What is Social Impact?

Oct. 12, 2013, 4:13 p.m.

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 [email protected]

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