As previous articles within this series on the future of social impact education have noted, many social entrepreneurship programs situated in graduate business schools support social impact-focused students primarily through business plan competitions. These competitions often reward financial sustainability over deep and sustained engagement with communities impacted by the social issue at hand. Some universities, however, are pursuing a different model. At Brown University’s Swearer Center, for example, we have observed that the highest-impact student social ventures are founded on strong community partnership, and therefore have designed our social innovation programming so that students directly collaborate with the communities they seek to benefit.
Many educators would agree that social innovation must happen through meaningful community engagement but may not be certain of the practical steps to take when designing programs to meet this goal. We examined our own work and the offerings of other social impact educators, and gleaned four lessons other educators might find useful:
1. Set and communicate clear, realistic goals and expectations.
Is the goal of the program to help students build changemaking skills, or is it to benefit a community in a specific way? And if it’s both, how will students balance these priorities? Program goals and expectations should be clear from the start.
If a program teaches students changemaking skills in isolation of a community problem, it should be clear to students that, in practice, they must adapt those skills the specific context of the community they are trying to benefit. If a program aims to help a particular community, students need to understand that they won’t solve the problem in the span of a semester. Either way, educators should teach students that social change has no quick fixes and that it requires humility, perseverance, and commitment to working with affected communities.
One program we believe strikes a balance between building changemaking skills and community collaboration is the Social Innovation Design Lab, a course at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business’s Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab. One of the core program goals is for students to participate in community-based learning. Students utilize design thinking to develop ideas that benefit a specific community in the Greater Los Angeles Area. Throughout the semester, each student must log at least 60 hours of face-to-face time with the community members they are working with, including a weekend-long homestay in the community. This and other course goals are explicit, and community members are aware that they are part of a learning experience and should not expect students to implement solutions. Executive Director Abby Fifer Mandell says, “Methodology in community is just as important as working with community,” and notes that if students are not recognizing the gaps in their awareness when working with community, they’re not likely to design an appropriate solution to a problem.
2. Integrate community expertise to teach how social change happens.
Students’ personal experiences—and often their emotional responses to those experiences—motivate them to engage in social innovation. As educators, it is our responsibility to help students locate their curiosities and experiences within larger, complex systems that require research to deeply understand.
At Brown, we require that our Social Innovation Fellowship participants articulate a theory of change explaining how new actions can benefit a particular social problem in the context of existing interventions and approaches. Students write a research paper that deepens their understanding of both the problem and the ecosystem of resources in the community where their venture could live. We also introduce approaches to identify root causes of problems; teach systems theory; and explore ethics-related topics that challenge students to think critically about the link between their actions and outcomes, and to explore the potential for unintended consequences.
This year, as part of our commitment to integrating community expertise into student’s social innovation efforts, we invited local community leaders to apply to and participate in our Social Innovation Fellowship. This involved facilitating a matchmaking process that allows community members to form strong working relationships with students and to assess students’ capabilities before they jointly decide whether to apply for the fellowship as a team. Making an existing program available to community leaders as well as students allows us to embed local knowledge into the program without significant additional resources.
3. Embed social innovation education in other community-facing courses.
Often, education programs focus on social entrepreneurship or starting a new venture, rather than take a broader approach to social innovation. By embedding social innovation curriculum in courses throughout the university—not just at the business school—and especially in those already focused on community engagement, social innovation education can have a wider reach.
The Boston College School of Social Work, for example, was the first in its field to incorporate social innovation into its curriculum. Given that social workers typically work within social service entities, the college specifically designed the program to equip graduates with a toolkit to innovate within community organizations. Stephanie Berzin, co-director of the Boston College Center for Social Innovation, explains that students learn to operate as “intrapreneurs,” innovating within existing organizations. “It’s about understanding problems and responding to deep community concerns,” says Berzin. Through a number of curricular and co-curricular programs like the Social Innovation Lab, social work students partner with community organizations to co-create innovations that address their challenges.
4. Commit to a long-term engagement.
Social innovation is a long-term process. But most students’ ability to engage in social impact projects is limited by other commitments—and ends at graduation. To avoid this, programs need to structure partnerships around shorter-term student engagement while creating an infrastructure to support any given project through its conclusion.
The University of Chicago’s Community Programs Accelerator—derived from a university-wide commitment to a civic engagement framework that challenges students, faculty, and administrators to think about how the university can contribute to the community around it—is a good example. The accelerator sets up formal partnerships with community organizations in the South Side of Chicago, offering financial, strategic, development, and/or organizational support, and matching each organization with faculty, staff, or students.
The program advances the university’s commitment to understanding and contributing solutions to its community’s urban challenges by harnessing its organizational and research expertise. However, it organizes projects around each organization’s goals, not the academic calendar.
It’s our duty as educators to incorporate the community’s voice into all social innovation education practices. To do this well, we must place communities and community-based challenges at the center of our work, and organize university resources in such a way that we create viable solutions as well as meaningful developmental experiences for students.