepreneurship (Schumpeter, 1934; Drucker, 1990), academic interest in social entrepreneurship has developed in a number of directions. One of these is the creation of self-sufficient organizations, sustained through earned income. In Europe, the existing ‘social economy’ tradition has merged with an interest in understanding the characteristics of social purpose enterprises, often concerned with work integration (Borgaza & Defourny, 2001). In the US, there is a growing focus on ‘self sustainability’ and earned income plans for ‘enterprising nonprofits’ that can harness business sector techniques to build organizational capacity and market success (Alvord et al., 2004).

Another line of social entrepreneurship thinking is concerned with the set of unmet social needs that exist within a society that demand a response, and the entrepreneurial nature of that response. It is premised on the view that there are complex social needs and persistent social problems that are not adequately served—perhaps not even recognized or identified—by market or by state (Leadbeater, 1997). Social entrepreneurship offers innovative approaches to tackling and solving complex social needs. Their organizations are characterized by their social mission that is served by a distinctive social method (Dees, 1998).

It is this latter approach that we adopt in this paper. It incorporates a focus on the social entrepreneurial activity involving the individuals that become engaged in impacting social need as well as the organizing activities undertaken to address these needs effectively. It refers to private activity, in the public interest, with a social objective and built on an entrepreneurial strategy, whose main purpose is not the maximization of profit but the attainment of social goals.

A number of issues concerning social entrepreneurship and enterprise are beginning to emerge. A major implementation issue appearing in case studies of social enterprises is cross-sectoral collaboration (see also Seitanidi in this volume). Coalition-building amongst key actors in public, private and social enterprises, and medium to long-term maintenance of cross-sectoral collaboration challenges mission focus with competing and shifting interests. A further issue emerging concerns the maintenance of process-related social value —finding a balance between what you do and the way you do it—in the drive for increasingly efficient operations (Dees, 1998). For example, when stakeholders gain value from participation, social entrepreneurs may struggle to ensure that this is not compromised in the drive for efficient operations, achievement of outcomes, or streamlining of the enterprise to better serve the mission. Hence the question of how entrepreneurial ventures can or should adapt over time becomes a core concern for theories of social entrepreneurship.

Finally, we draw attention to the tendency to profile individuals who are viewed as exemplars of social entrepreneurship, but without reference to the social and institutional milieu from which they emerge (on this hero/heroine emphasis see Goldstein, Hazy, and Silberstang in this volume). While this issue has yet to be addressed in any comprehensive way in the social entrepreneurship literature, there is a significant body of literature in relation to general (profit-oriented) entrepreneurship that takes up this topic. In a major edited volume on the topic (Schoonhaven & Romanelli, 2001) suggested that a key theme in entrepreneurship theory is the study of the context in which entrepreneurs emerge and operate and the effect that entrepreneurs have on industry evolution and change.

In summary, the conceptualization of social entrepreneurship utilized in this paper references the behaviorist tradition of entrepreneurship theory and the concepts of social mission and method (Dees, 1998). Synergies between actor characteristics, ideas, process and outcome are perceived as attractive and desirable elements of social entrepreneurial action theory, but significant issues in maintaining process-related values and collaborating effectively are identified as characteristic problems. In addition, there are significant gaps in this literature when compared to the more extensive literature on entrepreneurship as an economic and/or profit-making endeavor, including interaction effects and the impact of and on environmental (or industry) context. It is with these characteristics and issues in mind that we chose to explore the nature of social entrepreneurship as a complex system.

The case of Front Line: Social entrepreneurship in human rights

In this section, we present a case description of Front Line, the International Foundation for Human Rights Defenders: The emerging role of Front Line, the impetus for its establishment, the distinctive nature of its leadership and governance, the development of operational capacity and its interaction with stakeholders in multiple institutional contexts are described. The case is followed by a discussion of how this case may be analyzed using a CAS framework—specifically the ‘performance landscape’ (Siggelkow & Levinthal, 2003), which is based on Kauffman’s (1993, 1995) NK model. In the conclusion, we discuss how the case informs the development of CAS theories of organizational phenomena and reflect on the implications for social entrepreneurship theory and practice.

1998-2001: Setting the context for the formation of Front Line

In the past twenty years, as greater international attention has been given to human rights causes, the environment for many of those who highlight the human rights abuses of the authorities in their own countries has become increasingly hostile. In response, international bodies have begun to pay attention not just to human rights offences but also to the plight of those human rights defenders (HRDs)—people who work, non-violently, for any or all of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and who bring these offences to the world’s notice. The most significant landmarks in this movement were the UN General Assembly Resolution 53/144 of the 9th of December 1998, the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the subsequent appointment in 2000 of Hina Jilani as Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders. These events followed over thirteen years of discussion of the idea and role of human rights defenders.

