Stanford Social Innovation Review – Teaching Values and Purpose for Social Change | September 4, 2015

December 4, 2015

Values and Purpose for Social Change

This is a cross-post from Stanford Social Innovation Review by Sarina Beges, Associate Director at  | Co-Founder Stanford Program on  | September 4, 2015

It is time for universities to rethink how they deliver social impact education, prioritizing experiential and purpose-based training over start-up competitions.

As more students look to pursue meaningful careers in the social sector, it is imperative that educational institutions offer experiential and purpose-based training to support their personal and professional growth. Complex local and global challenges demand innovative solutions that are developed collaboratively by those with the experience, relationships, and values to effectively advance social change. There is no textbook for teaching social change, and the closer we can bring students to social problems–both inside and outside of the classroom–the more informed and effective they will be in developing solutions.  

At Stanford University, where I help lead a program on social entrepreneurship, students become part of an entrepreneurial culture from the time they set foot on campus. Whether launching student groups or social enterprises, the desire—and pressure—to create something new permeates much of the fabric of student life on campus. This is reinforced by a surge of competitions and awards that encourage aspiring social changemakers to experiment, fail, and then try again. 

As the social entrepreneurship movement becomes increasingly more attractive to young people, we see that they are applying some of these market-driven principles—often unwisely—to the social sector. For example, the desire to start a new organization often outweighs the interest in driving change from inside an existing one as an “intrapreneur.” With an estimated1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States competing for diminishing resources, it doesn’t always make sense to start something new when a product or service already exists. Failure may be a badge of honor for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but when nonprofits close their doors, they let down the communities they are trying to serve and waste precious resources that they could have directed elsewhere. 

With this in mind, we designed our program to equip future generations of social change leaders with a fuller range of skills—and the humility—they need to be impactful in their work. Through experiential learning inside and outside the classroom, students work alongside nonprofit organizations to witness how they innovate new approaches to social-change problems. They are able to observe how organizations tackle challenges with creativity, empathy, and a partnership-based approach, helping provide a holistic set of values that will serve them in their future careers. As more students graduate to pursue social-sector careers, it is increasingly important for higher education and leadership programs to incorporate these practice-based experiences into their curriculum, and better connect theory with practice. Cornerstones of our program include:

As the social change sector attracts a new wave of university graduates, it is crucial that higher education responds by providing more meaningful experiences for students to learn through direct engagement. By working with community partners, supporting student fellowships, and experimenting with purpose-driven programming, we can better prepare our students for the challenges and complexities of social change work. It is time to put aside the awards and competitions, and focus on training social movement builders who are guided by purpose and values to make more meaningful and lasting contributions to the field.

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