Diversity and Democracy

Social Innovation and Civic Engagement: Toward a Shared Future?

Look at the traffic in your email inbox over the last week. If your inbox looks like ours, take note of the number of emails you have received, from both internal and external colleagues, announcing a new undergraduate competition for the best innovative solution to a social problem, a new course on how to construct a business plan to start a social impact organization, or a competition for funding to start a new campus organization. To us, the volume of these emails is stunning, and it speaks to a broader trend in the higher education ecosystem.

Like many readers of Diversity & Democracy, we deeply believe in higher education’s civic mission and its critical goal of developing engaged citizens. The pursuit of this goal has evolved throughout the history of higher education, with two approaches now ascendant on many of our campuses—ensconced on some and nascent on others. These approaches can be categorized as social innovation and civic engagement.

In this article, we describe the contours and possible intersections of these approaches. But we begin with caveats and a bit of context. We both lead civic engagement efforts on our campuses, where we have worked with colleagues in social innovation and entrepreneurship to jointly create programs and sponsor events. On both of our campuses, we have brought together scholars and practitioners using these two approaches in order to clarify values and assumptions. Duke has included social innovation programs under its broadly conceived civic engagement program, DukeEngage. These partnerships are of great service to our students, faculty, and community partners.

However, viewing the broader landscape of higher education, we are concerned about and have noted the rapid advance of social innovation approaches that might benefit more productively from the civic engagement movement’s hard-earned knowledge about the most effective ways of achieving social change. For example, the civic engagement movement has learned much over the decades about how to consciously integrate community voice and assets into planning and action—though much work remains to ensure mutually beneficial outcomes, and the movement sometimes falls short of its aspirations of humility and reciprocity. We also wonder if social innovation and civic engagement approaches may themselves be competing for participants, partners, and resources. We raised these concerns in an essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (McBride and Mlyn 2015), which we followed by organizing a think tank attended in October 2015 by leading scholars, practitioners, and students of these two approaches. (The video stream of the think tank is archived at https://gephardtinstitute.wustl.edu/10-year-anniversary/a-think-tank-on-social-innovation-and-civic-engagement/.)

While we chart the landscape of strategies for social change represented by these two approaches in this article, other authors contributing to this issue of Diversity & Democracy explore the topic further. We are conscious that there will be exceptions to our generalizations, including perhaps your own experiences and work in this area. We invite conversation and debate with the hope that higher education will continue to contribute to social change and the development of engaged citizens, in part through fostering the kind of conversations about these two approaches that we aim to catalyze here. To us, there is no higher calling for our work.


The two approaches explored here go by various names, which can have different meanings on different campuses. We have chosen to use the language of social innovation because the term designates a more encompassing concept than social entrepreneurship, which tends to conjure up the individual entrepreneur and focuses generally on founding enterprises. In the first editor’s note in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, this leading journal defined social innovation as “the process of inventing, securing support for, and implementing novel solutions to social needs and problems” (quoted in Phills, Deiglmeier, and Miller 2008). Like social entrepreneurship, social innovation connotes the development and introduction of something new; but that new thing can be an idea, a device, or a process—not just an enterprise or an organization. The innovation is “social” because it intends to address some pressing problem affecting the human condition. Students can be involved in social innovation efforts in a variety of ways: by taking courses, completing internships, working on teams, participating in competitions, and engaging in a range of other activities.

Civic engagement is itself a contested concept, but the term has found favor in the last ten years, particularly when contrasted with other historic terms such as community outreach, public service, or community service. Thomas Ehrlich, a leading scholar in the field, defines civic engagement as a “means of working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes” (2000, vi). By emphasizing education about social issues and ways to address these issues and by placing a premium on students’ abilities to practice their civic skills in community contexts, this approach focuses not only on social change, but also on the development of engaged citizens. The civic engagement approach is predicated on action in order to develop democratic skills, which alumni may later apply in vocational and avocational pursuits as well as in simply being citizens of the world.

Values and Pedagogies

Within these broad conceptions, the fundamental values of the two approaches differ. Broadly described, social innovation values disruption and being the outsider, measurement of change, and a financial bottom line, while civic engagement values collaboration and working from within, the experience of change, and secondary financial success. These values can play out in higher education in the differences between teaching students to value proprietor versus partner, savior versus carpenter, problem solver versus community partner, and capital versus compassion.

