Instructing for Impact: US Social Finance Education is More Than a Course

29 Nov

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on

I began my research with the intention of learning about individual course offerings for social finance – the umbrella term I will use for impact investing, microfinance, and responsible investing – at different universities in the United States. However, I quickly realized that the universities I had targeted were doing much more than teaching courses in social finance. These universities teach students about social finance by sending them abroad, facilitating consulting opportunities, hosting business model competitions, connecting them to internships, and involving them in research.

Typically, students begin with a more traditional lecture or case-based course, which then opens up consulting, research, and internship opportunities. Some university programs are integrating several mediums of learning into one course. The Impact Investment course at Harvard Business School uses a more traditional classroom approach while simultaneously running consulting projects with organizations in the field.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Sorenson Global Impact Investing (SGII) Center at the University of Utah doesn’t provide traditional coursework at all. Instead, they empower student teams that work on projects sourced from the impact investing space, and provide weekly trainings on different elements of the due diligence process.

“It’s not necessarily that we have this incredible classroom curriculum where they’re able to learn all of the skills,” says Patrick Mullen, Associate Director at SGII Center, “because the only way they’re going to learn a lot of these skills is actually by doing them and actually being in the field.”

Mullen is one of a growing number of educators trying to address this point. In a space as dynamic – and often ambiguous – as social finance, a panoply of hands-on experience is especially important. Professors are trying to show students that impact investing is not just an equation or a procedure. Context, due diligence, and impact measurement are different on every deal, and none of them can be overlooked. Understanding and applying that is essential for students who want to work in social finance space.

Scott Kleiman – graduate of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and now practitioner in the space of the CASE i3 program – notes, “you end up emerging from Duke being able to say, ‘I’ve done this stuff.’ And this is an extraordinarily competitive job marketplace right now.”

Universities interested in creating or expanding social finance offerings must now think beyond traditional lectures or case-based courses. These work well as introductions to social finance, but because of the emerging nature of the space, universities need to incorporate more engaging opportunities.

It’s surprising how little prior exposure students need to social finance before they can engage with organizations effectively. Undergraduate students who take the impact investing course at Rollins College enter with little experience in social finance. During the course, students work on funding due diligence and recommendations for the Community Foundation of Central Florida. Last semester, every dollar of the $87,000 in funding recommendations these students made was approved.

Students interested in social finance should not underestimate the value of experiential learning opportunities that will give them field experience. A student looking through course catalogs might completely overlook the University of Utah and miss out on the incredibly rich learning experience created by the SGII Center. In my experience, there really is no entry-level position in the social finance space. Employers require applicants have at  least 2-3 years of experience and a strong understanding of their focus area.

My advice to students? Find a university where you can gain that experience while in school.

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Posted by on November 29, 2013 in Economy 2.0


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