A Paris Summit on Human Rights Defenders was held in 1998, followed by the General Assembly Resolution, after which existing human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began to take action on the agenda that the Paris summit had established. The various NGOs involved in running the Summit formed a committee to implement the Summit recommendations. However, the committee was slow to move and stumbled over internal bickering between the organizations about the correct course of action to take. There were operational challenges within NGOs as well. Established human rights NGOs found themselves unable to work in a dedicated fashion on HRD issues, as they were one concern of many and there was constant competition for resources and funding with the rest of their activities. In addition, few existing NGOs had the flexibility that would be necessary to dedicate themselves to responding immediately, effectively and sometimes at the very last moment to the needs of HRDs at risk.

2000-2001: Formation of Front Line

The International Foundation for Human Rights Defenders (Front Line) was established in Ireland by Mary Lawlor in February 2001. Mary had formerly served as Director of the Irish Section of Amnesty International and had 28 years of experience in the human rights field, during which she had developed a great interest in and admiration for human rights defenders. Her attendance at the Paris Summit for Human Rights Defenders in 1998 proved an inspiration, as she met many of these defenders face to face and heard them recount stories of their work. She later described HRDs as “always the people who inspired me—the people who get up without knowing whether they will get through the day. (They have) an exceptional form of courage and heroism” (interview 23rd October 2007). When she founded Front Line, it was with the specific aim to protect human rights defenders. In contrast to existing NGOs with multiple agendas, Front Line could be an immediate and direct vehicle for serving HRDs (Donnelly-Cox & Foley 2002).

Mary left Amnesty only when she knew she had secured sufficient resources to enable the new organization to make an impact on the human rights defenders agenda immediately. Lawlor says she would not have been prepared to establish Front Line without financial support but support did come in the form of a multi-million dollar gift from Denis O’Brien, a successful Irish entrepreneur. O’Brien made a second significant financial contribution in 2007.

The contacts and experience that Mary brought to the new organization were also seen as crucial to the successful launch of Front Line. While there was no international framework or existing materials and procedures to assist her at Front Line, Mary’s established networks of contacts and her in-depth knowledge of the human rights field enabled her to work with international governments and other NGOs from day one at Front Line. She believes that a typical start-up NGO, without Front Line’s level of resources and her network of contacts, could not have achieved the same.

2002-2003: Developing Front Line’s mission and establishing the ‘Dublin Platform’

The inaugural Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders in January 2002 served as the international launch for Front Line and its springboard for future development. The outcomes of the conference provided the basis for Front Line’s activities into the future. As Mary Lawlor puts it, “it gave the organization its plot”.

The Platform has since become an event held every two years. Over 100 at-risk defenders from over 70 countries throughout the world come together to exchange experiences, discuss relevant issues, learn from each other and engage with decision makers from governmental and intergovernmental bodies. Front Line works with participants to coordinate panel discussions, defender testimonies, presentations and working groups to address the most pressing issues of security and protection which impact their daily lives. Three further Dublin Platforms were held in September 2003, October 2005 and November 2007.

As Front Line developed through its early years, it remained sufficiently flexible to act quickly in response to the needs of HRDs. The Dublin Platform was and remains very important in this regard. The Platform also provides human rights defenders with a forum for influencing and informing the work of Front Line. As Mary Lawlor has commented,

In any organization there is a constant expectation that we will do more and deliver more. As a result we have to grow our services and build our capacity to respond to people in need. The danger is that the growth, in budgets, supporters and activity becomes an end in itself, divorced from the needs of the people we serve. The end game however is our capacity to deliver the desired result of change for the people we were set up to help (Lawlor, 2007).

As the ways in which Front Line would serve its mission were developed in 2002 and 2003, the Dublin Platform was vitally important as it brought in the voices of human rights defenders on the ground. In addition, the inputs and activities of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on HRDs and of human rights NGOs provided Front Line with insights into the changing needs of the human rights defenders community—and thus assisted them in determining their future direction.

Front Line identified three main areas of activity over this period in addition to the Dublin Platform itself: direct assistance; publications; and advocacy. We look at each of these in more detail below.

Direct assistance

Through direct assistance, Front Line has created space for human rights defenders to carry out and legitimise their work. This is the main priority of the organization and takes several forms. First, Front Line has provided a information support network for HRDs; gathering data for a database of human rights defenders at risk, developing an email system to exchange information, running the Dublin Platform, as well as just being there to talk. In extreme situations, Front Line also organizes emergency evacuations of human rights defenders when their safety and that of their families are at risk. By 2006 Front Line was addressing the circumstances of 196 defenders at risk.

