J. Gregory Dees on The Open Solutions Society
J. Gregory Dees, often called the “father of social entrepreneurship,” recently spoke at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in an event co-hosted by Portland State’s Impact Entrepreneurs. Dees, who wrote the seminal definition of social entrepreneurship, is Founding Faculty Director of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University and sits on the Impact Entrepreneurs advisory board.
The subtitle of Greg Dees’ talk was “taking social entrepreneurship seriously,” a clear call to action for those operating in this nascent field but also to virtually anyone interested in the well-being of society at large:
Entrepreneurship is just as important to social progress as it is to economic progress, especially in times of rapid change and uncertainty, [but] societies are doing a poor job of promoting, supporting, evaluating and capitalizing on the activities of social entrepreneurs.
Dees spoke of the ways in which traditional, for-profit entrepreneurs have clear, albeit risky, pathways to scale, with investors and markets providing essential support to successful businesses. Social entrepreneurs, however, lack the same supporting framework and often face greater barriers in attracting the investment needed to scale, which limits their growth. This, then, leads to critiques about their lack of scale — and a resulting failure of some business and political leaders to take the movement seriously.
Some respected leaders in the business sector have recognized the importance of social entrepreneurship, from Michael Porter’s concept of shared value creation (with similarities to Jed Emerson’s notion of blended value) to Bill Gates’ appeal for creative capitalism, encouraging corporations to allocate a portion of staff time to addressing social problems. But Dees argues that many leaders still take a Catch-22 approach, unwilling to provide the support needed for social entrepreneurship to scale because it has not yet proven that it can reach scale without support. The difficulty of tracing specific types of support to successful social enterprises, and the challenge of measuring success against a wide range of social, environmental, and fiscal goals only worsens the problem.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that, as a new and unique field, social entrepreneurship requires more and different types of support than older industries. The economist Richard Nelson asserts that “Firms do not stand by themselves, of course… for an industry with special input and skill needs, growth and effectiveness is strongly conditioned by how rapidly and effectively a support structure grows up.” Unfortunately, as Dees says, “right now we’ve got a support structure around social entrepreneurs that’s not that effective.”
So what’s the solution? “We need an open solutions society, one in which institutions are structured to support exploration, evaluate success, capture and share lessons, and encourage adaptation.” Everyone would be invited to engage in solving problems, with societal assistance. Encouraging flexibility, adaptability, and decentralized problem-solving is essential to this work, but to avoid it becoming fragmented and ineffective, institutional support — not control — is critical.
An open solutions society is one in which we all can, and we all must, participate. Dees encourages us to ask, “What do you see as the biggest barriers to creating more of an open solutions society? Here? Globally? What can you do to help make progress toward a society that takes social entrepreneurship seriously?”
It’s up to us to create the open solutions society, one in which we all work to address the world’s greatest challenges and support each other in doing so. And we would all do well to remember that, as Greg Dees says, “entrepreneurship is about value creation — but it doesn’t have to be financial value.” There are more types of value that what we can measure with money.
By Jacen Greene, Ames Fellow for Social Entrepreneurship at Portland State University.