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?

  3 Responses to “In Defense of the MBA for the Change-Minded”

  1. I have to say that I totally disagree with you. I’m actually not sure how an MBA can assist entrepreneurs especially social entrepreneurs aside form being just another measure of academic aptitude. Changemakers by definition buck the status quo, and must think differently to be able to push the boundaries of innovation. Formal education college, graduate school, MBA programs standardize their approaches in order to cater to large and diverse populations and necessarily must emphasize a standard approaches to problem solving within frameworks. Relying on established methodologies and frameworks is good for an investment banker but poison for a social entrepreneur.

  2. I appreciate your comment, Michael. And I’d agree that 10, or even five, years ago b-schools for the most part had that standardized approach. But I think that today more and more of them are in effect acting like changemakers themselves–developing programs/curricula that buck the status quo, and rethinking the established methodologies.

  3. All that I can say is that I developed Social Capital Value Add as my MBA thesis.

    I consider myself a social entrepreneur and have been dubbed a finalist Changemaker by WeMedia & Ashoka if that matters to anyone.

    My question is always how? I hope that social entrepreneurialism leads to positive change but I wonder if this hope and the practices of the biggest global corporations like BP who are having the greatest impact on earth, are in concert.

    With Social Capital Value Add, I have tried to demonstrate how greater social accountability is an imperative in the context of broadband empowered individuals. The best description that I have ever heard was from a passerby while I was at the WeMedia, Power of Us: Reinvent Media conference where SCVA was a finalist. He said that SCVA is a “corporate hack”.

    Social Capital Value Add proposes to update the corporate profit algorithm to take into consideration the kinds of management practices that are required to achieve sustainable future earnings. It gives teeth to “Corporate Social Responsibility” and “Ethical Capitalism” not based upon environmental threats or arbitrary notions of fairness, but because altruism unites people and when everyone has a global broadcasting platform in their palm, uniting people is the only safe way to run a profitable company.

    I invite you to review Social Capital Value Add or guest post at Thanks for this great article.

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