MBA Programs Increasingly Incorporate Social Goals

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October 21, 2013; New York Times


Students seeking to “do good” have traditionally sought higher education programs in fields such as nonprofit management, social work, or public policy and administration. Recently, increasing numbers of these students are turning to business schools and, consequently, business schools are adjusting their curriculums to meet the change in demand.

Business schools around the world, such as the Social Enterprise Program at Columbia’s Business School, Esade’s international business school, and the Saïd Business School at Oxford University, are attempting to incorporate social goals into traditional MBA coursework. This is being attempted in many ways, including:

  • Courses on, or specialization in, social entrepreneurism
  • Courses on, or specialization in, social enterprise
  • Courses on, or specialization in, international development and emerging markets
  • Acknowledgement of the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit
  • Focus on ethics in business
  • Social innovation fellowships or prize completions
  • Shifts in curriculum and marketing to reflect the fact that students may (eventually) run 501(c)(3) organizations or hybrid institutions, not just the traditional for-profit business models

In many cases, the marketing of the schools reflects a more holistic perspective on business. For example, the Esade website indicates the school is “committed to training individuals who are aware of their responsibilities as citizens and professionals, and who can make a significant contribution in their careers to meeting society’s demands. As an institution, we strive to be increasingly socially responsible and sustainable in all of our activities.”

This type of marketing is not surprising, given the public’s recent, and some would say fetishistic, interest in social entrepreneurism. There is also increasing talk in popular media about social enterprises and forms of new philanthropy, such as impact investing. Indeed, it seems the public is becoming increasingly convinced that, as Mal Warwick and Paul Polak’s book suggests, there is a business solution to poverty.

There are many benefits and drawbacks to this trend in thinking. The primary benefit, of course, is that the for-profit world is now attempting to address the needs of consumers previously considered unprofitable. This means that many people in the world who may not have had access to markets may soon be able to purchase necessary goods and supplies. For example, thanks in part to a program related investment by the Acumen Fund in a for-profit business (A to Z Textile Mills), 68 million people in Africa have access to low-cost, malaria-resistant mosquito nets.

The primary danger of such market-oriented thinking is that we are likely to forget that broad social concerns such as poverty do not have one simple solution. Business alone is not the answer, just as social service, international aid, education, or government policy changes alone are not the answer. We must work together.

It is also important to remember that wanting to do good and actually doing good are two very different things. TOMS Shoes is a perfect example. For every pair of shoes purchased, TOMS donates a pair of shoes to someone in need. The One for One model was heralded as a great example of corporate social responsibility, and helped the company become tremendously popular. It seemed for a while that wearing TOMS shoes was a sign of social status and of social responsibility. However, it appears TOMS may be rethinking their model. Critics continue to ask whether the TOMS model harms economies by displacing local shoemakers or if the model really addresses the root issues of poverty.

As you can see, there is a tremendous ethical responsibility upon anyone seeking to “do good.” This is especially true of people, be they nonprofit organizations or the newest wave of MBA students, attempting to do business in or create change in a developing nation. One must enter such endeavors with a spirit of humility, a commitment to inquiry, and the willingness to learn and change.—Jennifer Amanda Jones

  • Sunny Lim

    It is good that organization is starting to focus on doing good.

    However, one things that is lacking in my opinion is nothing is reflected on the organization
    balance to reflect this other than goodwill.

    I think with there was some way to incorporate this, it would be a major driver for organization
    to focus their work for the good of society, environment and earning a fair profit.

  • Ginny Unanure

    A very nicely-written, well-balanced article, Jenny. Nice work!