The Future of Social Impact Education in Business Schools and Beyond
The Future of Social Impact Education in Business Schools and Beyond
This series, produced in partnership with Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, will share global perspectives about potential shifts in social impact education.

When the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship was founded at Oxford’s Saïd Business School in 2003, it was one of the first business-school centers of its kind, leading the way in Europe. The students who received Skoll Scholarships for their social impact-focused track records were anomalies in classrooms filled with hopeful consultants, bankers, and accountants. Over the years, many universities around the world have opened social innovation or social entrepreneurship centers, and a focus on social impact has moved from the sidelines to the mainstream of many business education programs. In the Oxford MBA course, and many other programs around the world, students are signing up for business degrees to increase their capacity as leaders who can reshape the way nonprofits, social enterprises, and private sector organizations positively impact the world.

This trend is partially demand-driven; students are seeking out and signing up for courses that support them in pursuing deeply meaningful careers. For example, according to Net Impact’s 2014 Business As Unusual survey, 88 percent of MBA students said social/environmental business was important to them. This is reflective of the rising student engagement with social impact programming that we see among Oxford MBA students, and Harvard and others report similar experiences. Something to note is that many of today’s MBAs entered the workforce around 2008 and witnessed first-hand the damaging effects of irresponsible business, which may contribute to their desire to create more positive business models in the future.

Education programs are responding: Social innovation is no longer relegated to elective course status, but is now part of the core course offering in many university programs. With this increased demand from students comes an increased expectation that centers will offer programming that meets the needs of more people with broader sets of interests. So with all eyes on social impact educators, what does the future hold? What should the future of social impact education look like if we are to leverage our newly solidified platforms to develop a greater number of thoughtful, purposeful, impact business leaders?

This online series will explore these questions, particularly from the lens of shifting trends in business school education. It draws on the experience of social impact educators from several countries and will share diverse perspectives on the future of social impact education as it relates to social entrepreneurship and social innovation. Topics will include social finance education; the role of universities in fuelling social entrepreneurship; creating more inclusive business school environments; and new research that compares the experiences, strategic focus, and programing of a selection of social impact centers and asks further questions about the future of this sector.

Earlier this year, Daniela Papi-Thornton (co-author of this piece) wrote a widely read article and a report called “Tackling Heropreneurship,” which highlighted the growing focus on social entrepreneurship that often unnecessarily overshadows other paths to social impact. We were overwhelmed by the response from fellow educators who agreed that now that social impact education is in the spotlight, it’s time for the sector to recalibrate and re-evaluate its responsibility to students and the teams, customers, and beneficiaries they one day will work to serve. We were motivated to seek out global perspectives on where social impact education needs to go to achieve its aims—and indeed, what those aims should be. To this end, we hosted a meet-up of social impact educators in New York City last July, inviting collaborators to share their perspectives and questions about the future of their work. (That was the formal description—a “self-help group” of sorts had formed by the end of the day’s workshop!)

Intense discussions on the group’s varied experiences as educators uncovered a number of trends. First, all participants noted increasing demand for impact-focused programing, with many noting that student demand was overwhelming at times. Our discussions honed in on whether we might help a broader group—not just those who wish to start a social enterprise or pursue corporate social responsibility, but all of our students—access high-impact careers. Many participants were interested in identifying the core competencies most critical for effective social impact leadership—beyond the start-up basics. For example, do we need to ensure that students are equipped with empathy if they are to become effective impact leaders—and if so, how? Which competencies are critical? Several educators noted their efforts to create learning opportunities outside the classroom experience, and some described collaborations with local organizations as a way of creating hands-on learning opportunities. This led to conversations about ensuring that marginalized groups make their way into our classrooms and about encouraging students to learn from the perspectives of those who have lived the problems they seek to solve.

We mapped the histories of our education programs and the current focus of our energies, and then moved on to considerations for the future—how do we collaborate to create the greatest collective impact? Do we adjust our focus from the social entrepreneur to the social impact leader, and if so, how? What programing should be core, and how will we communicate the importance of our offerings to our broader institutions and the students we serve?

Our discussions led to a few insights, one of which is that impact educators face many of the same challenges and share many focus areas across institutions, even when their strategies and specialities differ. We also realized there were many more areas for discussion and collaboration, as well as strands of debate, than we could realistically tackle in a single, energetic day of connection. This series aims to extend that examination—taking a deep dive into some of the topics covered and including others that were not. There was an outpouring of interest from educators who wanted to contribute to this series, and though we were only able to include the perspectives of a small number, we invite all educators and the broader social innovation community to share your perspectives, challenges, and anecdotes in the comments to further the value of this discussion.

We look forward to sharing the upcoming articles, learning from the community, and hopefully helping shape the future of social impact education through collective wisdom.