Yet despite their differences, practitioners of the two approaches also share a common value: they aim to provide opportunities for students to “make a difference.” Both movements are capitalizing on the desire, primarily of millennials, to have a positive impact on their communities and world. This unifying value suggests the opportunity to find common ground upon which practitioners of the two approaches can work, potentially maximizing their impact. By working together, adherents to these approaches can also address our respective weaknesses: in the case of civic engagement, a potential focus on charity rather than change and a tendency toward small-scale (sometimes minimally effective) interventions; and in the case of social innovation, a potential lack of depth, respect, and follow-through.

The ways in which social innovation and civic engagement practitioners teach and inculcate their values across approaches are not dramatically different in form. Both approaches feature internships, applied coursework, community service, international trips, and group- or team-based programs. Competitions and hackathons are predominant in social innovation, while civic engagement favors service learning. This latter pedagogical difference reflects different values: while social innovation embraces the competition that is so fundamental to market-oriented approaches, service learning underscores collaboration. Similarly, some argue that civic engagement, in its most traditional form of service learning, is “the kind face of the neo-liberal University” (Radon and Harrison 2015, 134). One might extend the argument to social innovation, which might likewise be described as the “kind face” of the university’s market-based assumptions.

Differences in execution also reflect values. For example, on one of our campuses, social innovation internships are doubly paid: the partner not only pays the student for his or her time, but also pays the higher education institution for assigning the student. In contrast, most civic engagement experiences reflect a charity ideal, with the partners assuming the opportunity and transaction costs and the students volunteering their time. In these cases, the partnership infrequently focuses on systemic causes of, or systemic solutions for, social challenges. While community partners working with civic engagement programs often see themselves as coeducators right alongside the college or university, this is less often the case with social innovation.

Campus Context

Approaches to social innovation and civic engagement are as varied as our campuses. The presence and status of each differs dramatically depending on institutional mission and culture, which can be connected to an institution’s context as a community college, a four-year college, or a research university. For example, at community colleges, which are currently under intense pressure to offer vocational training to students, faculty and administrators may view social innovation as a mechanism for such training. In contrast, a four-year institution grounded in the liberal arts tradition may base its entire curriculum around civic engagement. But this binary may be shifting. We suspect that the increased attention being paid to job readiness at all kinds of institutions has led to the ascendance of social innovation approaches even on liberal arts campuses, where these approaches may be seen as preparing graduates for the world of work. Conversely, some community colleges may see their deep roots in the community as justification for civic engagement and may view their development of social entrepreneurs as a component of that engagement.

Approaches vary also by their administrative home within the institution. Social innovation approaches were birthed in business schools, while much civic engagement work has its roots in student affairs. Today, social innovation initiatives are increasingly campus wide, and civic engagement approaches often span academic and student affairs. Large research universities rarely declare a single home for either approach, with multiple offices sharing particular functions; alternatively, as social innovation and civic engagement have become campus-wide priorities, they may be centralized within provosts’ and even presidents’ offices.

On a given campus, the structure and culture of any approach will be reflected in who leads that approach, whether tenured or tenure-track faculty, adjunct faculty, or staff. Some approaches are encapsulated in singular projects, while others are supported by comprehensive institutes. Painting with a broad brush, civic engagement practitioners have endeavored to engage the humanities, as is manifested in the growth and prominence of the national organization Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. Social innovation practitioners, in contrast, tend to engage professional schools and applied disciplines.

In relation to the financing of social innovation and civic engagement efforts, the landscape is clearly evolving. While some recent major philanthropic gifts have been directed toward civic engagement initiatives, corporate, foundation, and major private gifts are increasingly being committed to social innovation. To the extent that the language and ethos of social innovation resonates for many who come from the for-profit world, philanthropic support for this work is likely to continue to grow. We cannot help but think that dialogue between the practitioners of these two approaches would yield a more even allocation of resources or might increase the size of the pie altogether.

Social Change Goals

As stated above, practitioners of both social innovation and civic engagement aim to “make a difference” in the world, typically the world beyond campus. The involvement of the larger world can take many forms across the various pedagogies named above, with community members filling different designated roles. Those working in social innovation tend to view the individuals affected by their work as clients, and may see students in the field as advisors or consultants serving community members who may fill the role of end users. In contrast, those working in civic engagement often position community members as experts and coeducators who best know the issues at hand because they live those issues.

