Evolve Higher Education to Spark Social Innovation and Impact Locally

Higher education institutions must evolve to anchor community-based approaches to solving complex social issues in an evolving democracy. This transformation challenge relates to the reimagining and organizing of liberal arts universities as leading delivery channels to social innovation in their communities, enabling stakeholders (students, alumni, faculty, community) to become change agents.
People Impacted
$ 517B
Potential Funding
I have this challenge
the problem
Nature and Context

Bringing about systemic change without a systemic structure may be an exercise in futility, and for many universities, it can be. Universities tend to be organized as independent silos, not as cohesive change agents meeting market and social forces. As an example of this lack of stakeholder cohesion, academic disciplines, departments, organizations, student groups, alumni and parent associations, and volunteer organizations often set annual goals and initiatives independently and without broad collaboration. 

Greenwood and Levin (2001) argue that “action research (hereafter AR), both as a form of multidisciplinary knowledge generation and as a form of stakeholder-centered organizational change, is the best hope for successful university reform[...] the way out of the dilemmas of contemporary universities to revolve around the practices of pragmatism in teaching and learning and democratization in the organization of university teaching, research, and administration. Universities must find a way to make ‘knowing how’ their foremost teaching effort and to relegate the conventional ‘knowing that’ emphasis of the last century’s educational system to a much more secondary role.” 

Naturally, there are examples at some universities where some collaborative structures exist though primarily through student-focused, public service centers. For example, Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), sees its existence as a social center for the revitalization of West Philadelphia. In their Anchoring Institutions Toolkit: A Guide to Neighborhood Revitalization, they share their call to action in that “institutions must give full devotion to the difficult task of transforming themselves into socially responsible entities.” The student-focused center has created robust offerings of curriculum-based service programming for impact that drives Penn's commitment. Augsburg University’s Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship is one of the country’s leaders in public achievement programming for students that's delivered through social innovation programming and consultancy to the community.  At Central Florida University, a public institution, a strategic plan (UCF Collective Impact Strategic Plan, 2016) has been developed to transform the university through a collective impact model. 

However, these examples, as robust as they are, aim to scale the university’s capacity to benefit existing bodies of its disciplines, facilities, students, and alumni through traditional structures including academic, centers, and funding mechanisms (i.e. capital campaign) with metrics aligned towards its market achievement (e.g. merit, research, and reputation rankings) and revenue (i.e. isolated resources). The alignment with, and collective impact of, community is not typically the driving force in these examples. 

For most institutions, the traditional university business model is tuition and research revenue dependent and therefore the value proposition is centered nearly exclusively on student graduation and tenure of faculty through research and publishing, leaving the greatest mission asset of the university -- alumni -- on the sideline. Alumni relationship development has primarily been organized independently of a university’s mission delivery except in the form of revenue contributors, accounting for $10.85 billion in 2015 alone. However, alumni giving is on the decline (12% in 2007 to 8% in 2017). Nonprofit and higher education technology consultant Ruffalo, Noel, Levitz cites a correlation of student satisfaction to the level of alumni giving later in life. Compounding these issues is the lack of perceived value of the traditional alumni association -- just a mere 6% of alumni organizations report their benefits have an influence on alumni engagement. 

Philanthropy is adopting adaptive leadership principles, recognizing that complex social problems are not technically defined as one size fits all. Equity-oriented thinking in the social impact arena calls for funders to give up the power of authority in decision making to those who will benefit the most to co-design their own success through a collective impact model.  Adaptive philanthropy needs community anchors, like universities, to be trusted partners in centering culturally appropriate approaches to solving problems and building coalitions of cross sector actors to deliver a public benefit. 

Amidst this call, the broad university transformation into a cohesive unit that brings about social innovation and structural community change does not exist. At, least not until this challenge. 

Pacific Lutheran University - PLU, is leading this X4Impact challenge and research project in order to explore models for Higher Education institutions to reinvent their role in their communities by:

  • Focusing a model for collective impact (see the collective ecosystem and triad model)

  • Rethinking their role in their communities as an anchoring institution for a civic purpose, public benefit, and social system development

  • Removing the costs of organizing a comprehensive university as a barrier to transform and align for impact

  • Creating adaptive funding approaches to capacity building to solve complex social development challenges

  • Focusing on outcomes, rather than activities and isolated student learning experiences. In order for liberal arts colleges to ensure longevity in an increasingly connected world, the value stream must be on impact and not just knowledge acquisition.

  • Understanding approaches to community impact through their universities builds their capacity and public value

  • Utilizing experiential education and community action research as a way to bring the collective ecosystem together in partnership.

