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The Power of Academic Institutions to Affect Social Impact at Scale


Sita Magnuson | The Value Web

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the expanding field of social impact (including social movements/activism/innovation/enterprise) and have been exploring/examining the value of the diverse approaches to affecting change. Of particular interest are The Occupy Movement, the rise of youth-driven social impact networks, and the adoption of social enterprise programs at premiere academic institutions.

The Occupy Movement

The Occupy Movement is arguably been the most visible effort of the three. It has united citizens of various ages and ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds around perceived systematic policy failures. Consensus is derived on system change, not on how to achieve it. There is no commonly defined purpose, and many in the Movement lack experience in community organizing and advocacy. While the Movement’s convening power is significant, and it’s ability to engage individuals is high, prospects for sustainable transformative political, economic, and social impact are limited due to the diversity of intentions and experience and the consensus processes utilized.

Left photo: Occupy Wall Street Road Trip helps facilitate a General Assembly in Northampton, MA on February 2, 2012 | Photo: cc Sita Magnuson of The Value Web

Youth-Driven Social Impact Networks

Youth-driven social impact networks, such as the Sandbox Network ( are comprised of young, ambitious entrepreneurs eager to affect change. These networks are generally decentralized in nature, but designed by a core team to maximize connection, scale and impact. Network reach is extensive and often global in nature. Members interaction via online platforms are increasingly supplemented with face-to-face meetings and annual global summits, encouraging continuous connection both online and offline.  Informal research indicates that many of these networks foster new business development and innovation in the field of social enterprise with unprecedented speed, agility and robustness.

Social Enterprise Programs at Major Universities

Connected to youth-driven networks, is the formal adoption of social enterprise programs at premiere academic institutions. The top 20-ranked business schools, according to US News and World Report, include a social enterprise center, career path or student association of note. These efforts support the burgeoning field of social enterprise in much the same way as the youth-driven networks; many individuals likely participate in both. Unlike social networks, academic institutions expressly focus on identifying and sharing best practices, as well as utilizing experiential learning to bridge the gap between knowing and doing. Some institutions have been slow to adapt; however, significant progress is being made. These efforts seem to be the most promising for delivering sustainable social impact at scale. Individuals emerge with a deep understanding of economics, historical/social context, innovative business models, and an ability to communicate both within the confines of the current economic system and increasingly at the fringes. The reach, rigor, and structure of academic institutions speak to their unparalleled ability to be major drivers of social impact moving forward.

The Social Enterprise Conference at Harvard is one of the many opportunities for students and professionals to come together to share, learn, and collectively push the field of social enterprise forward. I encourage academic institutions and the students who attend the Conference to keep the ball rolling. Harness the power of your formal and informal networks. Share and learn as much as you can from as many diverse sources as possible. Doing so will better position us to establish social enterprise as a norm, and social impact as part and parcel to how we live, work and play.

The views expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of other members of The Value Web.


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