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Business Education Embracing Social Benefit

18 September 2013 at 11:16 am
Staff Reporter
Can a corporate giant also be a social entrepreneur? Nadia Boyce explores how education is putting the business back into the social and the social back into the business.

Staff Reporter | 18 September 2013 at 11:16 am


Business Education Embracing Social Benefit
18 September 2013 at 11:16 am

Can a corporate giant also be a social entrepreneur? Nadia Boyce explores how education is putting the business back into the social and the social back into the business.

Traditional notions of corporate social responsibility are recessing to make way for new philosophies of corporate engagement like shared value creation. With this shift, new business models of mutual benefit such a social enterprise. 

As corporate social intelligence advances and social sector organisations embrace profit-making models, the demand for education on these models increases. 

Business education is proving a capacity builder for the social sector, while models of mutual benefit are transforming the way business students embrace entrepreneurship.

The convergence of business and social principles in education is proving the way forward for many institutions in both the tertiary space and social sector.   

Turning business education on its head   

At its core, tertiary business education is embracing principles of social benefit at an unprecedented scale.  

Ian Williamson, Chair of Leadership for Social Impact and the Director of the Asia Pacific Social Impact Leadership Centre at Melbourne Business School (MBS) says business education is moving away from the sequential model of social impact, where profits are made and put into social causes afterwards.

MBS aims to develop a body of expertise on the intersection of commercial and social issues through research and pedagogy.

Williams says the approach has been to try to embed these topics into the curriculum.

Uptake has been good, Williamson says, with three quarters of the student cohort in the Graduate Certificate in Social Impact coming from MBA degrees.  

“Most students come to us wanting to make a positive impact on their communities. But a lot of them haven’t been exposed to ways they can use their commercial skills to do that at the same time,” he says.  

Dr Julie Roberts can empathise. She is the manager of the Social Enterprise Group at RMIT in Melbourne, which aims to support and encourage students to think about social enterprise as a viable option when they leave university.

“Although we’re based in the College of Business, we have more non-business students than business students,” she says.  

She recalls a recent event with TAFE business students where knowledge of the social potential of business seemed to be lacking.

“I didn’t get a strong sense of their social conscience,” she says.

In some cases, raising awareness has become a mission applying to more than just students, Roberts says.  

“Sometimes even academics in business may not make the connection with how social justice links into business practice,” she says.  

Business schools, Williamson says, mirror corporations in the variance of ways in which they approach social issues.

Some really understand their mission and are leading with in depth CSR programs and sustainability initiatives, while others are not, he says.

“Some see it as not their problem and peripheral to what a business school should do.”

Celia Hodson, head of the Sydney-based School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) which serves emerging social sector entrepreneurs, says universities are on the right track.

“Here in Australia universities have also had a strong mission. They’re looking at adding value to business via social outcomes and making community links.”

“I think it’d be pretty compelling for universities to have a compulsory social business module where previously it had been an add-on.”

Roberts says RMIT’s focus on social enterprise has proven a nice complement to the programs offered by other universities.

“I think we’re really fitting into a bit of a gap at the moment. Swinburne’s doing some great things in the philanthropy space and Melbourne in the CSR space.”

“We’re very much wanting to cooperate in this field,” Roberts says.

“To have sustainability and social business embedded in all programs across the university – I think that may be something our Vice Chancellor would like.

“Looking at organisations and developing businesses should be about integrating the triple bottom line. It should also be about recognising social impact more broadly,” she says.

Williamson agrees.

“You basically need to make it part of the education process and view social issues as part of the discussion of commercial issues,” he says.

“Social issues constrain markets. They’re part of the external environment you have to navigate. I don’t think you even need to teach CSR or shared value to understand that if you open a business in South Africa, it’s going to be impacted by HIV/AIDS.”

“Social issues don’t discriminate.”

By integrating social issues with business, Williamson says, “education can be far more impactful rather than treating them as two separate areas.”

“The future of business education is teaching people the basic skills like accounting, but we also have to apply that skill set to external environments which include social issues.”

“Business schools can be powerful agents of change in communities by addressing these issues through the use of commercial skill sets. We need to promote that,” he says.

Roberts says with great power comes great responsibility to educate.

“Because universities engage with young people who are right on the cusp of making choices about their careers, It’s really important for universities to expose people to a whole lot of possibilities.”

Sharing knowledge, sharing value  

Universities are certainly acting to educate on the possibilities of social impactful business models, reflecting the sector’s growing interest in shared value and mutual benefit.

Sally McGeoch, Communication Manager at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, says partnerships have proven useful for SSE where there is content that universities and specialists providers like them can share.

A fledgling relationship between Melbourne Business School (MBS) and The Crunch is also providing returns.

MBS students may choose the program as an elective and are partnered with an organisation taking part in The Crunch to help them develop their business capabilities. 