Second, Front Line has become a source of training and new strategies. It has developed an online manual for human rights defenders on how to interact with international organizations to defend their civil and political rights. In addition, manuals on economic, social and cultural rights, advice regarding personal safety and security and online security have been developed.

Third, Front Line provides material support. Equipment grants are available on an ongoing basis. These grants have purchased bulletproof jackets, satellite phones, laptop computers and steel doors for defenders in Tunisia, Syria, Columbia and Indonesia and other locations around the world.


Front Line publishes country reports about the situation for human rights defenders within a particular country, focusing specifically on the plight of HRDs and not human rights violations per say. Front Line liaised initially with personnel in Amnesty International and the UN, but now works directly with local partners to write these reports as well as for obtaining information to assist in their development. The ultimate aim of these reports is to create awareness and publicity about the situations human rights defenders face and thus place governments under pressure to improve the environments in which they operate.


Finally, Front Line lobbies on behalf of human rights defenders and their interests, bringing and keeping the cause of HRDs in the public domain. Front Line seeks publicity for the cause of human rights defenders through developing media contacts and obtaining media exposure. In addition, the organization is building a network of journalists who are willing to cover the stories of human rights defenders. It interacts with politicians, national governments and bodies like the EU to get them to defend the rights of human rights defenders at risk. It works with governments to secure information and influence on behalf of defenders and has obtained confidential demarches at EU level for the protection of defenders facing immediate danger. The capacity of Front Line to work with whatever body is necessary to protect human rights defenders distinguishes it from other human rights NGOs.

2004-2007: Governance, performance and legitimacy

As it developed specific mission-focused activities, Front Line also paid heed to the governance of the organization, the challenges of managing and maintaining performance and its need to remain legitimate with its key audiences. These areas of focus were considered to be key actions to solidify Front Line’s place in the Human Rights and Irish NGO landscape.


The governance structure of Front Line consists of two bodies: the Board of Trustees and the Leadership Council. The Leadership Council includes such well known figures as Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Bono and, while not having formal governing or advisory responsibility, provides Front Line with a direct connection to key individuals in the human rights protection world.

The Board of Trustees has seven members, and uniquely for a nonprofit board includes Mary Lawlor as a full member (usually employees of a nonprofit organization are precluded from serving as board members). The board includes members of the business and human rights world and Denis O’Brien holds the position of chairman. Commenting on the makeup of the Board, Mary notes that “the fusion between business and Human Rights is fantastic... In Front Line, we have to be on our toes” (interview 23rd October 2007)

As Mary Lawlor has a large network of contacts amongst international governments and Denis O’Brien has access to business people in Ireland, the organization has developed strong links into both corporate/foundation and governmental sectors.

Performance measurement and evaluation

The evaluation of the organization’s adherence to its mission through its programmes is considered highly difficult and developing appropriate evaluation mechanisms is a key priority. Mary Lawlor refers to the “trap” of evaluating the activity itself, rather than its impact in relation to the organization’s mission. In balancing the requirements of different stakeholders, Front Line is rigorous in prioritizing its duty first to human rights defenders.

Given the nature of Front Line’s work as a support, advice and networking body, a large amount of its activities are dependent on having full time reliable staff, good computer systems, maintaining telephone and email contact as well as a great deal of administrative work such as translation. Typically the operational costs of Front Line make up a significant percentage of its general expenditure in comparison with the resources allocated to its specific programmes. This has at times created fundraising challenges for the organization where grants must be directly programme related.

As mentioned previously, Front Line finds it difficult to evaluate whether its activities provide “value for money” in relation to their contribution to its mission and are loath to confine evaluation to an assessment of the activity itself. Thus an ad-hoc measure of societal impact must be employed through measuring coverage in the media, the number of human rights defenders helped, the actions taken by politicians and governments along with results arising from or related to such activities.


Front Line shows evidence of having achieved a much greater organizational legitimacy within society than would be considered usual for an organization of its age and stage of development. By the end of 2007, Front Line was widely regarded as an effective and legitimate voice of the world’s HRDs. Commenting on how this legitimacy had been developed, Lawlor noted:

NGOs need to remember their legitimacy comes from four main sources: the moral values they seek to uphold, their basis in law, community approval and their record of success... It is the synergy between all these elements which gives NGOs their ability to achieve results (Lawlor 2007).

The organization has proved to have significant political legitimacy. This was evident from the outset as Front Line was launched in 2001 by the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs at the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs. This acceptance has stretched across waters as Front Line has developed good working relationships with multiple national governments. The first Dublin platform proved to be another powerful demonstration of the political legitimacy of the organization, with the Irish Prime Minister speaking at the event. Funding for the platform was obtained from the Austrian, Danish, Dutch, Irish and Swiss governments. In addition, as a consequence of that conference, contacts were forged with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth office and funding negotiations with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs were brought to near conclusion. Finally, the organization has been able to make an impact on international bodies. It has successfully lobbied for confidential demarches from the EU and has been endorsed by the former UN representative for human rights defenders, Hina Jilani.

