18 Sep 2017

Chronicling a Legacy of Alumni Social Impact

Professor emeritus Howard Stevenson examines the breadth and depth of HBS alumni involvement in and support of social causes
by Julia Hanna


Howard Stevenson (photo by Stuart Cahill)

As former dean of External Relations, longtime faculty member Howard Stevenson met individually with more than 1,000 alumni while leading the School’s successful capital campaign, from 2002 to 2006. That experience got him to thinking.

Undoubtedly, alumni were making a difference at HBS. Yet Stevenson also saw ample evidence of alumni involvement in causes that extend beyond the School. He was interested to know of the breadth and depth of this commitment to social impact. He also wanted to know what motivated it, as well of its ultimate impact.

In March 2016, Stevenson and a team of researchers launched a project to better understand and communicate that impact. To date, the team has interviewed some 200 alumni, conducted archival and secondary research, and compiled a database of 1,050 examples of alumni who are tackling social issues.

The team also surveyed 13 MBA classes, ranging from 1955 to 2015, to discern the nature of such philanthropy, which researchers defined broadly as contributions of “time, talent, and treasure.” A few key findings from the 1,020 responses: philanthropy is “extremely” or “very” important to more than 63 percent of respondents; a sense of responsibility is the primary motivation (84 percent); and almost half of the survey’s participants focus their attention on a few organizations the support varied causes (education, health, and community and economic development, are the top three concerns).

Stevenson notes that alumni attitudes toward addressing some of society’s principal challenges are developed, in part, through exposure to the HBS classroom’s unique approach to learning. “The case method teaches students to identify a problem and try to solve it,” Stevenson observes. “Knowledge is transitory, but the problem-solving skills developed here last a lifetime. Students know that they are expected to rise to the challenge.”

Stevenson emphasizes that alumni have a long legacy of addressing societal challenges. In today’s landscape, there are many ways in which to have an impact, including board service and volunteering; for-profit ventures with a social mission; nonprofit leadership; venture philanthropy; and impact investing. It’s a lifetime journey, too.

“Part of what we’re excited to see is that there is no one path,” says Stevenson.

The team’s research is being mined for a book for the HBS community that is scheduled to be released in November 2018. The book—with the working title Making a Difference: How HBS Alumni Tackle Social Problems—will describe the School’s legacy of social responsibility; offer a broad look at how alumni are engaged in addressing today’s social problems; show how social impact can evolve over a person’s lifetime; and relate some of the experiences shared by HBS alumni.

“We’re constantly stunned by the breadth and depth of what people are doing,” says Stevenson. “Clearly, having a social impact is important and deeply satisfying for many alumni. That’s what we’re interested in understanding and sharing, for the benefit of students who are looking for role models as well as for alumni who are eager to make a difference in the world by working on social problems.”


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