On both sides of the pond, we have seen business plan competitions for social ventures send contestants out to sea without a compass.
While many of today’s university students crave lives of meaning and social impact, most will never start a business—social or otherwise. Social business plan competitions typically honor the first trend while overlooking the second. There is an opportunity to rethink these contests and use them to help students identify a range of ways to create social value, beyond just starting a business. Most importantly, these contests need to foster genuine understanding of problems before asking students to design solutions.
Many university social business plan competitions invite students to address a specific, pressing concern, typically in a short period, and almost always out of context. They typically require that entrants work toward a business model solution without requiring or rewarding a thorough understanding of the problem, including the landscape of current and past attempts at solutions.
What are the results?
- Students try to solve problems they don’t understood by proposing solutions that aren’t grounded in reality.
- Innovation is rewarded, even if neither contestants nor judges know what solutions have already been tried. Competition winners often feel validated even if their ideas are weakly developed or repeat the mistakes many others have already made.
- Winners are rewarded for their business plans—which tend to lock them into flawed solutions and lead to confirmation bias—rather than for thoroughly understanding a problem and receiving incentives for being flexible in seeking paths to solve it.
- A culture develops of “Best PowerPoint Wins,” ,reinforcing the common illusion that launching and running a successful social venture is much easier that it really is.
- Students who enter these contests often think they have produced grand solutions for social problems, leaving humbler, less entrepreneurial—but still quite socially minded—students without any funding and with few learning opportunities to find their own paths to impact.
We have both seen these mistakes play out. At the Center for Social Impact at the University of Michigan, we once asked students to look into improving the skills and professional outlook of young, low-income inner-city adults. One thing we got right was to create a tie-in between our competition and the actual activities of a well-run nonprofit. What we didn’t get right was expecting students to examine and tweak the nonprofit’s programming, financing, culture, and values, and then double its impact—all within a year. The competition was two weeks long, and the nonprofit was out of state. The students were, in effect, asked to pretend to be “experts” in a field they knew little about, had few hands-on resources to learn from, and were expected to do a year’s worth of work in a fortnight.
At Oxford, we’ve made similar mistakes. When students studying for Saïd Business School’s one-year MBA competed for the Skoll Centre’s social business funding, their intense schedule of study, in effect, guaranteed that many would apply with very rudimentary ideas and would not be ready for start-up funding even if they received it.
On many campuses, students are asked to form plans for new start-ups that address issues of noble concern about health, education, human rights—you name it. They are asked to address problems in faraway places, or involving communities with whom they have no familiarity. Organizers’ unrealistic expectations about what students can achieve translate into “exotic” societal challenges that students find attractive—but that have worrying traces of colonialist attitudes.
We believe there is another way.
Competitions can produce positive outcomes in different ways, and organizers should take the opportunity to carefully consider their goals in designing them. To help more students understand and take action to solve social and environmental problems, contests need to promote a full understanding of a problem and its context to ensure that students understand what is working, what isn’t, where gaps in impact lie, and how they might plug into existing efforts to solve these problems. This approach would help students acknowledge a range of possible interventions beyond starting a social business, such as expanding impact through government adoption or franchising a current solution. Opening up these contests so that contestants can consider extending or replicating an existing solution to a complex problem would invite students to step into a range of roles, not just the idealized start-up founder or heropreneur.
For a fewer number of students, competitions may be a step toward actually launching a venture. But even so, they must have a deep contextual understanding of the problem they want to solve before they are on solid footing to launch. Hence, contests that incentivize and reward an understanding of a problem will benefit all stakeholders, including both job seekers and future social venture founders.
Both of our institutions are shifting programs away from traditionally run competitions. We believe that our role is first to provide students with opportunities to understand social problems and deeply engage with them, and help them identify a variety of ways that they might add value. If they then decide that the problem requires a new venture to fill a gap in the landscape of current solutions, our next opportunity is to connect them to the tools and resources they need to test out their ideas.
To create this shift in approach, the Skoll Centre launched a competition called The Global Challenge, based on the Impact Gaps Canvas, which rewards students for understanding a problem. Students map the landscape of current solutions and then identify gaps where further social value can be added. The Global Challenge is now in its second year and is open to partner universities around the world, with more than 20 partner universities signed up for the 2017 competition. Over the last four years, Saïd Business School has also incorporated a required core course into the MBA and EMBA curriculum, Global Opportunities and Threats Oxford (GOTO), designed to help students understand global challenges and bring the idea of “problem understanding” before “solution finding” to all students.
The University of Michigan, meanwhile, has incorporated the Impact Gaps Canvas and additional ecosystem mapping tools into several impact competitions. They have become mandatory first steps in two social impact competitions hosted by the Center for Social Impact at the Ross School of Business and third hosted by the School of Public Health.
Other universities are also making the shift. The University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP), for example, includes impact gaps mapping as part of its Impact Entrepreneurship Program, Compass, and social entrepreneurship courses at Brigham Young University (BYU) offer opportunities for students to “apprentice with a problem” rather than asking them to jump in and “solve it."
Inspired by the approach at BYU, the Skoll Centre launched its own Apprenticing with a Problem Funding competition, which gives students access to funds to go out into the world for three or more months and learn about a problem they care about, through research or an internship. By learning about and apprenticing with organizations already working to solve challenges, students can identify a range of ways they might add value. This opportunity also attracts a much wider range of students than simple business plan competitions. Laura Taylor, a 2016 competition winner, noted, “I would not have entered the competition if it were about starting a new venture, as that was not my goal. … I wanted to learn how I could best contribute to solutions that might not be obvious at first glance.”
The University of Michigan’s Center for Social Impact has created another way of apprenticing through its Academic Year Impact Corps. A student can take a year-long, for-credit course where she spends 6-8 hours per week with a local social enterprise. That organization views her as part of the team, includes her in strategic discussions, and provides ongoing mentorship from the organization’s executive director. The student also spends the year doing a meaningful project for the organization, getting coaching from the center’s faculty director and participating in a seminar involving all other students in the course in an attempt to provide a grounded perspective on the complexity of social change work.
To better support students who actually do want to launch a business, the Skoll Centre has opened up its social business plan competition to alumni. In this way, students can identify a challenge they want to work on, “apprentice” with that problem either through the Skoll Centre’s apprenticeship funding or by working in the sector, and—perhaps years later—enter the Skoll Centre’s competition to gain financial support for a business start-up.
Other universities considering how to design or reshape their business plan competitions should think about:
- Rewarding and supporting deep learning about, not just solving, social problems
- Providing flexible funding that does not lock students into enacting untested business proposals, but rather allows them to pursue multiple paths to impact
- Identifying credible judges and mentors who have a deep understanding of global challenges themselves
- Providing thoughtful and thorough feedback to students so that they learn from the experience, even if they do not secure funding through the competition.
It’s time we social business plan competition organizers start drinking our own medicine and focus on the theory of change behind our contests. If we want to create appropriate incentives for students to go out and solve global challenges, then we should design offerings that are best designed to do that—and that means rethinking the value of traditional business plan competitions.