  • Organizing and activating social networks (e.g. alumni, parents, businesses) for action and impact

  • Centralizing the university knowledge base of faculty and student research, community-based research, alumni talent and capabilities, government and economic development agendas, and community and civic needs that are at the center of impact

  • Evolving the heritage philanthropy model of university capital campaigns that extracts wealth to a single source towards a more just philanthropic structure of community-centered campaigning that delivers shared power, responsibility, and impact.


At PLU, the focus on collective action requires institutional organizing and capacity building of self and others, community voice, and appropriate measurement and evaluation of technical and adaptive approaches.

We see organizing for collective action as a six part evaluation:

  1. Stakeholders (e.g. community practitioners and beneficiaries, faculty, staff, students, alumni, business and nonprofit leaders, funders) from a wide range of sectors have the ability to contribute knowledge, talent, time, resources, and privilege for a common goal

  2. Outcomes of community goal(s) are achieved more effectively and efficiently through collective action than isolated action.

  3. The full ecosystem of an institution can be activated for social change (e.g. curriculum development, faculty research, undergraduate research, graduate studies, capstone projects, internships, work study, alumni relations, philanthropy,  scholarships, student organizations and clubs, living and learning environments, service learning) and social system building

  4. An institution’s capacity can be developed to solve community needs

  5. An institution is flexible enough to be responsive to adaptive and developmental needs of a community and its stakeholders

  6. Transparency in culturally appropriate technical and adaptive measuring and evaluation is established

To position higher education institutions as anchoring partners for collective action, PLU and Giving Tech Labs seek to devise models to evolve private universities as a leading delivery channel to support social innovation in their communities, enabling private universities and their 5M enrolled students and millions of alumni to become change agents to address urgent social problems in systemic and sustainable ways.

Collective action leads to collective impact. Utilizing an equity-focused, adapted framing of FSG’s Collective Impact model, institutions can organize around these conditions:

  1. Establish a common agenda of shared aspirations among stakeholders by centering the voice of the community’s needs

  2. Share strategic learning through appropriate evaluation and measuring

  3. Highly leverage mutually reinforcing activities among stakeholders for greatest impact opportunities

  4. Build inclusive and continuous engagement and communication with community 

  5. When appropriate, serve as a backbone organization to mobilize the collective effort

This vision and research document describes possible implementation paths, key performance indicators, the definition of social impact and success as well as sustainability models.

Symptoms and Causes

There are 10 focus areas identified as key problems and opportunities to address for higher education institutions.

  1. There is a systemic deficit of resources and a common platform to organize a university in a systemic manner for impact.

  2. Higher Education Institutions lack a central depository/catalog of what faculty and students are currently doing for impact and innovation across different schools and programs;

  3. There are no efficient ways for Faculty to connect to market ideas or funding opportunities; ' a Google search' is a very inefficient model to find relevant and trustworthy research and insights to inform their path.

  4. Likewise, there are no efficient ways for universities to learn about community needs, resources, or areas of development priority. (Most need better listening platforms or tools to gather local opportunities or places for dialog.)

  5. Students are demanding the development of enhanced tools to solve complex social issues in the community, but oftentimes don't know where to start. Students as academic learners, those in living/learning communities, those engaged in study away with rich insights about other systems, and even an individual student wishing to volunteer 5 hours a week have all called for ways to engage and invest in their local communities. 

  6. There is a lack of measuring and evaluating that allows Universities to deliver social impact reporting to the community and funders.

  7. Faculty, academic programs, and disciplines within universities have not been schooled to form partnerships, but have been 'trained to teach in the classroom not create social and business opportunities'

  8. Universities have graduated millions of alumni whose talents are not leveraged in action in solving complex social problems

  9. There are increased concerns about the role of traditional capital campaigns in universities where billions of dollars are extracted from communities controlled by a few decision makers who already hold economic and political power over those who are the furthest from justice

  10. Funders are increasingly investing in system building through coalitions in place of individual organizational support with funding delivered through larger block grants, state and federal appropriations, and economic development opportunities

the impact
Success Metrics

Operational Metrics:

  • Number of institutional and community research opportunities deposited into a central catalog

  • Number of archived graduate capstone projects, undergraduate research reports, student club/activity impact reports, faculty research

  • Increased number of faculty collaborations across disciplines 

  • Number of market-based opportunities realized by faculty, students, alumni, and community partners 

  • Percentage of Faculty engaged in social innovation and action research for the benefit of the local community (initially) and national outreach (longer-term, as applicable).

  • Percentage of Alumni engaged in social innovation

  • Number of academic-based community engaged classes offered

  • Number of students engaged in experiential programs that blend learning with application (and impact).