Though both social innovation and civic engagement approaches are present in domestic and international contexts, we suspect that more practitioners in the international sphere are embracing social innovation than civic engagement. It may be that the increased globalization of our campuses has served as impetus for the ascendance of social innovation, or that the global context seems to some like fertile ground for the inherent experimentation that comes with innovation. Depending on one’s perspective, social innovations implemented abroad may seem like effective ways of addressing pressing social problems, or they may seem like forms of neo-imperialism. This is not to say that civic engagement approaches are able to overcome all of these obstacles—in fact, they often fall prey to the very same pitfalls, leaving community partners dependent and without the additional capacity they need.

In both domestic and international contexts, our students aim to address a range of issues, including hunger, homelessness, poverty, illness, and violence. These social issues exist within, and are created and maintained by, political contexts. Whether designed to address formal governmental policy or the power dynamics of a local community, our students’ change-making efforts are short-sighted if they do not take into account these broader contexts. Much evidence suggests that our students view their innovations and their charity as substitutes for failed governance, but students working outside of governmental processes still need political skills to effect change (Zukin et al. 2006). Even innovative approaches to social change—such as Teach for America and City Year—ultimately rely on some governmental resources to achieve scale. And yet, both social innovation and civic engagement approaches are deficient in their teaching on policy and politics. Although some conceptions of civic engagement are broad enough to include politics and policy (see, for example, Erlich 2000), fundamentally, both social innovation approaches and civic engagement in its most common form (service learning) eschew politics.

Going Forward

Much more needs to be known about how social innovation and civic engagement approaches contribute to the development of engaged citizens. This issue of Diversity & Democracy begins to chart the landscape. As these approaches continue their ascendancy, we are left with several key questions.

What student learning outcomes are we achieving, and how are we achieving them? An engaged citizen is defined by a composite of civic attitudes, knowledge, and skills. Practitioners of social innovation and civic engagement may share overarching goals, but we likely develop different aspects of engaged citizens. As others have asserted elsewhere, the making of engaged citizens involves a nuanced educational process (Colby et al. 2003). A relatively robust literature on both student and community outcomes has emerged from the civic engagement movement, and the social innovation movement might benefit from adapting and expanding on this scholarship. Both movements should apply the tools of social and behavioral science to ascertain the effects of their work on students.

How can we work together (and when should we not)? Social innovation and civic engagement approaches have complementary strengths, which if combined may increase the effectiveness of both. The social innovation sector brings creativity, a focus on design, and skills in program development and communication. The civic engagement sector brings attention to the voices of community members, concerns for the impact on human beings, and consideration of the long-term sustainability of efforts. By combining these strengths, social innovation approaches may be more likely to develop solutions to problems, and civic engagement approaches may be more likely to develop civic leaders who can marshal support for these innovations. Indeed, we are excited about the synergies that have and will continue to emerge, in our work and across higher education.

As a practical matter, how can we explore the connections between the two approaches on our campuses? We have found that conversations between practitioners of the two approaches do not happen often enough. To be sure, there are notable exceptions; but these conversations occur across languages as different as our methods, our approaches to training faculty and staff leaders, our associated disciplinary fields, and so on. With more opportunities for dialogue among practitioners across fields, we are confident that these important conversations will advance.

Clearly, as civic engagement practitioners, we feel cautious about the emergence of social innovation as a guiding framework for social change in higher education. But we also are humbled by the unavoidable observation that the ascendant focus on higher education’s civic mission has not coincided with the emergence of a more just and equitable society. We hope that this issue of Diversity & Democracy will inspire a critical discussion, and we look forward to a possible shared future between these two approaches. Our students and world deserve our shared commitment to this work.


Colby, Anne, Thomas Ehrlich, Elizabeth Beaumont, and Jason Stephens. 2003. Educating Citizens: Preparing America’s Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ehrlich, Thomas, ed. 2000. Civic Responsibility and Higher Education. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

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.

Phills, James A., Jr., Kriss Deiglmeier, and Dale T. Miller. 2008. “Rediscovering Social Innovation.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall. http://ssir.org/articles/entry/rediscovering_social_innovation.

Raddon, Mary-Beth, and Barbara Harrison. 2015. “Is Service-Learning the Kind Face of the Neo-Liberal University?” Canadian Journal of Higher Education 45 (2): 134–53.

Zukin, Cliff, Scott Keeter, Molly Andolina, Krista Jenkins, and Michael X. Delli Carpini. 2006. A New Engagement?: Political Participation, Civic Life, and the Changing American Citizen. New York: Oxford University Press.

Amanda Moore McBride is Milton Morris Dean and professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver and formerly executive director of the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement at Washington University in St. Louis. Eric Mlyn is assistant vice provost for civic engagement, Peter Lange Executive Director of DukeEngage, and lecturer in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

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