Diversity and Democracy

Independent, Coexisting, Collaborating? How Institutions Are Organizing Their Efforts for Social Impact

For several years, I have studied how the civic engagement and social entrepreneurship movements claim their respective places on university and college campuses. How do these movements, which for decades have argued for their own centrality—in institutional mission, in the curriculum, in disciplines, and in reward and recognition systems—make their case and establish a foothold? In this article, I share research I have conducted at ten higher education institutions that are investing in both social innovation initiatives and civic engagement programs as key ways of structuring student learning for social change.

Separate but Connected

At first glance, the civic engagement movement and the social innovation movement appear to have much in common. Both are oriented to the community, both seek to change the world, and both argue that students ought to gain skills, dispositions, and attitudes that will position them to be critical thinkers and active doers. But there are important differences as well. Advocates of social entrepreneurship may argue that civic engagement is too comfortable with charity-oriented approaches to community engagement, too focused on student learning, and too little concerned with making sustained impact on communities. Countering, proponents of civic engagement contend that social entrepreneurs are too enamored with business thinking, too focused on launching new organizations, and too prone to ignore the need for civic participation and community involvement (McBride and Mlyn 2015).

Each movement is following a similar path toward institutionalization in the academy—creating definitions and boundaries around its respective field, founding journals, organizing conferences, and establishing programs of study with majors, minors, and certificates. Each field has been influenced by national organizations that are committed to creating and recognizing civic engagement and social innovation programs that are sustainable, academically rigorous, and connected to the core mission of the institution. Promoting community engagement is the three-decade-old Campus Compact, a network of more than 1,100 campuses supported by thirty-four state offices—a sizable measure of this work in the academy. Advancing social entrepreneurship and social innovation is Ashoka U, which has tracked the steady growth of this work on campuses through increasing numbers of social entrepreneurship courses connected to academic programs, faculty involved in teaching these courses, centers and incubators for innovative work, and funding dedicated to these efforts (Ashoka U 2014).

Recognizing that commitment to either community engagement or social entrepreneurship requires broad dedication of resources and institutional leadership beyond a few committed faculty members, the two movements have developed standards or benchmarks for measuring institutionalization. In relation to civic engagement, such measurement takes the form of the Carnegie Foundation’s Community Engagement Classification, where the goal of community engagement is to “prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good” (New England Resource Center for Higher Education 2015). In relation to social entrepreneurship, Ashoka U recognizes campus commitment through its Changemaker Campus designation, which identifies campuses that inspire students “to create meaningful lives and powerful change in the world” (Ashoka U 2015). Recognition by the Carnegie Foundation and Ashoka U signals that a college or university is committed to these practices and supports them broadly across the institution. Each designation requires documentation and self-study and reveals much about how campuses are organizing around engagement.

Organizing for Engagement

As of May 2015, ten campuses in the United States had been recognized both by the Carnegie Foundation for their leadership in civic engagement and by Ashoka U for their leadership in social entrepreneurship: Arizona State University, Cornell University, Duke University, Marquette University, Middlebury College, Portland State University, Rollins College, Tulane University, the University of San Diego, and Western Washington University. These campuses paint an interesting picture of organization for engagement that draws on both civic engagement and social entrepreneurship. The ten campuses represent an array of institutional types, from small selective liberal arts colleges to large public research universities, and include a variety of public and private master’s- and doctoral-degree-granting institutions. Among these institutions, undergraduate enrollments range from 2,500 students at Middlebury College to over 68,000 at Arizona State University. The ten campuses include some with strong reputations for civic involvement, like Tulane and Portland State University; some with strong traditions of social justice, like the University of San Diego; and some with long traditions of experiential education, like Cornell.

How do these very different campuses, all sharing commitments to both civic engagement and social entrepreneurship, organize work in these areas? During spring 2015, I conducted phone interviews with leaders and staff members of the campuses’ social entrepreneurship and civic engagement programs to better understand how they were working together (or not) to advance their respective practices. I also interviewed thought leaders in both fields, as well as the directors of the state Campus Compact offices where the ten campuses were located, to get a broad perspective on how these fields were emerging and developing on a state and national level as well as on the campus stage. 

The individuals I interviewed and the campuses they represented used a great variety of terms to describe this work. On different campuses, different terms predominated, including engaged learning and research, service learning, social entrepreneurship, innovation, community engagement, social justice, social responsibility, community-based learning, community-oriented research, public service, social embeddedness, community and economic development, and community-connected teaching, learning, and research. This variety indicates how differently the work is manifested, depending on how each campus understands its mission and focus and how it organizes its community-oriented work.

As I conducted the interviews, important differences emerged in where civic engagement and social entrepreneurship programs were located on each campus. Reflecting variations in size and operational complexity, some campuses had centralized their civic engagement and social entrepreneurship efforts within a few offices, while others had multiple centers, institutes, and initiatives located throughout, some serving either practice exclusively. Staff support might be located in stand-alone centers focused on supporting students and faculty and developing and managing partnerships; faculty might also find support through centers for faculty development, teaching, and innovation. Programs focused on either practice might be located in a variety of different offices and divisions: the office of the provost, the division of student affairs, offices of outreach and partnerships, and other places.

On some campuses, most programming was centered and supported through the cocurriculum, with minimal engagement occurring in academic programs and little buy-in from faculty or leaders in academic affairs. On others, civic engagement and social entrepreneurship were key elements of academic identity and programs. Civic engagement might be a general education requirement that exists outside of departments, or it might be present in courses across departments that were organized through majors, minors, and certificate programs. On some campuses, immersion in civic engagement served as a precursor to social entrepreneurship, with the premise that students needed deep engagement with the community before they could launch new organizations using entrepreneurial approaches.

