Turning ‘Doing Well by Doing Good’ into Real Millennial Social-Sector Leadership

Do well by doing good. Within the social sector and beyond, that phrase has become a much-abused cliché and even the subject of some recent controversy. But on university campuses today, it speaks to something very real: Students as a group—a group that we might as well call “millennials”—are more eager than students of preceding generations to pursue viable careers that will enable them to achieve beneficial social impact.

But how? This urge to do good, we have found, is often as inchoate as it is fervent. Many of the students we encounter through our teaching at Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) do find ways to serve genuine human needs. Too often, though, students become captivated by “business for good” models that are long on marketing appeal and short on proven impact: buy-one-get-one schemes that allow consumers to send some product to the poor and needy simply by purchasing that product for themselves, or enterprises that market fancy branded products (ice cream, salad dressing, and the like) and give some of the profits “to charity.”

The notion that efforts of this kind will make an appreciable dent in the world’s most pressing problems is dubious at best. Students deserve better. They deserve guidance and training in how best to apply their passion, their energy, and their talent to work that can truly make a difference. And the poor they purport to serve, deserve the respect of self-determination and ability to shape their own lives, not old surplus cheese, corruption, or neocolonialism.

In our previous article, “Big Topic on Campus–Doing Well By Doing Good,” we discussed the increasingly high profile that the social sector now enjoys at colleges and universities, and we linked that trend to our longstanding “crusade” to bring greater rigor to the sector. In this article, we will delve into one part of that crusade—the challenge of creating academic programs that equip students to “do good” in ways that deliver lasting benefit to those who need it most—programs that offer more than just a few weeks of inspiring stories.

Getting down to cases

“Strategic Leadership of Nonprofit Organizations and Social Ventures” is a course at Stanford GSB that Bill will teach this winter for the 20th year. Over that period, Bill has honed his view of the core lessons that would-be nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs need to absorb, as well as the teaching methods that work best to instill these lessons. (Visit our website for a sample syllabus of the course in its current form.)

At the broadest level, we can summarize what students in social sector leadership course must learn in two words: humility and rigor. Aspiring leaders need to recognize that real change isn’t about spending a summer in Kenya; it’s about committing to long-range, low-probability-of-success projects in circumstances that may seem as if they were designed to resist change. Students need to listen to the supposed beneficiaries of their product or intervention, and to understand how greatly different the lives of those beneficiaries are from their own. At the same time, students must learn to be hard-headed about following practices—such as developing a sound business model, or a pragmatic sales and distribution strategy that reflects the tough logistical and practical challenges of reaching rural villages in India or East Africa—that will enable them to make a real impact on those lives.

At a more pragmatic level, the lessons taught in Bill’s course map closely to the principles of strategic leadership that we set forth in our book, Engine of Impact. From mission and strategy to funding and board governance, the course gives students a basic grounding in the concerns that preoccupy social sector leaders.

To convey those principles, along with a sense of humility and a habit of rigor, Bill relies on the case study method. Using carefully drafted case histories of actual nonprofits and social enterprises has a number of benefits. Most important, it allows students to reckon directly with the uncertainty, the ambiguity—the sheer messiness—that comes with trying to design, fund, launch, and manage a social sector organization. It also provides the raw material that instructors can use to teach important concepts. Bill, for example, uses case studies as a springboard for discussing Oster’s six forces model, strategic and financial scenario planning, impact evaluation, and other main themes of his course.

Getting real

The case method gives students an opportunity to think their way vicariously through the complex challenges faced by actual organizations. At a certain point, however, there is no substitute for engaging in a “do well by doing good” project of one’s own. For the past few years, we have team-taught a course at Stanford GSB that enables participants to develop their plan to launch a real-world product or intervention. This course, “Social Ventures Practicum,” is available to second-year MBA students and has become quite popular. (We have also posted a sample syllabus for this course on our website.)

The origins of the practicum course help to explain why this form of instruction is so valuable. Various schools at Stanford offer courses that let students conceive and develop ideas for products or services that will, they hope, improve people’s lives. Perhaps the best known of these offerings is “Design for Extreme Affordability,” a pioneering course created by Jim Patell. It’s a startup-ideation course in which students use design-thinking principles to devise products that serve the “bottom billion”—infant-warming equipment, low-cost, off-grid lighting devices, and so forth.

Without question, great ideas for potentially high-impact products do emerge from this course, and from other courses like it. Yet, for all of the care and sophistication that go into designing such products, students tend to pay little attention to how they will market and distribute the products, or how they will build adequate and reliable sources of revenue to sustain operations.

In the practicum course, we work with students to fill those all-important gaps by helping them create full-fledged business plans that address sales, supply-chain management, finance, and other building blocks of any sustainable venture (social or otherwise). We subject those plans to questioning and critique, and we apply a tough-love approach to guiding students through the process of turning a nice idea into a viable enterprise.

Here, too, we use Engine of Impact and our model of strategic leadership as a tool to help students think through key issues. In addition, we use an analytical framework that we call “Eight Questions for a Social Venture.” (We have posted a version of this framework on our website.) These questions, with one exception, force students, or any aspiring social entrepreneur, to apply a degree of rigor to specific aspects of their venture: “What is your ‘theory of change’?” “What is your ‘go-to-market’ model?” “What are your financial projections?”

The one exception comes in the last question, which is more general—and also very blunt: “Why you?” We end, in other words, by asking students to be rigorously humble (and humbly rigorous) about their own ambition. In our experience, that quality separates the best social-sector leaders from their less-effective peers.

Originally published in Forbes

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