Perhaps most importantly, the organization has gained significant legitimacy amongst its key stakeholder group, the human rights defenders themselves. This was evident from the overwhelming number of requests from human rights defenders to attend the successive Dublin Platforms and the organization’s ability since then to find local partners in targeted countries for research purposes as well as to organise evacuations for defenders. Front Line were the recipients of the King Baudouin prize for International Development in 2006/2007, a significant milestone in the organization’s life thus far and a strong vote of confidence in its current activities and future potential.

Front Line and the human rights ‘Performance Landscape’

Drawing from the case material presented above, we can now layout the basic ‘facts’ of this example of social entrepreneurship using complexity theory. However, first we must make the case for the specific complexity framework chosen as relevant to the case and to social entrepreneurship theory. Following this, the case of Front Line will be analyzed using the selected framework and the issues and insights arising identified.

The argument for the ‘Performance Landscape’ framework

As noted earlier, social entrepreneurship literature is concerned primarily with the notion that social enterprise involves actors, their actions and processes and the desired and achieved outcomes arising from these actions / processes. Furthermore, any theory of human action must address the actors’ ability to change and adapt over time. Finally, critiques of entrepreneurship literature and work in the area of for-profit entrepreneurship suggest that interactions among actors as well as features of the environment in which entrepreneurship takes place are also important in any theory of social entrepreneurship purporting to address the phenomenon in a rich descriptive and empirically valid way.

Intuitively, a complex adaptive systems (CAS) framework seems to fit the ‘problem’ of social entrepreneurship. CAS can accommodate each of the elements present in the phenomenon as described above, namely actors, actions/interactions, outcomes and environmental context. Complexity theory has been proposed as having the ability to address just this kind of organizational ‘problem’ (Anderson, 1999, Weber, 2005) as well as having relevance to leadership (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007) which resonates with the phenomenon of social entrepreneurship. In a special issue of Emergence: Complexity & Organization (2005, 7.1) on the topic of “Complexity and Policy Analysis”, several of the articles drew on complex adaptive systems frameworks to explore various public policy domains, while another special issue of The Leadership Quarterly (2007, 18.4) dealt with the specific issue of “Leadership and Complexity” in organizational phenomena—with a particularly relevant (to this paper) contribution from Uhl-Bien et al., (2007).

There are, of course, many different types of complex adaptive systems frameworks to choose from (Stacy et al., 2002), and it is a matter of some debate as to which ones might be best suited to different theoretical questions. Hazy (2007) provides a comprehensive discussion on the various computational models that might be used for studying complexity and leadership, amongst which he lists ‘NK’ models (Kauffman, 1993, 1995) as having considerable potential for application in organizational science. In a recent compendium of academics’ views on management theory, Sidney Winter (2005) suggests NK models have significant potential for the development of management theory overall, and evolutionary change in organizational systems in particular. In the E:CO special issue on social policy mentioned above, Bankes (2005) analyzed decision-making based on simulations of ‘policy landscapes’ based on the NK approach, and there are numerous other examples of researchers using NK simulations to explore organizing phenomena.

With the above in mind, we looked for an ‘NK’ model that fit the phenomenon of Social Entrepreneurship in general and the Front Line case in particular. Siggelkow & Levinthal, in a series of articles (Levinthal, 1997, Levinthal & Warglein, 1999, Siggelkow & Levinthal, 2003, Siggelkow & Rivkin, 2005), applied Kauffman’s (1995) concept of an NK ‘fitness landscape’ to formulate their model of strategic decision-making by firms. In their models, firms are faced with a series of interrelated decisions which individually and interdependently contributed to the overall fitness of the organization in an industry. The set of decisions that firms could make were represented by ‘N’ and the interrelationship among decisions represented by ‘K’. They called their model a ‘performance landscape’ on which firms moved in a search for higher performance, constrained by the NK features of the landscape and their own search capabilities. With relevance to the Front Line case, performance landscapes appear to be particularly good at representing the exploration and exploitation behavior of organizations (Siggelkow & Rivkin, 2005) as they seek new evolutionary niches in their environment.

Figure 1 below represents a performance landscape that arises from the performance characteristics of two dimensions (X,Y) and the interaction between them. Agents occupying a particular location (X,Y coordinate) will exhibit a specific level of fitness in the environment as shown by the circles A, B, C, D below. Figure I represents a simplified framework for analyzing a case study in social entrepreneurship as a performance landscape, which we will undertake in this paper.