Some interviewees indicated that colleagues at their institutions viewed civic engagement as a practice more at home in the liberal arts, and social entrepreneurship as more aligned with business school priorities—indicating two competing or perhaps complementary versions of how different disciplines might engage with the community. Despite these and other differences, institutions had found creative ways to facilitate the exchange of ideas. Some campuses had organized hubs that brought together several types of effort for social impact—including civic engagement, social entrepreneurship, and other streams of community engagement—for information sharing and joint programming. Others had established advisory councils to examine how best to organize work that connected the university with the community. 

Multiple Paths, Many Tools, and Several Fronts

My findings on civic engagement and social entrepreneurship initiatives suggest important questions about higher education’s ultimate aims in engaging with the community. Each movement offers a useful mirror to the other as practitioners consider together how to teach students what they need know about citizenship, broadly defined, in the twenty-first century.

Consider the project of addressing food insecurity in our communities. Those who want to encourage students to engage with this problem in collaboration with community partners could send students to work in the local food bank or organize a food drive, thus exposing them to the issue and helping them understand root causes while gaining civic awareness. Or we could challenge students to think about the multiple ways in which they could make an impact on the issue: by working with local social entrepreneurs who are outfitting a food truck that delivers healthy food to neighborhoods located in food deserts, by collaborating with a local nonprofit on a campaign to raise the minimum wage, or by organizing a community garden where local residents and students can grow fresh food to distribute to local shelters. There are multiple paths to making social impact while, at the same time, teaching students a broad array of techniques and helping them acquire a variety of tools for twenty-first-century citizenship. 

The unique culture of a campus, its history of engagement, whether members of the campus community see civic engagement as a cocurricular enterprise or the heart of the curriculum, whether the institution has a mission statement that broadly or narrowly defines and supports work with community—all these elements set the foundation for the next stage of an institution’s efforts for social impact. It would be hazardous to suggest a single way forward across higher education given the array of institutional contexts, missions, visions, leadership concerns, and resources.

Nonetheless, campuses can develop languages, fitting to their individual contexts, that incorporate service learning, social entrepreneurship, community organizing, philanthropy, community-based research, deliberative democracy, and other approaches to social change or social impact under a broad umbrella of citizenship and engagement. We can organize these languages using frameworks that support the broad civic purposes of higher education, that build upon a commitment to collective impact or that support the broad and deep learning goals articulated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (see http://www.aacu.org/leap/what-is-a-liberal-education). We should be helping students understand that different social problems require different approaches, and not every social problem is best addressed by creating a new business plan or recruiting more volunteers. By considering efforts for social impact broadly, we can make inroads within our institutions toward broader conversations about the purposes of higher education.

Several models of broader engagement already exist. Minnesota Campus Compact’s Social Change Wheel provides a framework of ten different tools for community engagement, including volunteerism, community-based research, voting and political activities, social entrepreneurship, protests and demonstrations, and other actions (Minnesota Campus Compact 2013). The Social Change Wheel can be used with college students and with members of the larger community to build skills of democratic engagement. The Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University has created a model of six Pathways of Public Service and Civic Engagement that can be used to help students understand their own inclinations and identify opportunities for public service (Stanford University, n.d.). These examples suggest how campuses might extend their work in both the curriculum and the cocurriculum. In addition, I have developed a schema called the Community Engagement Toolbox, which highlights approaches to social change like conscious consumerism, storytelling, case-making, and organizational support and infrastructure development in addition to direct service, civic work, philanthropy, community-engaged research, community organizing, and social entrepreneurship (Enos 2015). A framework like this opens up opportunities for faculty and student engagement. Campuses can tailor this and other frameworks to their communities and campus cultures.

Through the discussions and debates about language and the challenges we put forth to our college and university communities, we can claim a common interest in the shared goal of educating citizens—individuals who understand the power of social movements, and who know when to apply business principles and when to pursue civic action. It would be an important accomplishment if we as educators and our students could understand the power we hold not only as citizens but also as consumers; if we could understand the power and pitfalls of philanthropy; if we could understand the importance of community involvement; if we could understand and measure impact and could work collectively to solve social problems. By seeking broader frameworks for our work, we can consider how disciplines across the university can connect via shared goals for social impact. By stipulating principles of engagement that underlie our work in the community no matter what form that engagement takes—whether civic engagement, social entrepreneurship, or other approaches—we can teach students to become active, engaged, and thoughtful members of society.


Ashoka U. 2014. Trends in Social Innovation Education 2014. Arlington, VA: Ashoka U.

———. 2015. “Changemaker Campus: Overview.” http://ashokau.org/programs/changemaker-campus/#more.

Enos, Sandra L. 2015. Service-Learning and Social Entrepreneurship in Higher Education: A Pedagogy of Social Change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

McBride, Amanda Moore, and Eric Mlyn. 2015. “Innovation Alone Won’t Fix Social Problems.” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2. http://chronicle.com/article/Innovation-Alone-Won-t-Fix/151551.

Minnesota Campus Compact. 2013. “Social Change Wheel.” Civic Leadership Initiative Online. http://www.mncampuscompact.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/social-change-wheel.pdf.

New England Resource Center for Higher Education. 2015. “Carnegie Community Engagement Classification.” http://nerche.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=341&Itemid-92.

Stanford University. n.d. “Public Service Pathways.” Haas Center for Public Service. http://studentaffairs.stanford.edu/haas/about/strategicplan/pathways.

Sandra Enos is associate professor of sociology at Bryant University.

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