Williamson says involvement with social enterprise, where social objectives may be achieved with profit-making models, has helped MBA students think and understand that business can be more than an economic exchange.

Next year, the program will be expanded so that each social enterprise will be aided by a team of MBA students, and Williamson says that by 2015, the aim is to have participation compulsory for all students in the core MBA program.

The rise of socially impactful business in universities has not been confined to practical participation, however. The spread of awareness is also proving to be a powerful.

Celia Hodson from the SSE says that more information on social enterprise is emerging out of universities than ever before, whereas previously, organisations like SSE were its sole source.

“There are over 50 universities now actively nurturing social entrepreneurs, and universities are now specialising in social enterprise – that’s not a minority now.”

“There’s also a growing economy for getting students ready for work in social enterprise. All these things are bringing social enterprise and academia closer together,” she says.

“It’s now less of a push than a pull for information,” she says.

Hodson reinforces the significance of the model moving into the mainstream.

“Social entrepreneurship is not well understood and for a man in the street to know about it, that’ll be a real win,” she says.

Overseas programs such as that at Harvard Business School have led the way in social enterprise terms, providing rich and compelling resources for SSEs local students.

The movement is reaching its tipping point, she says.  

RMIT is also now providing support for social enterprise beyond education itself, through SEEDS, a program awarding small startup grants to RMIT students.

Manager Roberts says universities can give socially impactful models of business greater legitimacy.

“As a university we have an ideological and philosophical responsibility in our vision,” she says.

“We [RMIT Social Enterprise Group] see ourselves having a role both within RMIT and externally as well.”

The group recently hosted a Changemaker fortnight, featuring speakers and workshops around topics associated with social enterprise.

“We try and do at least one forum per year to get some further discussion out there,” Roberts says.

Lisa Boothby is the Head of Enterprise Investment Readiness at Social Traders, which runs The Crunch, an incubator program for social enterprise.

She sees universities as a channel to raise awareness, but advocates emphasis on the social, rather than business sector when it comes to social enterprise.

“The more that universities open up the understanding of social enterprises the better,” she says.

“I think there is room to educate and teach people about social enterprise – through both business and commerce focused courses as well as philanthropic investment focused courses such as Swinburne’s Master’s of Social Investment and Philanthropy.’  

"It is extremely important that investors and philanthropists are aware of social enterprise, as they are often a source of start-up funds for social enterprises.”

Capacity building the social sector

The Crunch and the SSE represent a new wave of boutique programs is aiming to equip the social sector with the business acumen to successfully implement social enterprises.

“The focus of the Crunch is to help social enterprise develop business capability to startup. They usually have strong social origins but don’t necessarily have market-facing focus,” Boothby says.

The six month program emphasises these practical aspects of business operation, through a process that can include business mentors, guest speakers and critique sessions.

“It’s not just a personal journey. We have a concrete focus at the end, which is for investment ready enterprises,” she says.

The Sydney-based School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) also serves emerging social sector entrepreneurs.

The school was founded in 1997 and now has branches in Australia, the UK and Canada.

Its emphasis is on helping people from all different backgrounds get their early-stage social enterprise ideas in motion, using practical, non-academic methods.  

Small peer group sessions focus on personal journeys and challenges, a learning style in contrast to a traditional university setting, Sally McGeoch says.

“It’s a powerful way of learning rather than having advice thrown at you”, McGeoch says.  “Its always interactive.”

“It’s as much about personal development as it is professional. It’s not uncommon for people to come to us feeling like they’ve found their tribe.”

McGeoch says the student base is diverse but that most are interested in social issues and the social sector and that many would not otherwise undertake university studies.

“The most common thing is that they are all passionate about meeting an unmet need.”

“All we ask is that you’re passionate and committed to your idea,” she says.  

While the social enterprise movement has been dominated by ideas emerging from the social sector, there have also been examples emerging from the private sector in recent years.

The Bread and Butter Project in Sydney was started by successful baker Paul Allam when he realised he could use his bakery successes for social impact.

Successes like Allam’s raise the question of whether the businessman can become a social entrepreneur, turning the usual process of social enterprise formation on its head.

Boothby says she is not convinced education and awareness can expand the reach of the model in the business sector, asserting it will be constrained by its social origins.

“Social enterprise ideas mainly come from people with a social justice mindset,” she says.  

“I don’t think that social enterprises will necessarily emerge from the business sector. Their primary purposes is usually the social focus, with business the mechanism.”

“The triple bottom line is a great concept but I don’t think we need to convert a whole lot of business people to solve a social problem. They’re already in every profession and every sector – financially,” she says.

Julie Roberts from RMIT is optimistic, suggesting that big things can come from small beginnings.

“It’s about planting the seed here and letting our students know ‘you can participate in change,’” she says.

Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

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