To summarize, performance landscapes appear to provide a basic framework with significant potential for understanding and modeling the dynamic patterns that emerge as actors appear, adapt and seek improved performance over time. Furthermore, Siggelkow & Levinthal’s (2003) formulation and modeling approach offers the possibility of studying the phenomenon of social entrepreneurship using simulations that can accommodate investigations into the characteristics of actors, the impact of context and the dynamics of change over time. Armed with this basic framework, we can now turn our attention to the case of ‘Front Line’.

The ‘Performance Landscape’ for human rights NGOs

If we conceive of the Human Rights NGO sector as a performance landscape of this kind, we must first consider what is meant by performance and then ascertain the sorts of decisions and interactions that are germane to the achievement of performance outcomes. In reviewing the case it would appear that there are several dimensions of performance relevant to the Human Rights landscape, such as legitimacy and awareness of the issue(s) addressed, the impact on the targeted group, and the sustainability of resource access to carry out the planned activities. Here we can see immediately that the representation of a landscape in Figure 1 is inadequate, as performance on this figure has only has one dimension (represented by the Y-axis). Nevertheless, one can certainly conceive of (if not easily draw) a multidimensional performance landscape consistent with the ‘multiple bottom-line’ literature addressing performance of non-profits (Anheier, 2005). However, this represents a significant complication to the performance landscape model as proposed. Furthermore, to the extent that performance dimensions themselves interact (e.g., legitimacy and impact on the target group), this would require a further enhancement to the model.

As far as the decisions that might affect performance outcomes, media campaigns, decisions about groups to target, governance structures, locations in which to operate, and funding sources to tap are all likely candidates for decisions that affect performance. Examples of the specific choices in these areas made by Front Line are provided in the case narrative. These may all be incorporated directly into the proposed model as ‘N’s, with the level of interaction between these decisions as ‘K’. For example, if the performance contribution arising from a decision to operate in Somalia is affected by the decision to focus on the defenders of the rights of women, there is an interaction between these two decisions. ‘K’ represents the average number of interactions among decisions, and as this variable increases the landscape becomes more complex in that there are multiple performance peaks as shown in Figure 1.


Performance Landscape

As ‘K’ increases, the landscape becomes increasingly ‘rugged’ and the system itself becomes unstable leading to ‘complexity catastrophe’ (Kauffman, 1993; McKelvey, 1999). A single case is insufficient for generating even a hypothesis about the value of ‘K’ in the Human Rights landscape, nevertheless existing theory on the impact of different values of K suggests this should be a target of future research.

While the dimensions of ‘N’ and ‘K’ in the proposed model are relatively straightforwardly mapped to the case as decisions and the interdependencies between them, other features are not as easily accounted for—such as the environmental factors of ‘demand’ for human rights defense activity and the level of resource availability in general. It is clear from the case that both of these factors play a role—in fact, it is the change over time in these factors that provides much of the impetus for Front Line’s establishment and development. In performance landscape terms, the 1998 Paris summit, the UN resolution and the availability of resources from Denis O’Brien created a new ‘niche’ in the landscape—which was available for ‘exploitation’ by an organization willing to move into this niche. In Siggelkow & Rivkin (2005) this dynamic of change in the landscape itself is addressed by creating exogenous ‘shocks’ to the system in the form of random changes to the performance outcomes attributed to specific decisions on the landscape. However, this may not adequately capture the complex interactions between decisions, environmental factors and performance outcomes found in the case of Front Line.

What may prove to be a better conceptualization of these dynamics is found in the concept of ‘adaptive tension’ (Maguire & McKelvey, 1999), as elaborated and incorporated by Uhl-Bien et al., (2007) into their proposal for ‘Complex Leadership Theory’ (CLT). Adaptive tension is the pressure for change that builds up in a complex adaptive system arising from the interaction of heterogeneous agents, the introduction of new ideas and/or the availability of new or reallocation of existing resources. Adaptive tension is a concept drawn from a different approach to complex adaptive systems theory—that of Priogogine’s (1997) dissipative systems theory—but as developed by Uhl-Bien et al., (2007) in their Complex Leadership Theory (CLT) resonates strongly with the empirical data from the Front Line case. The potential for incorporating concepts from CLT will come up again in this paper as a fruitful avenue for extending complexity theory as it applies to social entrepreneurship.

The brings us to the last element in the performance landscape model—i.e., the rules governing the dynamics of agents and the landscape itself. For the most part, performance landscape models have fairly fixed landscape rules governing the performance payoffs of a given (set of) decision(s) and the movement of agents around the landscape. As discussed above, however, models of actual organizational phenomena must deal with dynamic relationships among decisions and outcomes, and existing models that do incorporate this dynamism may be overly simplistic.

