Can an MBA boost your impact and career?

In October, Curtis Chang at the Stanford Social Innovation Review shared a few management tips for nonprofit leaders based on lessons taught in MBA programs. While he notes the challenges in pursuing an MBA – including cost and time – we know that many people are considering graduate school to help them develop these skills and we are excited to see that MBA programs are expanding their offerings to include a greater focus on social impact. To explore this topic more, we’ve invited Net Impact — a nonprofit that helps business school students and professionals leverage their talent for social change — to share more about the growth of these programs and how we might use them to increase our impact.

By Kyle Skahill

Net Impact, Business as UNusual

If you’ve never really thought an MBA could help you amplify your impact, consider this: more and more business schools are restructuring their programs and incorporating sustainability and social impact issues into their curriculum. In fact, the number of programs featured in Business as UNusual, our guide to impact MBA programs, has grown 170% since we first started publishing it in 2006. That means the tools, opportunities, and connections you gain from today’s impact MBA programs offer newfound potential to create the change you want to see.

Here are a few other ways an MBA might help you advance your career and ability to make a difference:

1)     Expand your impact opportunities

Innovative cross-sector collaborations are opening new avenues for change, so a working understanding of other sectors may be an eye-opener. Business models are changing rapidly, from the rise of B-corporations to unconventional start-ups to cross-sector partnerships – so options abound post-graduation for nontraditional integration of business skills into your career for good.

Who knows, you might even discover opportunities you never considered. Kirsten Tobey was a teacher focusing on experiential education when she realized her interests were increasingly drawn to the bigger-picture issues around food accessibility. So she enrolled in business school, attended a cross-disciplinary product design class, and graduated with the idea for Revolution Foods, which has now served more than 50 million healthy meals to school children nationwide.

This year’s Business as UNusual suggests Kirsten isn’t alone: while entering MBA students came largely from traditional corporations and nonprofits, students’ aspirations post-MBA shifted markedly to include start-ups, social enterprise, and other mission-driven companies (see graphic). It’s clear that the MBA experience opened students’ eyes to a wider set of paths toward making change.

2)     Build your impact-making skills

Nonprofits demand leadership, innovative thinking, and responsive problem solving skills if they expect to make progress on the world’s most serious issues. And they need hard skills like project management, finance, and strategy to galvanize that progress. MBA programs incorporating social and environmental issues give students the chance to develop those skills, while applying them to the issues they care about most.

As one Business as UNusual student respondent wrote about his program, “a deep dive into sustainability through all sectors of the curricula, as well as leadership development, prepares one to implement social and environmental policy in business, one’s community, and our planet’s future.”

But in addition to your own skill building, an understanding of the models and language fundamental to the business sector will be an asset in conversations with partners, sponsors, and stakeholders. Dan Winterson, program director at the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, describes his work on initiatives like the foundation’s Forever Costa Rica effort involving multiple funders and NGOs. “We talk about applying Wall Street principles to conservation because it’s a big project to finance,” he explains. “It’s a big ‘deal,’ essentially, where there are number of conditions that need to be in place before the deal can close. That’s an example where a business background and financial skills are crucial. And I think you see more and more of that in the environmental conservation field.”

3)     Build a network for lifelong impact

The fact remains that a large part of business school’s clout rests on the students and alumni you meet and the doors that this cadre of professionals can open for you. And if you’re an aspiring impact-maker, you’ll find more like-minded students in your MBA cohort than ever before. In this year’s guide, 77% of business students reported that their peers are also prioritizing impact careers in their post-graduation job search. These contacts often translate into future volunteers, partners, employees, and donors instrumental to your organization’s continued viability.

On the first day of that cross-disciplinary product design class, Kirsten Tobey had already started thinking about how to get students eating healthier. So when a classmate – who would become her future business partner – held up a less-than-nutritious lunch she’d just purchased and wondered if there was a better alternative, it was kismet. “We looked at each other across the room,” says Kirsten, “and that was the beginning of a great friendship and partnership.”

