The Growing Demand For Social Impact Education

How universities are rising to the call of more social enterprise education

Traditional MBA programs often focused on educating students to be CEOs of Fortune 100 companies. Today, we are just as likely to find MBA students who want to solve the global water crisis, end hunger in Africa, or help those same Fortune 100 companies ensure a viable, sustainable supply chain or provide goods and services to a non-traditional, underserved population.

Traditional business school curriculum: finance, marketing, organizational behavior, economics, accounting …

Today’s business school curriculum: social enterprise, impact investing, global health, innovate for impact …

What has changed? Traditional MBA programs often focused on educating students to be CEOs of Fortune 100 companies. Today, we are just as likely to find MBA students who want to solve the global water crisis, end hunger in Africa, or help those same Fortune 100 companies ensure a viable, sustainable supply chain or provide goods and services to a non-traditional, underserved population.

Social impact career choices are on the rise, and increasingly MBA students and returning practitioners call on MBA programs to offer rigorous, relevant social impact curriculum. Why this shift? I suggest a key factor of the evolution of business school curriculum in the social impact arena is due to the increased demand from students who want meaning or purpose in their careers. These students want preparation for the variety of different roles they will play throughout their working life. Leaders today anticipate that they will move across organizations as well as sectors and thus demand preparation for solving not only business problems but also social challenges. These leaders see an integrated world where business, government and society collaborate to provide multi-sector solutions and whose leaders need superior skills and education. From my observations, those leaders include current MBA students, MBA alumni looking to transition from their original career to another more impactful role, as well as social impact practitioners who want a stronger understanding of leadership and management education to help them to lead more efficiently and effectively.


Much has been written on the new breed of students and their impact on MBA curriculum. In 2009, Bridgespan’s study, “The MBA Drive for Social Value” showed the increase in social impact course offerings in global business programs and was followed up in 2013, by the HBR article “The Rise of Social Entrepreneurship.” These articles and others cite the increase in offerings, driven by the demand from the current student population. Robert Ashcraft, executive director of the Arizona State University Lodestar Center for Philanthropy concurs, saying, “There’s been an acceleration of interest on the part of students at all levels, mixing the purpose-driven life with a paycheck.” This is clearly seen at the MBA level. According to Net Impact’s 2014 Business As Unusual survey, 88% of MBA students said social/environmental business was important to them. That survey also ranked the top 50 MBA programs for social impact, illustrating the breadth of the interest in social impact education.

Several factors distinguish today’s MBA students from past generations. Current MBA students, particularly those in the U.S., grew up in an environment of service, often with community service requirements in elementary school through college. Through this involvement at a young age, they have seen the impact that they can have on local, national, and global problems and seek careers where they can lead the solutions to those problems. These students are also not confident that existing structures will create meaningful change in the world around them. New enterprises, new organizational formats, new methods and styles of work are replacing traditional models in their eyes. They seek expanded curricular options that will play into their career choices.

Business schools have responded to this demand by designing majors in social impact with robust course offerings — not just a few electives on nonprofit management or social entrepreneurship. Offerings range from the more traditional impact investing and sustainable finance courses to The Business of Change (Kellogg); Business at the Base of the Pyramid (Harvard); Public Sector Structural Reform in K-12 Public Education (Columbia); Urban Poverty and Economic Development (Yale).

Beyond the curricular enhancement, MBA programs have created important research centers like the Skoll Centre at Oxford, Australia’s Centre for Social impact or the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia University. These centers provide research and resources including venture and investment funds, loan assistance and summer internship funding along with networking opportunities for students with leaders in the social impact field. Taken together, the curriculum and research initiatives provide more robust opportunities for socially minded MBA students.


However, MBA students alone do not drive this demand. Alumni and social impact practitioners also seek education to help them navigate the social impact world. Many MBA alumni find themselves seeking new career paths as second or even third careers. These require new skills, knowledge and networks to succeed. Harvard University created the Advanced Leadership Initiative to “prepare experienced leaders to take on new challenges in the social sector where they can potentially make an even greater societal impact than they did in their careers.” Pete McNerney, a healthcare and venture capital leader, was a 2014 Fellow. He says that, coming from the world of profit-making enterprises, joining the social sector “requires a different skill set.” McNerney believes there is a growing demand for this type of transitional education. “Successful business people don’t want to retire; they just want to do different things. There’s quite a reservoir of talent and folks are pursuing that,” he says. In pursuit of those social impact roles, degree and non-degree education can play an important role in differentiating candidates, says Molly Brennan, co-founder of Koya Partners, an executive search firm focused on the nonprofit sector. “An MBA is a differentiator but certificates also demonstrate a commitment to the sector that’s appealing,” she notes.

Non-MBA social impact practitioners seek additional education as well. Even after ten years as the Director of Corporate Engagement at the international NGO Kenan Institute Asia, John DaSilva felt he had skills to learn. “I deal mainly with government and corporate clients so I wanted to gain a better understanding of individual donor behavior and communication,” he says. After two nonprofit executive education programs at the Kellogg School of Management, he has already gained knowledge of how to effectively access untapped funding in the market, as well as the story-telling platform he can use to sell the vision and engage his donors. He now looks forward to improving his knowledge of financial management with a future program.

Demand for social impact education comes from many sources. While course offerings, research opportunities, and funding investments may be different across the globe, the MBA sector is actively engaged in preparing future leadership for this sector. Ideally, this education combined with the drive and passion of the students (of all ages) will enable to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.

Liz Livingston Howard is the director of Nonprofit Executive Education and clinical professor of management at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.