The rules that operate specifically in regard to Front Line are not easily observed in this case, possibly because the nature of entrepreneurship lies more often than not in breaking established rules. More likely, however, is that ‘rules’ governing agent behavior—whether cognitive, normative or regulative (Scott, 1995)—are not easily observable through a single case. Nevertheless, we can comment on at least two rules that appear to be operating in this case. The first of these is the legal basis for establishing non-profit organizations in Ireland, with which Front Line had to comply. Front Line was set up as a charitable trust, which allowed the organization to accumulate funds and use these over time more flexibly than would have otherwise been the case. However, while the laws governing trusts are more flexible with respect to accumulation of assets, there are other restrictions inherent in this legal form. This rule relates to the sorts of decisions that agents can make (relating to agent movement on the landscape) and the payoffs / penalties that relate to decisions made (relating to the landscape geography itself).

The second rule is more normative in nature and has to do with the make up of the Board. Non-profits in Ireland tend to have a plethora of socially-oriented individuals of high status in the community such as religious leaders, social activists, ex-government ministers, etc. as these are seen to represent the values of the organization. Front Line includes these types of individuals, but also has significant representation from the business sector, notably Denis O’Brien who is a high profile businessman in Ireland as well as globally. Furthermore, Mary herself is a voting member of the Board, which is an unusual arrangement in terms of governance practice, but this has proven to be highly effective in linking strategy and action in Front Line. In this case the rule has to do with the composition of the agent and its relationships in the wider system. This point will be taken up in more detail in the next section on Front Line as an agent on the landscape.

To summarize the features of the performance landscape as found in the Front Line case, a range of performance variables are linked to decisions and environmental factors that agents engage with in pursuit of their performance objectives, subject to rules about their movement on the landscape. In order to address the features of the case, the original model from Siggelkow & Levinthal (2003) must be enhanced to introduce multiple performance outcomes linked to decisions as well as to environmental factors, all of which may change over time. This introduces significantly greater complexity in the modeling of organizational systems using the performance landscape framework, without even taking into account the changes needed to accommodate Front Line as an agent on the landscape discussed in the next section.

Agents in the ‘system’ of social entrepreneurship

Following Siggelkow & Levinthal (2003), agents on a performance landscape are organizations pursuing their performance objectives by moving to different ‘locations’. A location on the landscape will be associated with a set of decisions and one or more performance outcomes arising from those decisions. The focal agent in the case is Front Line itself, although there are clearly difficulties in drawing boundaries around the agents that constitute this system. For example, is Front Line—the organization—comprised only of the people that work in the organization? That definition would leave the Board members (aside from Mary herself), funders and the human rights defenders (HRDs) for whom and with whom Front Line works outside of the system. It is clear from the case that this is not appropriate given the critical role that these agents played and continue to play in the formation and ongoing activities of Front Line. In addition, Front Line’s activities are aimed at convincing others in government as well as in the NGO sector itself to act in accordance with the principles underlying Front Line’s mission—i.e., the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (Resolution 53/144). In fact, one of the measures of performance for Front Line is the actions that other agents take in support (or in contravention) of these principles.

It is clear that the boundaries of a social entrepreneurial agent are more fungible than the typical firm in a private sector industry and this reality must be incorporated into any model or theory of social entrepreneurship as an organizing system—even when the focal unit of study is a single organization. This is a fundamental challenge for the mapping of the performance landscape model to the phenomenon of social entrepreneurship as agents are likely to be highly ‘networked’, relying on other agents for information, advice, resources, etc. as well as being invested in the actions and outcomes of other agents pursuing similar objectives. The performance landscape model as defined by Siggelkow & Levinthal (2003) conceives of agents as relatively independent, although their actions can indirectly affect other agents through their strategic moves on the landscape. However, there is a need to rethink the specific nature of coevolution of agents on the performance landscape if it is to be an adequate modeling approach for social entrepreneurship.

Here, again, a concept from Uhl-Bien et al.’s (2007) proposal for Complex Leadership Theory (CLT) can be applied to address the shortcomings of the performance landscape model. Their concept of ‘adaptive leadership’ is one that fits the empirical data of the case in that it refers to a dynamic activity involving many agents, not just a single leader. “Adaptive leadership is a complex dynamic rather than a person ... it originates in struggles among agents and groups over conflicting needs, ideas or preferences; it results in movements, alliances of people, ideas or technologies, and cooperative efforts (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007:306)”. This concept of adaptive leadership, along with the performance landscape framework as the arena for testing new initiatives, together may provide fertile ground for developing theory that can account for social entrepreneurship cases such as Front Line.

