Lee Davis

Co-Director, Center for Social Design

Lee is a Co-Founder of NESsT, a pioneer in supporting social enterprises -- businesses designed to solve critical social problems. Lee served for 15 years as co-CEO (1997-2011), building NESsT into a global team with 50 staff and offices in 11 countries, and was a 2004 winner of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. As Chief Innovation Officer at NESsT (2012-2013), he was curator of the 2012 Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF2012) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Prior to founding NESsT, Lee worked as a Program Officer in the Public Participation Program of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC) in Budapest, coordinating projects with partners across 15 CEE countries in 1996-97. He started his career as a designer with firms in New York, Connecticut, and Osaka, Japan, and was the first in-house designer in international relief and development agency CARE in its New York headquarters, responsible for art direction, design and production of publications promoting CARE’s programs across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In 2010, Lee was appointed as a Social Enterprise Fellow at the Yale School of Management’s Program on Social Enterprise, supporting Yale scholars, students, alumni, and practitioners interested in exploring the ways in which business skills and market disciplines can be harnessed to most effectively and efficiently achieve social objectives. 

In 2017, he was selected as a fellow of the New Leadership Network of the James Irvine Foundation in California. In 2019, he was appointed as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in London, UK. 

Lee is co-chair of the Board of the Winterhouse Institute and a member of its Founders Circle.



Lee has written and co-authored several books on social enterprise and venture philanthropy, including: Profits for Nonprofits, All in the Same Boat: An Introduction to Engaged Philanthropy, Risky Business: The Impacts of Merging Mission and Market, and End of the Rainbow: Increasing the Sustainability of LGBT organizations through social enterprise

From 1996-97, Lee was a Research Fellow in the “New Directions in Grassroots Development” initiative of the Johns Hopkins University, Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he authored The NGO-Business Hybrid, an international study of social enterprise cases in 13 countries. He also served as a Professorial Lecturer in the graduate Program on Social Change and Development at SAIS where he developed and co-taught the first graduate-level course on social enterprise.


Lee has authored various articles and books on social design, most recently a chapter in the Public Interest Design Education Guidebook (Routledge, 2018). In 2018, Lee was also selected for a Rockefeller Archive Center research residency to continue his original research on design anthropology.


  • MA, Institute for Policy Studies, 1995, Johns Hopkins University
  • BA, Studio Art, 1988, Connecticut College
  • Recipient of the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to undertake an independent ethnology of design in Japan and Switzerland (1988-1989)