History of the Center for Social Innovation

Man giving a lecture

In the late 1990s, Stanford GSB faculty, the dean’s office, students, and alumni recognized an opportunity for Stanford GSB to play a critical role in developing leaders to help solve global social and environmental challenges.

In 1999, they came together to create the Center for Social Innovation and reinforce Stanford GSB’s leadership in educating global impact leaders.

Leveraging the assets of Stanford University and Stanford Graduate School of Business, CSI expanded the work of the school to a larger audience of executives around the globe through research, education, and community outreach. The Center set on a course to create a field of social innovation, a journey that led to the launch of multiple academic centers for social innovation around the world and the creation of the White House Office for Social Innovation in the United States.

With a sea change over the past ten years in the way we think about business, the Center for Social Innovation focused its efforts at home on supporting Stanford faculty in their work to equip students with the cutting-edge knowledge, skills, and mindsets they need to successfully drive impact in a quickly evolving landscape: 

  • As the world explored ways to leverage markets for social good, CSI responded with state-of-the-art social entrepreneurship and impact investing programs, complete with robust course work, experiential activities, and fellowships. 
  • To prepare students to lead in a stakeholder capitalism environment, CSI created Leadership for Society, a leadership development program for aspiring corporate CEOs that allows students to grow the confidence to engage with stakeholders on often contentious topics of societal importance.

CSI updated its offerings for the 21st century, reflecting all of the new actors, tools, organizational structures, and sources of capital that have become available for impact endeavors. The Center recognizes the importance of leaders’ proximity to the issues at hand and provides financial support to empower all students to step up and become part of the solution to their communities’ challenges.

Today, with a portfolio of programs stronger than ever, the Center for Social Innovation is well positioned to empower generations of impact leaders and to be an influential actor in the creation of a new ethos of business.

Louise & Claude Rosenberg Jr. Director

The Edith M. Cornell Professor of Political Economy


Restructuring | 2014 – Present

CSI embarks on a thorough rejuvenation of its 40-year strong Public Management Program educating socially-conscious leaders. 

  • Impact Labs is created to support the exploration by students of impact funding, responsible business, and nonprofit board governance through the eyes of leaders in the field who serve as their mentors.
  • The Social Entrepreneurship Program is launched to guide aspiring social entrepreneurs willing to leverage markets for social change. Through courses and co-curricular activities, students experience the venture development process, including immersing in the problem area, ideating solutions, testing ideas, developing impact and business models, and developing a funding strategy. 
  • The Impact Design Immersion Program is soon added to the Social Entrepreneurship program portfolio to help students apprentice with the problems they are trying to solve.
  • The Stanford GSB Impact Fund is created as a student-managed evergreen fund to provide students with a hands-on experience of investing for attractive financial returns and measurable social value. 
  • A merit-based Impact Careers Awards program is launched to support the most promising impact leaders across all impact career pathways, whether for-profit or nonprofit. Students receive financial support ranging from $20k to $110K as they join or found high-impact organizations upon graduating from the GSB.

The Center works to bring equity to its programs and to empower all students to solve issues in their communities

  • The Summer Impact Immersions Program makes it possible for everybody to choose an impact learning experience over the summer by mitigating students’ opportunity costs relative to traditional internships.
  • The extension of the Loan Forgiveness Program to all impact career pathways – whether joining or founding a for-profit social enterprise, the government, or a nonprofit organization – created the financial freedom for all students to choose an impact career.

Restructuring | 2010 – 2013

As the Center celebrates ten years of building the field of social innovation, the global economy reels from massive disruptions in the financial system and the world starts witnessing a sea change in the way we think about business. By now, numerous business schools have created Centers for Social Innovation, the White House has credited CSI for the idea that led to the founding of the White House of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, and numerous institutions are working to continue to develop the field of social innovation. CSI restructures to focus on its next contribution. Leveraging its core competency, ie. rigorous research, the GSB is now poised to develop groundbreaking insights and curriculum that can accelerate social and environmental impact.  