While there are clearly shortcomings in the performance landscape with respect to incorporating coevolutionary networks of agents, it does have strengths in other areas of empirical representation. One of the features of the framework is the ability to handle heterogeneous agents with different objectives, capabilities and leadership—a situation that clearly exists in this case. For example, Mary Lawlor’s contacts and experience enabled the organization to access stable sources of funding in the corporate and government sectors as well as develop focused plans and mission statements. In addition, she has built up a board of significant standing in the Irish and international human rights and business communities and therefore endowed Front Line with a high level of organizational legitimacy in society. She has also been able to link into policy influencers from other social domains, for example inviting Bono to present the Front Line annual award for Human Rights defenders in 2007. As a result of these advantages, it would appear that the organization has been able to make much greater progress towards achieving its stated mission and objectives than the usual start-up NGO, struggling to achieve legitimacy and obtain resources, might otherwise have done.

The characteristics of the agent’s founder / leader are not the only driver of the heterogeneity among agents. In Siggelkow & Levinthal’s work, one of the characteristics of agents that distinguished among them was the organizational ‘mode’ (Galbraith, 1977; Powell, 1990) chosen by the agent, which in their case was either centralized or decentralized structure. This characteristic determined how the agent could search the landscape and, ultimately what level of performance it could achieve. In the case of Front Line, it would appear that choice of organizing mode is a ‘network’—or an organizing form that relies on shared values, relations based on trust and distributed power (Powell, 1990). Boisot & Child (1999) in their CAS model propose that a network mode also allows agents to gather more information about the landscape and to delay having to make decisions—thereby facilitating more accurate evaluation of the environment and more appropriate movement. Their model of the value of a network organizing form is consistent with the stated approach in Front Line to remaining flexible and able to respond at the last minute to changes in the environment.

As far as other actions / interactions of Front Line that represent movement on the landscape, the initial phase (2000-2001) saw Mary focusing on funding and the set-up activities of a new organization. Furthermore, Front Line embarked upon a significant information gathering / dissemination effort in the form of the first Dublin Platform—an action that was to set the stage for many of the future actions / interactions of the organization. In the second stage (2002-2003), the main activities were around what would generally be seen as strategy and marketing in for-profit firms, as Front Line built up its network of HRD contacts, established its basic aims and objectives, promoted its existence in the media and with governments around the world and generally established its legitimacy in the human rights sector. In stage three (2004-2007), Front Line began to make a significant impact in its chosen area of operation and its activities became focused on a few areas, i.e. direct assistance, publications and advocacy. In this period the organization wrestled with the difficult issue of performance measures and worked with the members of the Board as well as the Leadership Council to define these along with appropriate governance structures. As of 2007, Front Line had its key relationships and resources in place and was already perceived as a major contributor to human rights development as evidenced by the King Baudouin award of 2006/2007.

Summary analysis of the case as an example of a performance landscape

We can now summarize the case of Front Line drawing on the analysis presented in this section. If one considers the period from the mid 1990s through to 2000 as one in which a new performance peak emerged on this landscape (labeled as P* in Figure 2 below), then the formation of Front Line is an example of landscape ‘exploration’ in which an agent (in this case a new agent) jumps onto a new location on the landscape without actually knowing what level of performance is achievable. This is the CAS modeling equivalent of the risk-taking behavior associated with entrepreneurs that is well documented in entrepreneurship literature going back to Schumpeter. In the specific case of Front Line, Mary left a relatively high performing agent on the landscape (Amnesty International) and moved quite a distance away (in organizational strategy terms) to establish Front Line (See arrow representing this ‘jump’ in Figure 2). She was confident of the organization’s ability to perform only to the extent that she had a reasonably large chunk of start-up funding and a mission that was consistent with a UN recognized issue, so she could count on at least some level of performance against two of the performance dimensions identified—in the near term. Nevertheless, there was still the risk that the organization might not be able to perform on other dimensions, such as impact on target group, or that the potential performance


Human Rights NGO Performance Landscape

achievable at all would be worth the effort.

In this analysis, the dynamic of social entrepreneurship may be seen as a ‘jump’ onto a new performance peak in the landscape, which may (or may not) have the potential to rise higher than existing peaks in the landscape. But this is not the only dynamic of social entrepreneurship on the landscape. In addition to feats of ‘exploration’, there are also opportunities—or perhaps more accurately, demands—for ‘exploitation’. Exploitation is the taking of incremental decisions, responding to opportunities and dealing with the challenges that result in either climbing up the performance peak or sliding down into the abyss. Uhl-Bien et al. (2007) refer to these activities as ‘administrative leadership’—which is “grounded in traditional, bureaucratic notions of hierarchy, alignment and control” (p. 299). On the landscape diagram above, this is represented by the diamond-shaped icon representing Front Line moving either up or down on the P* peak. In this case, one would probably argue that Front Line moved up as they expanded awareness and established effective action around protecting human rights defenders, established governance and performance structures, solidified funding sources and won prizes for their efforts.

