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Social Enterprise Masters Degree FAQs

Here – in FAQ format – is more information about the M.A. in Social Enterprise. Look also at the main Social Enterprise page to see how we define social entrepreneurship, and our sections on Myths and Core Values to get a feel for our perspective on this rapidly growing - and changing - field.

What kind of a place is SIS to study social enterprise?

We teach Social Enterprise with an accent on the Social. That means our central emphasis is on social innovation designed to tackle intractable global challenges. We selectively draw from and adapt skills and tools from the private sector to help us achieve these goals. It’s just a matter of emphasis – we do give attention to basic management skills, but offer a distinctive programmatic focus that considers profit to be only one--and not the primary--outcome of our efforts.

We’re a school of international affairs. We’re a founding member of the prestigious Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs. We're the largest and most-applied-to school within APSIA. Some of our excellent colleague schools emphasize diplomacy, others foreign policy analysis. While we also have strong programs in these areas, the unifying theme since our founding has been service. Our graduates tend to be passionate activists. Many come from or leave here for the Peace Corps and the world of NGOs.

Our graduates have a reputation for starting something. Or changing something. Many have incubated their ideas during their time here. Our Social Enterprise Program builds on, and extends, this heritage. This is the place for you if this is the energy you bring and the environment you seek for graduate school and beyond.

How does the program relate to the building in which it is taught?

The Atrium of the SIS Building

The School for International Service is based in a new 70,000 square-foot building designed by the world’s leading green architectural firm, William McDonough + Partners.

William McDonough himself is a prototypical social entrepreneur, whose career highlights SIS’s longstanding concern for social justice, especially environmental stewardship, and the responsible use of natural resources. This new degree program, taught in his latest building, includes study of McDonough, his ideas, and innovative approaches to turning constraints into opportunities. His application of design logic to solve seemingly intractable management and social problems can be applied well beyond environmental architecture to address many of the issues that are this program’s core concerns.

For Social Enterprise students, the new SIS building is more than a new physical structure. It serves as a teaching tool and a point of inspiration. Its design – offices and classrooms around a three-story light-filled atrium, anchored by the best coffee house on campus – is intended to promote easy, informal interaction among students, faculty, and outside visitors. These chance meetings can lead to ideas and perspectives being combined and innovations seeded. Small glass-walled conference rooms and balcony perches on its second and third floors provide many options for impromptu team meetings to flesh these out. And a graduate student study center in its lower level – linked to the campus library by an underground connection – provides space for quieter study and reflection.

What kind of students does the program want to attract?

The program attracts students with diverse work experiences and educational backgrounds. If you have a business background you will be able to use the program’s concentration and methods requirements to sharpen your knowledge of arenas in which you might apply social innovation. If your previous preparation involved work in the social sector, and education in the behavioral and social sciences, these parts of the curriculum will allow you to acquire basic skills in financial and people management. The self-assessment process will facilitate making these course choices.

How "job-friendly" is the SE program?

As a program aimed at producing doers we welcome students working in organizations where they are able to put into immediate practice what they learn in the classroom. We have found that real world experience sharing is a terrific asset in many of our seminar-based discussion classes. Course papers and the program’s capstone practicum also can benefit from dealing with issues related to student employment.

To make this as feasible as possible, most of the program’s core courses are taught during evenings and weekends. You are encouraged to discuss with your employer ways that graduate study in social enterprise can be mutually beneficial, especially as needs arise to attend classes and events on campus during normal working hours. Doing a research paper on a subject of special interest to your employer can do a lot to ground your study in real world practicalities. Many employers appreciate this synergy and have been willing to adjust work hours and assignments to help you (and them) get the most from participation in this program.

The keys to combining graduate study with employment are relevance and flexibility – and a job without a crushing workload or extended travel requirements. A number of students already come to the program with fascinating jobs in social enterprises. We want to make it as easy as possible to keep and learn from them.

What if I need more than two years to complete my degree requirements?

A number of SIS masters students spread their course work out over a longer period. This is one way to build your program around a job that complements it.

Because the program is organized around a cohort-learning model, we do ask that if you are taking less than a full-time course load to take the 3-semester sequence of core and professional competences courses in step with the group of students you enter the program with. Other required courses and your sequence of electives then can be worked-in as your schedule allows.

Most students start the Social Enterprise Program in the fall semester. But it is possible to start in the spring, using that semester to meet some non-core course requirements and get a head start on concentration courses.

Students admitted to the program who start in the spring semester will join the cohort entering that fall and take the cohort-based sequential core and coaching courses with them over the next 3 - 4 semesters.

What if I want to study more business subjects beyond those covered in the core courses?

No problem. Work with your advisor to use your electives to do this.

What does the program expect of its participants?

You will be expected to be as enterprising about your education as you will have to be in your work after graduation. You will make this program your top professional priority. You will approach courses, internships, projects, and mentoring relationships focused on what you need to understand and do to be an effective agent of change. You will be expected to form close collegial bonds with fellow students, ties that will hopefully extend beyond graduation and serve as a career-long resource.

