May 282010

Full disclosure: I work at a business school, so I’m naturally inclined to agree that a business degree can contribute immensely toward one’s work as a changemaker.  There have been a lot of recent discussions around the topic, a lot of questions regarding the value of an MBA to one who works in the nonprofit sector or as a social entrepreneur (or both).  Is the MBA the right degree to pursue?  Is it teaching the right material?

It’s obviously a personal decision for each changemaker, a careful weighing of the costs and benefits, but there are several trends to think about.

1.  More sophisticated models

In April, Maryland became the first state to officially recognize the B corporation.  More and more states are adopting the L3C.  Many nonprofits now supplement traditional donations and grants with earned income, creating social enterprises that can provide more sustainable funding.  What does this mean for changemakers? It means there are a lot more options when it comes to setting up your organization.  It used to be fairly straightforward:  have a social purpose, start a nonprofit.  But social entrepreneurs today face tough questions and increasingly complex, interwoven groups of stakeholders.

2.  Talking the talk

Regardless of the type of organization you work in, you will inevitably work in some capacity with the private sector, whether you seek partnerships, grants, or other opportunities to combine resources to tackle a social issue.  The private sector will continue to grow in its role in solving these issues, and partner organizations need to be equipped to talk to them in the language that they understand: business.

3.  Crossing Sectors

These days, graduates most likely won’t stay in a particular job, in a particular sector, for their entire career.  One of the benefits of an MBA, in comparison to a more specific program in nonprofit management, for example, is its ability to be broadly applicable regardless of sector.

At the Smith School, we’ve run a program since 2006 that matches our students with nonprofits across the country for short-term consulting projects.  The students get valuable experiential learning opportunities; the nonprofits get the benefits of outsiders’ business perspectives, which can be very valuable in helping to identify and solve problems in both the short and long terms.  But perhaps the key takeaway for both parties is in seeing the way the lines blur between the sectors.  We encourage our students to reflect not only on the ways their coursework can be applied in the nonprofit sector, but on how their experiences in these projects translate back into business knowledge that can be used in future jobs and job interviews.

I recently attended a conference and heard a presenter make the case that being a social entrepreneur is all about the soft skills–confidence, legitimacy, mindset, etc.  While I agree that these are absolutely essential, I think that a solid understanding of business frameworks is critical to help funnel that energy and create solutions that can sustain themselves.  Especially now, as lines blur, new models emerge, and issues become more and more complex.

An MBA is certainly not the only way to learn these frameworks, but as more and more business schools incorporate ideas of social change into the curriculum and programming, it’s an attractive option.

What do you think?