Purpose The purpose of this paper is to report on a study aimed at understanding the different conceptions that University of Northampton teachers hold of “Changemaker”, an institutional initiative to develop capacities for social innovation. Design/methodology/approach The study took a phenomenographic approach to identify a small number of qualitatively different conceptions of Changemaker among teaching staff. Face-to-face, phenomenographic interviews were carried out with 30 teachers across the university. Transcript data were analysed using thematic inductive analysis. Findings Five different conceptions of Changemaker were found: 1) Changemaker as university strategy; 2) Changemaker as critical thinking, perspective shifting and problem solving; 3) Changemaker as employability; 4) Changemaker as social betterment and 5) Changemaker as personal transformation. Research limitations/implications The outcome space of conceptions represents the beliefs of teaching staff at the University of Northampton. The approach to research and plans for the practical application of findings may be of direct benefit to other education providers as they develop their own models for teaching and learning. Practical implications The findings from this study will inform the next phase of the project, which involves the development of a skills/attributes/behaviours matrix for Social Innovation Education. Originality/value The findings of this study will address the absence of literature on teachers’ conceptions of phenomena related to social innovation, social entrepreneurship and intrepreneurship. Understanding teachers’ beliefs of such phenomena is relevant to the growing number of universities that address these subjects in the curriculum.