The Cross-Disciplinary Opportunity of US Social Finance Education

The Cross-Disciplinary Opportunity of US Social Finance Education

How Social Finance Education is Breaking Down the Walls Between Departments & Disciplines

During my research of social finance programs at US Universities, one theme immediately became clear – these aren’t just for finance majors. Social finance offer a unique blend of hard finance skills and social context that is attracting students from all over university campuses. Shannon Mudd, an undergraduate Microfinance professor at Haverford University explained, “There are a lot of people interested in microfinance who are in other types of majors whether it’s in anthropology or pre-med. I’ve even had students in the arts.”

At the graduate level, this convergence of interest becomes even more apparent. David Chen, impact investing professor at Northwestern University, has noticed a trend over the years. “A third of my students typically come from a public policy or a non-for-profit and government…And then I have about a third of student that, before business school, had done sort of a financial services job…And then a third of my students are sort of just curious,” Chen said. Chen and other MBA professors teaching social finance see corporate finance people and nonprofit fundraising people joining their programs with the same belief: There has to be a better way.

Harvard University has even taken this convergence one step further and made cross-major collaboration in its impact investing course part of the curriculum. Professor Michael Chu at the Harvard Business School has partnered with the Harvard School of Public Health to create student teams who address impact investing issues in Health organizations.

Intentionally or not, why are social finance courses attracting all these different students? For many, it’s because social finance is a new way of addressing social or environmental problems they’ve been working on for years. “I’m in the world of public health and the world of public health is all about grants,” said Sebastian Rodriguez, former Harvard Public Health student and participant in the impact investing field course. “Every public health professional I’ve approached with this idea says, ‘this is amazing. Let me read about it!’,” Rodriguez explained.

In the classroom, this diversity is exposing students to new experiences, opinions, and insights. According to Shannon Mudd, this aligns perfectly with the mission of liberal arts schools. “It’s a nice way to cross a whole lot of different disciplines,” said Mudd which is why he feels the case for social finance programs is especially strong in a liberal arts environment.

Fostering this diversity will also play a critical role in the development of the social finance professional space. Cathy Clark, impact investing professor at Duke University, researches success factors in the impact investing space and has found that one critical factor is ‘multilingual leadership’. “Within the leadership teams of these funds, there’s someone who speaks policy, there’s someone who speaks philanthropy and impact, and there’s at least one person who speaks finance,” she explains. Teaching students to effectively communicate with others outside their major will give them an edge in social finance.

In line with this idea of developing professionals who can operate in a hybrid space, I think the intentional partnership model being used by Harvard will continue to become more popular. Not only does it ensure a more realistic social finance environment, but it is also a great way for departments to pool resources around an emerging field. Because it is inherently a blend of disciplines, social finance makes interdepartmental collaboration an easy sell.

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