Picking up on the earlier theme of the value of CLT in extending the performance landscape model, we can see evidence of the ‘entanglement’ between adaptive and administrative leadership strategies (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007) as Mary Lawlor focused on building and leveraging relationships with multiple stakeholders as the underlying approach to raising funds, establishing the aims of the organization, promoting Front Line and the work of HRDs and influencing policy makers and the media in the desired direction.


In this paper we set out to explore the contribution that CAS theory can make to social entrepreneurship theory and practice. In order to do so we examined a particular example of social entrepreneurship, the case of ‘Front Line’, and mapped the details of the case to a specific CAS framework, Kauffman’s (1993, 1995) ‘NK’ model as developed for organizational phenomena by Siggelkow & Levinthal (2003) and renamed the ‘performance landscape’ (PL) model. As expected when a theoretical construct is applied to an empirical phenomenon, we identified gaps in the PL model in terms of its ability to handle the details of the case. While we acknowledge that these gaps and the modifications required to the PL model to plug them present a significant challenge in terms of a formal model, it is nevertheless the case that CAS theory is developing at a rapid pace and there are many existing examples of targeted modeling approaches to the address the issues raised by the case analysis (Carley & Svoboda, 1996, Siggelkow & Rivkin, 2005, Hazy, 2007). In spite of the gaps in the particular framework selected, and in anticipation of further developments in CAS theory as applied to organizational phenomena, we conclude that CAS offers a way of integrating the observations, hypotheses and partial theories of social entrepreneurship into a coherent approach to theory development that has thus far eluded academic work in this field. Furthermore, we suggest that Complex Leadership Theory (CLT) (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007) provides a complementary set of concepts to those found in the Performance Landscape framework, which together could form a solid theoretical basis for progressing research into social entrepreneurship. Currently, the concepts in CLT are not yet sufficiently operationalized to allow these to be incorporated into a formal model, but there is no doubt that scholars in the field will advance along these lines in the coming years. Our recommendations for specific tasks in building this theoretical foundation are found in below in the sub-section entitled “Next Steps”.

With respect to the field of social entrepreneurship, we have demonstrated how a CAS analytic framework can provide the basis for coherent theory development providing both descriptive capability and the potential for modeling the multi-level dynamics—individual, organizational and contextual—inherent in an actual example of the phenomena. CAS brings together structure and agency in social entrepreneurship in a way that is not currently accessible in the field and, in fact, theories addressing agency and structure are polarized in current social entrepreneurship scholarship. The case analysis also suggests that social entrepreneurship theory must engage with the issue of adaptation in a changing landscape. In this effort, the concept of ‘adaptive tension’ arising from exogenous shocks to the system or endogenous struggles among agents may prove illuminating. Finally, the analysis clearly highlighted the need to clarify the nature of performance; what it is, how it is achieved and how its achievement (or lack of achievement) generates feedback to agents engaged in their individual and cooperative social initiatives.

Next steps

This paper represents the barest of beginnings of a research trajectory to explore and define how a CAS analytic framework might contribute both to the development of a theory of social entrepreneurship and to the generation of insights into the characteristics, behavior and circumstances facing social entrepreneurs. More studies are required, however, to ascertain if the features of the Front Line case are idiosyncratic or represent some basic patterns in social entrepreneurship generally. Empirical findings from other cases could inform the development of CAS-based models which could then be used to develop and test a range of hypotheses more efficiently than would otherwise be possible using more qualitative research methods. However, there is a good deal of work to be done on the basic CAS framework, before it could be considered to provide a reasonable representation of the organizational phenomena of interest. There are five research topics which we see as immediately relevant to progressing this:

  1. The definition of multiple performance 1. outcomes relevant to social entrepreneurial ventures and how these may be incorporated into the performance landscape model;

  2. The nature and impact of ‘K’ as a measure 2. of interactions among agents and among landscape features (decisions / factors);

  3. The specific elements that are the enabling 3. conditions for social entrepreneurship—building on the concept of adaptive tension from CLT, including (a) heterogeneity among agents, (b) new demands from the environment, (c) new agents / ideas, (d) new / reallocated resources, and (e) interdependence among agents;

  4. Specification of the characteristics and 4. boundaries of an ‘agent’ in the system, and;

  5. The integration of a network and a land5. scape model of a system of agents—where the network model represents the interaction and interdependencies among agents and the performance landscape model represents the interactions and interdependencies of (agent) decisions and outcomes.


The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance and support of Mary Lawlor, Founder and Managing Director of Front Line, and the anonymous reviewer(s) who provided thoughtful and comprehensive comments on an earlier draft of this article.



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