Diversity and Democracy

Public Service and Civic Engagement: Multiple Pathways to Social Change

We recently met a student, “Andy,” who was interested in scaling up a social venture he had launched in high school that involved donating the proceeds from bottled water sold in the United States to provide clean water in underdeveloped communities in Africa. When asked whether the venture was a nonprofit, Andy dismissed the idea outright, explaining that nonprofits are beholden to donors and cannot market products or services. Our conversation suggested two things: first, Andy had a poor understanding of both social entrepreneurship and nonprofit operations; and second, he believed that social entrepreneurship was the best mechanism for positive social change and that other forms of engagement were inherently inferior.

Andy is just one of many students who come to college with a narrow view of the “right” way to create positive social change. While Andy came to Stanford, as many students do, to take advantage of the institution’s rich ecosystem for innovation with a social impact, we could just as easily cite stories of activists who reflexively reject market-based approaches to change or policy wonks who view activists as posers. This narrowness isn’t restricted to students: the number of specialized higher education-oriented professional associations, national projects, and conferences dedicated to supporting and promoting particular forms of engagement has expanded dramatically over the past decade. The cultural, pedagogical, and aesthetic norms of these efforts vary greatly.

In spite of these differences, we educators should encourage students to be cautious about adopting an “us versus them” mentality. Particularly in today’s polarized political landscape, we want students to avoid the dismissiveness that can accompany deeply held convictions. We must provide frameworks to help students understand and critically analyze the full range of diverse levers for social change and the multiple possible paths toward positive impact in various communities.

Moving Beyond Narrow Approaches

In 2010, as Stanford University’s Haas Center for Public Service was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, we sought to devise a pluralistic framework for civic engagement that would address our concern about angularity while weaving together the rich tapestry of existing campus support for specific forms of civic engagement, public service, and innovation. We developed the Pathways of Public Service and Civic Engagement framework as a “big tent” approach with the idea that there is no single best way to create a more just and sustainable world, and that students must be adept at working and partnering across sectors to effect change on complex issues. The pathways were informed by a review of efforts across Stanford’s campus; by work occurring at other campuses, including the Social Change Wheel developed by Minnesota Campus Compact (n.d.); and by prior frameworks (see, e.g., Coles 1993).

The pathways describe a range of possible ways in which individuals can contribute to the common good. They intersect and overlap, demonstrating the interdependent nature of this work, and they allow for the possibility that people will move in and out of different pathways over time. The pathways are

  • direct service: giving personal time, energy, or resources to address immediate community needs or priorities;
  • community-engaged learning and research: enriching knowledge of and informing action on critical social issues by connecting coursework and research to community-identified concerns;
  • activism: the process of involving, educating, and mobilizing individual or collective action to influence or persuade others;
  • philanthropy: the voluntary redistribution of resources by individuals and institutions;
  • policy/politics: participating in processes of democratic self-governance; and
  • social entrepreneurship: creating or expanding organizational structures that adopt ethical and effective business practices and/or generate market-oriented responses to solve social problems (Haas Center 2010).

Like any attempt to classify concepts, this typology might seem too broad or too narrow, depending on the context in which it is applied. Thus rather than suggest a perfect means of grouping concepts, the pathways are intended to illuminate possibilities.

Exploring Tensions Within and Between Pathways

We encourage students to think about each pathway in terms of the sense of identity it confers, its language and jargon, its normative practices and hierarchies, and the power structures it requires individuals to navigate. We also work with students to explore, in a holistic way, the tensions and intersections within and between the different approaches to civic engagement. We want the framework to foster critical dialogue about the tensions across predispositions, putting the anticapitalist activist, the libertarian social entrepreneur, and the venture philanthropist in conversation with each other rather than in separate echo chambers of like-minded peers.

Our goal is to help students develop more nuanced understandings of the various levers of social change, the limitations of each, and how different pathways can bolster and complement each other—or, conversely, constructively challenge and serve as corrective forces to each other. We want students to weigh doubts about the government’s ability as a slow-moving bureaucracy to respond to residents’ needs alongside concerns about the unintended outcomes associated with the speed of market-driven approaches to social change that may hurt more than help the most vulnerable. While a student may have a predisposition to a particular pathway, our goal is to enable all students to locate their work within the larger ecosystem of public service and its social, political, and economic contexts.

Stanford is already known for innovation and entrepreneurship; but this year, the university launched Cardinal Service, an institution-wide initiative to elevate and expand service as a distinctive feature of a Stanford education. Cardinal Service is undergirded by the Haas Center’s twin engines of social change: the pathways framework and Stanford’s Principles of Ethical and Effective Service, which include reciprocity through partnership, respect for diversity, understanding cultural context, and humility, among others. The principles and pathways frameworks are essential to the elevation and expansion of work done across campus to prepare students to be lifelong engaged citizens.

Piloting a Tool for Advising, Planning, and Research

In 2014–15, the Haas Center advanced the pathways framework by piloting a diagnostic tool for use in undergraduate advising across higher education institutions, programs, and courses (Haas Center for Public Service 2014). The tool helps students develop insight into their interests and predispositions regarding social change across the different pathways.

Over the last two years, we have refined the tool with input from various postsecondary institutions (representating the full spectrum of Carnegie classifications) and through workshops and webinars hosted by Campus Compact, NASPA, and partner institutions. Through this process, the tool has evolved to serve three interrelated purposes: namely, helping the faculty and staff who use it (1) improve the quality of advising with individual students; (2) understand the needs and desires of students, and use that understanding to guide programming; and (3) conduct longitudinal research regarding college student predispositions.

In the past year, twenty-six colleges and universities have joined an international working group dedicated to using and refining the tool. The tool has been used in a variety of settings—including individual student advising, classes and workshops, leadership program cohorts, residential learning environments, and campus service fairs—and has been translated for use at several institutions in China.

We invite you to explore the tool and learn about the international working group at http://bit.ly/pathwaysgroup. The Haas Center also has created a guide for advising students in exploring service pathways, available at http://bit.ly/pathwaysadvisingguide.


The second law of thermodynamics states that an isolated system’s entropy never decreases. Without exception, our social and environmental challenges are likewise becoming increasingly complex. So, too, are the means at our disposal to address these challenges. The Pathways of Public Service and Civic Engagement provide a framework to support students and bring coherency to diverse efforts within a rich ecosystem of individuals, organizations, and networks all working to create a more just and sustainable world.


Coles, Robert. 1993. The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Haas Center for Public Service. 2010. “Pathways of Public Service.” Stanford, CA: Stanford University. https://haas.stanford.edu/about/about-haas-center/pathways-public-service

———. 2014. “Pathways of Public Service and Civic Engagement Diagnostic Tool.” Stanford, CA: Stanford University. http://tinyurl.com/pathwaystool.

Minnesota Campus Compact. n.d. Social Change Wheel.

Thomas Schnaubelt is executive director and Colleen SchwartzCoffey is communications director at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University.

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