Greg Dees on scaling social innovation


Susan Stevans | Sustainable Business Oregon | 5 Nov 2012


Greg Dees, an expert on social entrepreneurship who teaches at Duke University, will be in Portland Friday.

Starting a business is difficult. Keeping that business afloat can be herculean. Both can be markedly more challenging for social entrepreneurs. “We know from business entrepreneurs that keeping a business alive is a challenging task,” says Greg Dees, the founding faculty director of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “Layer on top of that a social mission that can limit your options and it becomes even tougher.”


Dees should know. He’s spent the past three decades studying, teaching and practicing social entrepreneurship at institutions including Duke, the Yale School of Management, Harvard Business School and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Management. In addition, he chairs the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Social Innovation, and has published more than 60 articles and spoken at Davos on the topic.


He’ll share his thoughts on social innovation Friday at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in a presentation titled “The Open Solutions Society: Taking Social Entrepreneurship Seriously.”


So how can a social mission limit the choices a social enterprise can make? In multiple ways, according to Dees, but it typically involves balancing an organization’s mission with the need to generate revenue. “Sometimes going into the most challenging market is not necessarily the smartest way to do business because you may be out of business in a year and then you’re not helping anyone,” said Dees.


One way around the thorny issues that can arise when launching a social enterprise is to put innovative ideas to work inside a larger organization. “I tell students they don’t need to go out and start their own organization. In some ways, we have more organizations that we need,” Dees said.


Some of those groups, says Dees, are getting an assist from the private sector in part due to the rise of social impact investing. The notion of factoring social impact into financial investments gained traction in 2010, when J.P. Morgan teamed with the Rockefeller Foundation on a report that identified social impact investing as an emerging asset class.


While Dees says that report “opened the eyes of the private sector in many ways,” private sector buy in on a large scale isn’t happening. “There are still a lot of people in the private sector and in the world of economic development who see social entrepreneurship as marginal,” he said. “They say that it’s interesting, it’s good, but they’ll just pat our heads … and few of them see it as solving any of the big problems they come to Davos to discuss.”


For now, the fastest path to scale a promising social innovation is to bring social entrepreneurs together with a larger organization, such as Mercy Corps. Dees said he Portland-based economic development and disaster relief nonprofit does an exceptional job scouting the world for innovation.


“We’d like to see more Mercy Corps behavior,” he said. Dees will touch on these topics and more during his Nov. 9 presentation. The 7 p.m. event at PNCA is free and open to the public.



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