What careers does the program help its students prepare for?

The program is oriented at preparing action-oriented doers – people who start their own organizations or have the knowledge and skills to make existing ones run better. The core courses will teach, over two years, practical skills in organizing, managing, leadership, and resourcing, all of which can contribute to your employability.

Start a new organization. If you are motivated along these lines, this program can serve as an incubator for a social enterprise you might create and run, perhaps prior to graduation. You will, in-effect, create your own job, having learned how to approach potential funders and start a self-sustaining “more-than-profit” organization.

Contribute to an existing organization. Alternatively, you might choose to be prepared – through the sequence of core courses, projects undertaken in them, networking opportunities, and the practicum and capstone requirements – to contribute problem solving and leadership expertise to existing social enterprises, their funders, consultants and support infrastructure. Probably the largest source of employment opportunities in this field will be the thousands of new social enterprises created worldwide each year concerned with disaster relief, education, environment, fair trade, internet and mobile phone access, health, human rights, micro-credit, and other poverty-reduction strategies.

Many established NGO advocacy and service organizations are searching for ways to adapt the principles of social enterprise to transform their current operations. Many are also seeking ways to diversify their funding base beyond traditional sources of gifts and grants – techniques for doing this will be studied by all students in the program. In addition, many large corporations are creating or expanding their own corporate social responsibility programs, and growing their businesses through social entrepreneurial ventures. These include most Fortune 500 companies and many multinationals headquartered in Europe and Asia.

These two types of careers explain why the Curriculum Roadmap (PDF) shows a fork in the second year. By then you’ll hopefully know which direction is best for you, you will choose courses and select a capstone project to support your choice.

Can this program create entrepreneurs?

No graduate program can turn students into entrepreneurs, but a good one can amplify and augment the experiences and mindset they bring to it, and give them skills and knowledge that can increase their likelihood of success. Entrepreneurs seldom follow existing paths, so no single curriculum is right for everyone. This is why this program tries to maximize your flexibility and give you options in how you tailor it to your needs.

Who teaches in this program?

The program depends on the careful integration of experienced social innovation practitioners and institutions with SIS' existing faculty resources. The program will have a strong real world orientation through its creative use of practitioners as adjunct faculty who are closely involved with both teaching and student coaching/mentoring. As specific student needs emerge, partnership arrangements will be developed with appropriate social enterprise support organizations in the US and overseas, and relations built with the emerging industry of social venture capitalists and social innovation incubators. These external connections, and the hybrid model of closely-aligned academic and practitioner faculty, distinguish it from other more traditionally-taught degree programs, and lower the wall between the campus and the outside world.

What specific skills and techniques are emphasized in the program?

The program is designed to introduce you to a broad portfolio of techniques, all relevant to social enterprise, including:

  • Benchmarking and best practices
  • Business models, branding and positioning
  • Changing people’s minds
  • Creating a great place for people to work
  • Design thinking
  • Economic and financial literacy
  • Effective advocacy
  • Experimenting and rapid prototyping
  • Framing messages that get through
  • Getting gifts and grants; becoming self-sustaining
  • Igniting social movements
  • Intended impact
  • Logical incrementalism
  • Managing money, people, projects, and boards
  • Mission and purpose
  • Momentum-building via small wins
  • Organizing around strategy
  • Performance measurement; midcourse correction
  • Positive deviance
  • Power and influence
  • Scenario planning
  • Sustainable growth strategies
  • Systems thinking
  • Target-setting
  • Theory of change

The program will use the idea of strategy – how broad intentions translate to visible results – to link these techniques into a framework you can use to identify what techniques are best to use when.

This degree program is very new – what about the courses in it?

The curriculum of this program has been developed using many of the same concepts to be taught in it, especially with regard to innovating through rapid prototyping, pilot trials, and ongoing experience-based improvement.

This logic has been applied to the development of the core courses in the program. All but one of these courses has been tested by being taught to graduate students enrolled in our existing degree programs. Several courses have been taught for three years or more. We have used student feedback and lessons gained from this to further refine each course. We have also experimented with alternative formats for teaching, including all-day classes held on weekends, extensive team-teaching, guided self-study, and distance learning. We are actively looking for ways to, where appropriate, break out of the mold of every course involving 14 two-and-a-half hour sessions given an evening a week, and have found strong student acceptance of these alternatives.

How Do I Apply to This Program?

We welcome your application to the Social Enterprise M.A. program. For detailed instructions, please visit our main Graduate Admissions website. Also, be aware that we will accept the GRE as well as the GMAT for application into the MA-SE program. As you prepare your statement of purpose, please be sure to visit the Social Enterprise Admissions page for ideas and suggestions. For any application related questions, please feel free to contact our SIS Office of Graduate Admissions at sisgrad@american.edu or 202-885-1646.