Higher Education as Social Entrepreneurship

--Lucinda Garthwaite and Daniel Sewell, CMP Founders and Lead Partners

It is increasingly clear that if they are to thrive, institutions of higher education need to clarify their purpose, then dedicate their resources to creating that specific impact.  There are two ways to think about measuring that impact.  Often we think only in terms of student success; does their experience as students prepare them to succeed in the ways they want to succeed? 

 There is another measure, though, that is too often overlooked: does the institution have the impact it intends to have on the world around it?  That too can be measured by the success if its graduates, but also by the work they do while they are students, and by the work of the faculty, staff and administration. That work shows up in many ways, including research, writing, public service, idea generation, invention, and innovation. The impact of that work is harder to measure, but non-profits and NGOs have been measuring their social impact for generations; it can be done.

We believe it’s a mistake to focus only on the success of graduates.  Their success in the context of the overall impact of the institution is what will create the public presence, recognition, and market differentiation that drives enrollment and funders’ support.

Reflecting on the beginnings of the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, in The Stanford Social Innovation Review,  Sarah Zak Borgman, the director and curator of the Forum, writes, “… we didn’t need to build a movement; the movement was already there. But we did have an opportunity to help shape and amplify the work of those dedicated to accelerating new ways of thinking about global social progress. . .”

This moment in history presents such an opportunity, as potential learners of all ages strain to understand how to make a difference.  Colleges and universities don’t have to build a market if they tap into a movement that is, as Borgman writes, “already there.” 

Social Entrepreneurship is different than social activism or social service. In Getting beyond better: How social entrepreneurship works, Roger Martin and Sally Osberg offer a definition that includes three core characteristics: identifying a stable, unjust condition or state of equilibrium;  creating and implementing a solution that could potentially change that condition; and “forging a new stable equilibrium . . . extending benefit across society.”

It’s not so sharp a turn for higher education institutions with missions focused on social impact and social change to reframe their work as social entrepreneurship. The ingredients are there: dedicated teachers and scholars, curricular and pedagogical traditions, facilities and support systems staffed by skilled professionals ready to create generous spaces for careful thinking.     What better recipe for “accelerating new ways of thinking about global social progress?”