  • Number of “big bets” formed through institutional capability and capacity assessment 

  • Percentage of cost savings from elimination of duplicative programming

  • Number of funding opportunities based on collaborations

  • Number of dollars invested in collaborations or collective action

  • Number of public private partnerships established

  • Number of community learning circles to establish community need

  • Number of civic engagement/public achievement opportunities for student impact established

  • Number of students, alumni, staff and faculty practiced in equity design theory for social impact

  • Number of collaborations and coalitions established by students, alumni, staff and faculty

  • Number of initiatives amplified externally across sectors and communities

  • Reduced attrition because learning is engaged and impactful 

  • Increase in reputation score (brand awareness)

  • Generation of alternative revenue models for universities by delivering value to local communities.

  • Awareness of value proposition of liberal arts institutions as anchoring institutions is increased

  • Number of students, alumni, and parents oriented to lifelong civic responsibility and purpose 

  • Number of investments directed by collective action and not isolated only to funders

Social Impact Metrics:

  • Number of Sustainable Social impact Enterprises, delivering value in local communities

  • Number of jobs and revenue generated by these social enterprises

  • Human impact metrics related to the social issues addressed by these social enterprises. For example, reduction in homelessness, access to clean water and sanitation, increased access to affordable and clean energy, reduction in cases of domestic violence, etc.

  • Reduced cost of delivery of social impact realized through institutional partnerships at or below market rate directed 

  • The number of legislations and policies influenced or sparked by social innovation programs.

  • Economic development opportunities are realized through collective action

  • Number of active partnerships (academia-private sector-nonprofits-local government)

  • Percentage of students that are hired at graduation with incomes that make it possible to pay back student loans within a short time.

  • Percentage of students reducing their dependency on student loans thanks to jobs created by social innovation programs during junior and senior years.

  • Increase number of students attracted to the university because of this type of engagement and experiential learning programs. 

  • Increased trust in public systems by community members

  • Increased capacity of nonprofits, education systems, health systems, justice systems through partnering and collective action

  • Community members empowered to co-design the success of their own communities

  • Increase in shared resources and assets among stakeholders allows for funders to leverage investment dollars for wider and deeper impact

  • Funders increase awareness of power dynamics in philanthropic investments

  • System building based on diverse and cross-sector actors united in coalitions and partnerships

  • Value proposition of liberal arts education seen as critical to community development building 

who benefits from solving this problem
Organization Types
  • Private Universities in the US

  • Entrepreneurship programs

  • Social Accelerators and Incubators

  • The local communities where universities are located

  • Local tech companies & industry leading organizations

  • Nonprofits

  • Religious institutions

  • Alumni and Parent Associations

  • Public systems -- education, health, justice

  • Neighborhood Associations, Civic Organizations, Government Agencies

  • Economic Development Organizations

  • City and Urban Planners

  • K-12 institutions, Higher Education

  • Health and Wellbeing organizations

  • Community Members Who Are Proximal to Challenges

  • Nonprofit Organizations

  • Government Organizations

  • Sovereign Tribal Government Organizations

  • University Students

  • Faculty & Staff

  • Donors & Alumni

  • Parents & High School Students

  • Tech for Good Companies

  • Board of Regents & University Advisors

financial insights
Current Funding

As per X4Impact analysis of filings with the US Internal Revenue Service - IRS, the leading 1,600 higher education institutions in the US generate an income of $117B per year.

  • 50% of this income is from government programs and charitable grants

  • 35% from tuition and other products and services sold

  • 15% from INvestment Income and other sources.

To reduce dependency on traditional sources of funding, private universities are focusing on delivering value to their communities by co-creating IP, providing research and development services, and other alternative mechanisms.

Potential Solution Funding
  • Aligned Alumni

  • For Profit Companies

    • Microsoft, Amazon, Premera, etc

    • Design School funding is derived from $50K program participation funding for each team in exchange for one project.

  • Private & Community Foundations

    • Lilly Endowment funded Indiana's early work

    • Ballmer Group focuses on system building impact

    • Raikes Foundation focuses on social justice development

    • Gates Foundation for system building impact

    • Cheney Foundation supports civic engagement development in local communities

    • The Greater Tacoma Foundation and Seattle Foundation support system building through coalition development

Ideas Description

Pacific Lutheran University seeks to create a framework for social innovation in their local community where:

  1. Different social innovation initiatives from their diverse channels (e.g. schools, colleges, student groups, alumni chapters and affinities, digital assets) can flourish.

  2. Students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and community friends can work with local government, private sector, philanthropists, and nonprofit organizations on identifying systemic problems that need solutions and where the creation of those solutions can lead to sustainable social enterprises that do good while creating social impact, jobs, and income.

  3. Gen Z students (and those who follow) can find their area of passion through experiential education and entrepreneurship.

