Widgets Magazine


What is Social Impact?

On Tuesday, October 1st, 2013, Stanford University had a career fair, and the United States government shut down. As we handed our resumes to eager tech and finance recruiters in White Plaza last Tuesday, we made decisions about our futures and which issues will benefit from the skills we are building today.

The vast majority of the jobs offered for consideration at the career fair were not aiming to address the extreme dysfunction that we as a nation were experiencing on that same Tuesday. With the enormity of the resources available to us at Stanford, and with the extreme number of choices we have been lucky enough to have received during our time at this institution, is it right for us to move forward in droves towards lucrative but questionably impactful private sector jobs?

Thinking about and discussing these contrasts is not meant to instill a feeling of guilt or defense about our privilege, but instead is a necessary part of being a responsible ‘Stanford citizen’. We are lucky enough to be one of the 5.7% who get to learn from this incredible institution.

Everyone should follow their passion to their sector of choice, but now is the time to ask questions like “Am I appreciating the immense benefits I’m enjoying? Am I aware of the deep responsibility we, as the Stanford community, share to use our skills to solve big problems and create positive impact?”

Social impact is jargon – broad, vague, and somewhat inaccessible by definition. So what does it really mean? Technically, social impact is how organizations’ actions affect the surrounding community. In the Stanford context, I’d posit that organizations are students and our actions are how we are applying the skills we’re building to affect our surroundings.

There is an interesting and robust discussion on the nuances and particularities of social impact. Mario Morino, businessman-turned-philanthropist and author of Leap of Reason, believes that every effort, regardless of size, contributes social good to that cause. Others, like Emmanuel Fortune, who just graduated from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, believe that this one-to-one definition skirts what matters most – improving quality of life. Quality and value should define impact over easily-measurable quantities and scales.

Regardless of these differences in definitions, it is essential to appreciate the issues at hand, and to consider the abilities we have as Stanford students to create and foster social impact.

Since 2012, the Aspen Institute Aspen Careers Initiative has been researching and publishing on how the millennial generation can produce significant positive change and avert the major crises we face by choosing impact careers. Interestingly, the main barrier is not a lack of desire to serve, but instead a dearth of robust pathways.

We, as Stanford students, do not face the challenge of opportunity access. We have the Haas Center to guide and inspire us, 100+ service-focused student groups to join, courses offered in departments from Urban Studies to Electrical Engineering, hundreds of speaker series, book signings, movie screenings, centers focused on Social Innovation, Philanthropy & Civil Society and Poverty & Inequality. In addition, this year our Career Development Center has a new executive director who I am excited to watch strengthen the connection between Stanford students and impact careers.

The resources are there for us to tap. We need to take responsibility for creating a stronger, community-wide conversation of how we are building our lives now to create positive impact in our futures. We need to continue it with the friends we know already prioritize impact, and share it with those who are focused on other areas.

And there’s a lot to talk about. How are young people interacting with the social impact space – from innovation competitions for young innovators to service gap-year programs? How are large corporations engaging in service and encouraging positive social impact through their expertise? What is the relationship between entrepreneurship and impact? What are the gender dynamics within the nonprofit sector? Asking these difficult questions is a necessary first step to engaging the social impact space, and ultimately contributing to it.

Social impact is a multi-faceted topic, and pondering one’s own actions, activities and motivations in a broad and long-term context is essential, especially given our privilege at a university that more than adequately prepares us to engage a variety of civic and social obligations.

I believe that social impact, at its most basic level, is where “your deep gladness and world’s deep hunger meet”, as Frederick Buechner wrote. Finding that intersection is one first step everyone can take towards realizing your own social impact. It’s what being at Stanford is about. So start thinking, talking, and doing. We have the resources at our disposal.

Contact Elizabeth Woodson at ewoodson@stanford.edu

  • Tom

    ENOUGH! Just shut up! If we students pursue a dream, OUR DREAM and we live by internal standards & goals, live a happy authentic life, then as we pursue success for ourselves the results will also benefit others. Being an actual PRODUCER is more noble and much more benefits society than pursuing a blood sucking parasite gov job!

