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Gregory Dees: The Man Who Defined Social Entrepreneurship


Gregory Dees: The Man Who Defined Social Entrepreneurship

Courtesy the Fuqua School of Business/Duke University

(Corrects Dees' age in first paragraph.)

In 1998, when Professor Gregory Dees wrote The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship, the phrase was barely known, even by those running “social ventures” at the time. As Roger Martin, former dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, wrote in a memorial, Dees (along with a small group of like-minded thinkers) “defined the contours of an establishing field.” Dees passed away on Dec. 20 at age 63. Below are excerpts from his seminal article written while teaching at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

The idea of “social entrepreneurship” has struck a responsive chord. It is a phrase well suited to our times. It combines the passion of a social mission with an image of business-like discipline, innovation, and determination commonly associated with, for instance, the high-tech pioneers of Silicon Valley. The time is certainly ripe for entrepreneurial approaches to social problems. Many governmental and philanthropic efforts have fallen far short of our expectations. Major social-sector institutions are often viewed as inefficient, ineffective, and unresponsive. Social entrepreneurs are needed to develop new models for a new century.

The language of social entrepreneurship may be new, but the phenomenon is not. We have always had social entrepreneurs, even if we did not call them that. They originally built many of the institutions we now take for granted. However, the new name is important in that it implies a blurring of sector boundaries. In addition to innovative not-for-profit ventures, social entrepreneurship can include social purpose business ventures, such as for-profit community development banks, and hybrid organizations mixing not-for-profit and for-profit elements, such as homeless shelters that start businesses to train and employ their residents. The new language helps to broaden the playing field. Social entrepreneurs look for the most effective methods of serving their social missions.

Though the concept of “social entrepreneurship” is gaining popularity, it means different things to different people. This can be confusing. Many associate social entrepreneurship exclusively with not-for-profit organizations starting for-profit or earned-income ventures. Others use it to describe anyone who starts a not-for-profit organization. Still others use it to refer to business owners who integrate social responsibility into their operations. What does “social entrepreneurship” really mean? What does it take to be a social entrepreneur?

Any definition of social entrepreneurship should reflect the need for a substitute for the market discipline that works for business entrepreneurs. We cannot assume that market discipline will automatically weed out social ventures that are not effectively and efficiently utilizing resources.

The following definition combines an emphasis on discipline and accountability with the notions of value creation taken from [Jean Baptiste] Say, innovation and change agents from [Joseph] Schumpeter, pursuit of opportunity from [Peter] Drucker, and resourcefulness from [Howard] Stevenson. In brief, this definition can be stated as follows:

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.

Social entrepreneurship describes a set of behaviors that are exceptional. These behaviors should be encouraged and rewarded in those who have the capabilities and temperament for this kind of work. We could use many more of them. Should everyone aspire to be a social entrepreneur? No. Not every social-sector leader is well suited to being entrepreneurial. The same is true in business. Not every business leader is an entrepreneur in the sense that Say, Schumpeter, Drucker, and Stevenson had in mind. While we might wish for more entrepreneurial behavior in both sectors, society has a need for different leadership types and styles. Social entrepreneurs are one special breed of leader, and they should be recognized as such. This definition preserves their distinctive status and assures that social entrepreneurship is not treated lightly. We need social entrepreneurs to help us find new avenues toward social improvement as we enter the next century.

The complete article can be found here (PDF).


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