Scott Anderson

Weekly Roundup: Honoring Greg Dees

Real innovators disassemble, tinker, and then reassemble the known parts of a thing – any thing – to create something new and lasting.

That’s what J. Gregory Dees did in defining social entrepreneurship 16 years ago in his paper “The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship.” His definition acknowledged and then combined the ideas of 19th century economist Jean-Baptiste Say on value creation, Joseph Alois Schumpeter’s insights of innovation and change agents, Peter Drucker’s “the pursuit of opportunity,” and Howard Stevenson’s resourcefulness concepts. Taken together, these ideas gelled into a solid architecture of social entrepreneurship. It’s a definition that ultimately may bend here or there, but I don’t see it breaking.

Dees died on December 20 after suffering a stroke, he was 63. Dees was the founding faculty director of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship Education (CASE) at Duke University Fuqua School of Business. His scholarship cemented social entrepreneurship from the corner of the university social sciences department or a nook inside the business school to its own academic discipline. No other work was more important to that achievement than his definition of social entrepreneurship:

“Social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector, by:

• Adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value),

• Recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission,

• Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning,

• Acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand, and

• Exhibiting heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created.”

Dees himself acknowledged this was an “idealized” definition. He articulated the realism that not every business person could be entrepreneurial, and neither could every person working in the social sector. Dees also foresaw the road ahead and the difficulty of measuring value in pursuit of social innovation in the 1998 paper:

“The calculations are not only hard but also contentious. Even when improvements can be measured, it is often difficult to attribute an them to a specific intervention. Are the lower crime rates in an area due to the Block Watch, new policing techniques, or just a better economy? Even when improvements can be measured and attributed to a given intervention, social entrepreneurs often cannot capture the value they have created in an economic form to pay for the resources they use.”

Those are issues still being grappled with today.

“(Dees) was such a tremendous figure of wisdom, generosity, and mentorship in all of our lives – and it’s hard to come to grips with him not being with us,” Michael MacHarg, co-founder of social enterprise Simpa Networks, who studied under Dees at Duke, told me in an email.

That mentorship, and his ability to look to the future with clear but optimistic eyes, is something his colleagues and students have mentioned in several reflections since his passing as well. Those qualities also are on display in the brief lecture below during 10-year anniversary of CASE early in 2013. He makes the argument for an “open solution society” in which social entrepreneurs are vital. He also observes the growth of underlying strong support systems such as BCorp and impact assessment firms to make that idea a reality.

The remembrances of Dees have been widespread and a list of links can be found below. We here at NB also would like to offer ours, and our thanks, for his pioneering contributions to the field. Pioneer is a word that probably gets used too often, but in Dees’ case, it’s fitting.

Remembrances and reflections upon on Dees’ life and work

We invite you provide your thoughts and remembrances as well in our comments section.

In Case You Missed It … This Week on NextBillion

NexThought Monday – Announcing the Most Influential Posts of 2013 By Scott AndersonWDI

research, social enterprise