    Wake up quit drinking the kool-aid this article makes you look like a fool!

  • Sharon

    Hi Tom, thank you for your comment. I share your interest in having all people pursue the paths most suitable to them and most true and authentic to themselves. Have you considered that perhaps Elizabeth writing this is part of her authenticity and reflects her concern for the greater public good? Ideas of nobility seem fairly subjective, to each their own, according to their interests, skills and circumstances. Trying to tangibly measure which paths best benefit society seems to be a futile exercise, if not because of how complex of terms society and benefit are, but also because with the passage of time it’s so hard to say when one’s experiences in a job that seems ‘non-beneficial’ may later give one insight, critical skills or networks, more clarity, the ability to take risks, etc… I don’t know enough about government jobs to say this with any authority, but I think it’s unlikely that all jobs are parasitic. Yes, there may be lots of unnecessary bureaucratic red tape, but the system of checks and balances often exists for a reason even if it has long been due for an update. And there are definitely important functions that government plays – law enforcement, administering public services, etc. It is not immediately obvious to me what you mean by ‘producer’. In most jobs, we have the capacity to innovate, whether it be in terms of processes, contributing to culture change, new ideas about how to do things… That seems like legitimate production to me. I wonder if you mean the production of wealth. If so, then we would have to look at the legitimacy of trickle-down effects in the economy, which I know very little about. But I suspect that they are by no means monolithic to all producers of wealth in all positions. I am curious about where your passionate condemnation is coming from. Why does this make you feel the way you did? Do you feel like the voices for the other argument are stifled or sidelined, or that students are being unfairly judged for wanting cushy careers with good pay checks? There are better ways to have those voices heard.

    Hi Elizabeth, Thank you for writing this. The recent SUES report also pointed out that 1 of the 4 stated aims of a Stanford Education are to develop personal and social responsibility. From a reader’s perspective, I would love to understand better the system of how Stanford/the CDC/departments like the Computer Forum select and present employers at these fairs. I imagine that being a ‘platinum’ partner costs a lot, and only big firms can qualify. To what extent are the smaller ones squeezed out, then? At the recent Earth, Energy and Environmental Career Fair, I heard that 7 out of 10 employers were big oil companies, many of whom may justifiably be accused of having an inordinate amount of political power to pursue their self interests while disregarding the global good. This is but one example. I wonder if, while we may not have limited access to opportunities, we may have limited access to a truly diverse range of opportunities. If you did an investigative piece on this, that would be really cool.

    I don’t think that it is necessarily everyone’s moral imperative to want to make good social impact. Like you said, that mindset brings about guilt and shame, neither of which are useful. I think it is important for us to ask ourselves why we do what we do, what we truly value, and who we are. We all have reasons why we choose as we choose, and those must be respected. I only wish that the strength of peer pressure, prestige-seeking and parental demands will play a smaller and smaller role in the choices that we make for ourselves in our pursuit of happiness and success.

    Elizabeth and Tom, please let me know if you’d like to talk more. Thanks so much for reading this long comment.

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for this in-depth response! I really appreciate your time and additive thoughts.
    Your mention of the current CDC system, career fairs, how/why what companies are present (and which are not) are excellent, and I look forward to exploring answers to these questions going forward. I am also excited to be involved in creating the channel to impact careers that students feel would help them find these opportunities. Particularly exciting is the current support from Tom Schnaubelt of the Haas Center and Farouk Dey, the new executive director at the Career Development Center, to create the ideal path/tools/resources to social impact jobs. I would love to continue the conversation with you, if you have time. Please email me at ewoodson@stanford.edu!

    Thank you for the energy in your response. I agree that everyone should do what they find joy and fulfillment in for their career. My point was intended to highlight that students are interested in pursuing careers with direct positive social outcomes, but the opportunities to find these jobs are limited. The connecting mechanism for those whose passion is social impact needs to be strengthened. I second Sharon’s desire to better understand what you mean by production and where your fervor is rooted, please let me know if you are free to connect at some point!

    Again, thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments on my pieces going forward.

  • Jacklyn Trejo

    Love the article, love the questions. Everyone should take time to deeply contemplate these issues.