Doing Better at Doing Good

Doing Better: Greg Dees helped shape generation of social innovators in NC

CorrespondentsMarch 1, 2014 

Greg Dees

Just before the New Year, James Gregory Dees passed away from respiratory failure. He was 63 and left us too early. But as was suggested at his memorial service, the measure of a life is less about its length than its impact on others. By this standard, his was an extraordinary journey.

Greg is broadly recognized as the academic father of the social entrepreneurship movement. Here in North Carolina, he’s remembered for helping shape a new generation of social innovators. Over the course of Greg’s life, he produced more than 60 cases, articles and book chapters related to the subject, as well co-editing two books. His article on “The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship” is among the most cited in the field – and is often the first thing aspiring students learn about what it means to be a “social entrepreneur.”

By Greg’s definition, a social entrepreneurs focus on “creating and sustaining social value; relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to achieve this 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 the outcomes created.”

Following Dees’ lead

For a growing number of emerging leaders, this attitude has become the rallying cry for the future. The socio-economic challenges facing us right now are tremendous. We need leaders in our community who believe the world can be made better and are relentlessly and courageously driving innovative solutions to get there.

Take Michael MacHarg, who is bringing renewable energy to developing communities through a “pay-as-you-go” solar system model with his organization Simpa Networks. Or Rachel Lichte of The Clarity Project, which bought a diamond mine in Sierra Leone that operates ethically and sends proceeds back into primary education and adult literacy. Geoff Cramer founded Futures for Kids, a non-profit career exploration tool that was unanimously endorsed by the State Board of Education for all North Carolina schools. And Rachael Chong started Catchafire to connect executives to social change organizations through skills-based volunteerism.

These change-making leaders share a similar lineage. They were all educated and mentored within the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University. Recognized as a true pioneer in the field of social entrepreneurship education, CASE was co-founded by Greg and Beth Anderson 12 years ago after Greg’s stints at Stanford and Harvard. It quickly grew into one of the pre-eminent academic centers in the fledgling field – arming hundreds of business school students with the tools to do good in the world, as well as helping spawn a wave of similar academic programs globally. At the most recent AshokaU Exchange on social entrepreneurship and higher education, for example, 150 universities and colleges were in attendance from 21 countries.

Words to live by

Greg was born in Cincinnati to humble origins but grew up with a strong belief in self-reliance. Underneath Greg’s own gentle humility was a ferocious aversion to charity, which he felt bred dependency. As his friend David Bornstein, the author of “How to Change the World,” says, “Greg would never do for others what they could do for themselves … (and) had a genius for helping others craft their ideas (for the future) better.”

Midway through this teaching career, Greg took an 18-month leave of absence from Harvard to move to the mountains of Kentucky to work on entrepreneurial development in central Appalachia. The experience reportedly gave him an appreciation for how hard this work is and reinforced his own commitment to the field of social enterprise development.

Before he died, Greg was working on a new book on the “Open-Solution Society.” As he wrote last year in Stanford Social Innovation Review, “We are moving toward a more open-solution society, one in which people of all walks of life are encouraged to apply their creativity and talents to crafting innovative solutions to social problems and increasing their impact. ... (But) creating effective solutions is not a matter of simply sorting what works from what does not work, and then scaling up what works. It is a matter of understanding what works under which circumstances and for whom. The world is more nuanced and complicated than we want to admit. Rarely is the solution to a problem ‘one-size-fits-all.’ We need to realize that what appears to be ‘best practice’ has to be qualified and is usually temporary, best only until something better comes along. And we should always be challenging ourselves to do better.”

“Always challenging ourselves to do better.” Those are wise words to live by – and dedicating ourselves to them honors the work and life of Greg Dees.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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