Purpose: This paper focuses on social innovation dynamics in extreme contexts where institutional volatility is deeply rooted and enduring. In other words, the authors focus their discussion on the challenges that social innovators are facing in their endeavor of solving wicked social problems within an extreme institutional environment. This research is guided by the following question: How does an extreme institutional environment influence social innovation processes? Design/methodology/approach: This qualitative research builds on the unique case of the Palestinian non-governmental organization (NGO) sector, a rarely studied context in organizational studies. The authors combine archival sources with 24 semi-structured interviews with Palestinian NGOs. Findings: The authors theorize three barriers that hinder social innovation in such contexts: institutional trap, effectiveness trap and sustainability trap. The authors also theorize five mechanisms through which these barriers influence each other dynamically: mingling, surviving, undermining, binding and reinforcing. Taken together, these barriers and mechanisms shed light on social innovation processes taking place within extreme institutional environments. Research limitations/implications: The main limitation of this study is the methodological design, based on an extreme single case-study which, on a bunch of features, is quite unique in the world. The authors argue that the results are all the same transferable to other relatively similar contexts. Practical implications: By theorizing the institutional barriers to social innovation in an extreme institutional context, the research thus sheds light on how social innovation could be sustained and stimulated in Palestine and other contexts that face similar institutional challenges. Social implications: From an engaged scholarship perspective, studying Palestine cannot be more relevant than today considering the turmoil in which Palestinians are. The research thus provides a deeper understanding of organizational and institutional dynamics with crucial social repercussions. Originality/value: The social innovation literature has overemphasized success stories to the detriment of the struggles that hinder social innovations in extreme institutional environments. By focusing on the barriers that social innovators experience in these contexts, the authors provide novel empirical insight. Furthermore, this study enriches the understanding of the institutional dynamics of social innovations by proposing a process model that elucidates how an extreme institutional context can influence social innovations.