With so many MBA programs addressing social and sustainability issues (Business as UNusual 2012 features more than one hundred) to choose from, it’s safe to say that business school is no longer the exclusive domain of the corporate world. The b-school now offers social sector professionals a way to build valuable networks, hone critical skills, and discover new opportunities for impact – and that is a change for the best.

Kyle Skahill is the Community Program Fellow at Net Impact, a leading nonprofit empowering a new generation of leaders to work for a sustainable future. Business as UNusual, the organization’s annual guide to impact MBA programs, can be downloaded free at:

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Podcast: Net Impact's Corporate Careers that Make a Difference

By Amy Potthast.

Can you make the world more sustainable by working for a corporation?featured

According to Net Impact and its free, downloadable career guide Corporate Careers that Make a Difference, you can.

Everyday, business leaders make a positive environmental and social impact in their companies – both in dedicated green jobs, as well as in more conventional job functions.

On this episode of the Idealist Careers Podcast, Idealist’s Amy Potthast chats with Abby Davisson from Net Impact, a national nonprofit dedicated to engaging business in making the world sustainable, and Yonnie Leung, Principal of Environmental Sustainability for Shared Services at Pacific Gas and Electric Company in California and one of the professionals profiled in the Net Impact career guide.

During the conversation, they also briefly mention Net Impact’s Business as UNusual Guide to MBA programs that have a focus on corporate citizenship. The 2011 Guide launches this week; if you’re in the market for MBA programs, you can download it free from Net Impact. You can meet many of the schools mentioned in Business as UNusual this fall at the Idealist Grad Fairs taking place across the country.

Ready to listen? Download the show or subscribe in iTunes.

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at

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Go-to resources for meaningful careers in each sector

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at

Plotting your next career move? Here’s a sampling of comprehensive go-to resources from the career experts in each sector: corporate citizenship, government, or nonprofit.

Corporate citizenship careers

Net Impact’s Corporate Careers that Make a Difference is a guide to pursuing a career in corporate citizenship either by pushing the boundaries in a more traditional corporate role or by taking on a role specifically dedicated to social or environmental impact. The book shares the stories of dozens of professionals who have blazed trails in this work; it also describes key corporate citizenship career competencies (useful both to help you develop your skills as well as to talk about them during a job search).

Net Impact is a membership organization that is inspiring new generations of professionals who put their business skills to work for social and environmental change across sectors through chapter networks, resources, and outreach to MBA students and schools.

You can download the sneak peek here.


Federal jobs by region: image from

Federal careers is a website from Partnership for Public Service that introduces pathways to federal government careers. The site explains what the cabinet departments are, what the federal agencies are; describes the diverse roles federal workers play in their careers; offers informational interviews with federal workers; clarifies what and where federal jobs are (did you know that most are not in Washington, D.C.?) as well as internships.

Partnership for Public Service is a nonpartisan organization that attracts young leaders to federal government service through education, advocacy, and resources that demystify the federal job search and clarify pathways to public-sector service.

Nonprofit Careers

Available both in print and online, the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for Sector Switchers is an A to Z look at landing a job in the nonprofit sector for professionals who started their careers in other sectors. From helping job seekers understand what the sector is (and isn’t) all the way to closing the deal — or starting a new nonprofit instead.

The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for First-Time Job Seekers (also available in print and online) features similar content by introducing new professionals to career concepts and skills they may be less familiar with.

A companion to both of these guides is Service Corps to Social Impact Career — a guide I wrote for national and international service participants and recent alumni of all ages. Only available online (and free), the book helps corps members prepare for their post-service career transition, explore career options, and translate their service experience during the job search, and settle into a new professional role.

Finally, Making a Difference: A Guide to Personal Profit in a Nonprofit World (also online, also free) from Idealist and the National Endowment for Financial Education offers financial guidance for recent college graduates who are contemplating a nonprofit career and concerned about making ends meet. The book discusses topics like student loans, budgeting, salary search, cost of living, credit and retirement plans.

Of course, there are other sector-specific career guides. What are your favorites? How have they helped you succeed?

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