The vision is to create a replicable model, inspired by best practices and following a Theory of Change that benefits all stakeholders and communities.

Draft Timeframe:

2021 - Social Innovation anchored on Listening to the Community :

  • Define Model, identify key players, document playbook for execution with 2-3 schools or programs within the University

  • Start Community outreach (listening and learning sessions), to document problems (research phase) and identify cross-functional teams of students, faculty, and the local community to 'adopt' 3-5 problems (for execution in 2022).

  • Secure Funding from impact investors, donors, private sector for execution in 2022 of selected initiatives

2022 - Learning by Execution - Experiential Learning on Social Innovation: Execute on the model by incubating 3-5 initiatives from different schools that address a core social problem in the WA community

2023 - Refine and Scale: Learn from results, adjust and create the blueprint for other universities

Existing Program Models for Inspiration:

IDEA 1: Design Studio @ University of Nebraska Model

In Lincoln, Nebraska, (284K residents, 26K students at UNL, the Raikes School created Design Studio in 2001. In the last 20 years, Design Studio teams have completed 200+ projects for more than 80 distinct partner organizations including Microsoft, Hudl, Mutual of Omaha, IBM, PayPal, and Fiserv. Project inquiry begins in spring with selection and commitments made in May and June. Design Studio faculty and staff are available throughout the inquiry phase to answer questions and assist with the development of a project proposal. We continue working with the selected partnering organizations in July and early August on scoping and project initiation. After the sponsor orientation in mid-August, projects are rolled out to students and teams formed at the beginning of the school semester. Student teams are comprised of around 5 high-achieving college juniors and seniors working 12-15 hours per week during the 29-week academic year, culminating with the final product delivery in May.

Design Studio teams are mentored by industry professionals from the community, helping teams more effectively communicate, overcome technical challenges, and drive innovation for their partners.

Students gain a head start in their careers by participating in product development teams, working with real clients to understand complex business requirements, and developing innovative solutions to wicked problems.

Design Studio Roles:

Team: Students self-organize into teams. Teams have two specific roles, the Development Manager and Product Manager, who together share the responsibility of leadership for the team.

Product Owner: The representative from the sponsoring organization who is both the day-to-day contact and has decision making authority within the project scope.

Program Lead: A staff member in Design Studio who supports the team and provides professional guidance from the industry perspective. Tribe Lead A faculty member in Design Studio who supports the team and evaluates from an educational and learning perspective.

Coach: A volunteer from the local community who serves as a professional and technical mentor for the team – an independent sounding board.

IDEA 2: Central Indiana Corporate Partnership Model

CICP’s mandate is to identify and prioritize pressing issues and then channel resources from the business, university, and philanthropic communities toward solutions. The organization is business- and civic-led, but intentional engagement with the public sector gives the government’s ability to scale through policy and regulatory change.

Every initiative the organization supports is vetted by its 65-member board of directors, whose support typically requires rigorous, independent research that identifies opportunities and challenges within a key industry cluster (or group of clusters) and offers a plan to address them. However, it would be simplistic to characterize the CICP process as a rote series of research reports followed by strategic implementation.

CICP became the much-needed organization to help coordinate the actions of employers, philanthropies, and universities that together could push transformative economic change in their community through social innovation. Rather than an organization devoted to a single cluster initiative, CICP has proven over the past two decades to seed several high-capacity industry interventions that address the weaknesses and build on the strengths of Central Indiana’s regional economy.

The process of identifying and prioritizing economic opportunities in the Central Indiana economy has evolved over time, but three core elements define CICP’s process:

  1. an appreciation for rigorous research and data

  2. a deep commitment to delivering value for its members, and therefore local industries

  3. an operational ethos that values continuous improvement, meaning a collective acknowledgment that the region’s innovation and industrial strengths could be improved by bringing together institutions and firms with a shared interest in the competitiveness of key industry clusters.

Operating principles of the model are:

  • CICP defines clusters based on linkages between industries but also their joint reliance on technologies and talent; clusters include life sciences, technology, advanced manufacturing/ logistics, biosciences, and energy technology.

  • CICP has developed six talent and industry sector initiatives that focus on a combination of interventions, including talent development; technology development; capital provision; district/ infrastructure development; and research, information provision, and education.

  • CICP operates as a CEO-led holding company that houses six distinct initiatives, which each have its own mission, board, resources, and partnership networks. CICP operates as a (c)(3) and (c)(6) organization, with some for-profit organizational structures within the CICP umbrella.

  • Key organizational resources include a prestigious board with members from diverse background and experience

Data Sources
  • Inside Higher Ed - Higher Education Needs to Innovate. But How? Not for innovation's sake, but to support student success.

Input Needed From Contributing Editors
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