  • CSI becomes part of Centers, Initiatives, Research, Curriculum, and Learning Experiences, the Stanford GSB consortium of centers, in order to develop robust capacity in research support.
  • The Certificate in Public Management and Social Innovation for MSx and MBA students is revised to provide a richer academic experience aligned to interests in international development, education, healthcare, energy and the environment, social entrepreneurship, corporate responsibility and ethics, public policy and nonprofit management. The certificate requirements include a practicum and ensure students are better prepared for and demonstrate more commitments to solving social and environmental problems.

Growth Phase | 2004 – 2009

The Center grows its outreach portfolio of events and conferences…

  • Effective Disruption Management: A one-day seminar features business and nonprofit leaders and academics around lessons in humanitarian disaster relief
  • Leading Constructive Public Engagement: A Stanford Educational Leadership Institute conference brings 16 school district teams to focus on district leadership
  • Bridging the Gap — Leading Social Innovation Across Sectors, the Stanford/Net Impact conference attracts a record-breaking 1,300 MBA students from across the United States
  • The Nonprofit Innovation Award, a competition cosponsored by the center with Amazon.com grants prizes to innovative nonprofits in the United States
  • First annual Nonprofit Management Institute: Hosted by the Stanford Social Innovation Review attracts 200 nonprofit executives
  • Program-Related Investment Conference: A gathering of foundation leaders to explore new ways to leverage their assets for social change. 

… launches new executive programs…

  • Executive Education for Philanthropy Leaders: A new executive education program focused on the strategy and management of grantmaking institutions.
  • Business Strategies for Environmental Sustainability: A new executive education program for leaders in business, government, nongovernmental organizations, and political action organizations delivers strategies to gain competitive advantage through environmentally sustainable practices
  • Corporate Social Responsibility program: The center’s first international executive program launched in collaboration with ESADE business school explores new ways in which companies can incorporate societal and environmental perspectives into strategic thinking
  • Executive Program for Social Entrepreneurs: The sixth program in the center’s Executive Education portfolio tailored to the needs and challenges facing successful social entrepreneurs. EPSE is designed to help social entrepreneurs take their enterprises and innovative models to the next level by refining their ideas and leveraging their impact

…releases insightful articles, podcasts, and reports…

  • The Stanford Social Innovation Review publishes a seminal article defining Social Innovation
  • A new podcast channel, Social Innovation Conversations, delivers to the world the voices of the people at the forefront of creating social change
  • Stanford Project on the Evolution of Nonprofits publishes its report
  • Conversations in Philanthropy, an anthology on the purposes, accountability, and practices of 21st-century philanthropy

…and creates new education programs for business students interested in nonprofit leadership:

  • The Service Learning Initiative: A new opportunity for MBA students to learn about pressing global issues in depth, and to study pioneering models of social impact

Integration Phase | 2002 – 2003

Dale Miller, social psychologist and professor of organizational behavior, joins as faculty co-director and Stanford GSB nonprofit programs find new potential and synergies by becoming part of the center:

  • The business school’s Alumni Consulting Team integrates into the center, offering pro bono management consulting services to nonprofits around the Bay Area.
  • The three-decade-old MBA academic and leadership development program, the Public Management Program, becomes part of the center and continues to offer its unique Certificate in Public Management while expanding its activities.

The center launches a research initiative…

  • Stanford Project on Emerging Nonprofits: the center’s first major research initiative — a five-year study that examined how nonprofit leaders appropriate, adapt, or reject management ideas and practices as they create and shape social purpose institutions

…expands its executive program portfolio…

  • Strategy for Nonprofit Organizations, a team-based Executive Education program focused on mission and strategy
  • Executive Program for Educational Leaders, an executive program developed by the SELI initiative for school leadership teams engaged in redesigning school districts
  • Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders-Arts, a leadership development program created in collaboration with National Arts Strategies and tailored to the unique dynamics of arts organizations
  • Stanford Educational Leadership Institute: A collaboration with Stanford School of Education focused on bringing knowledge from the business and education fields to support current and emerging education industry leaders

…and develops its outreach:

  • Stanford Social Innovation Review: A new quarterly magazine presents the best in research and practice-based knowledge to help those who do the important work of improving society do it even better

Philanthropy Discussions Series: A multiyear speaker series, hosted in collaboration with the Stanford Haas Center for Public Service, engages practitioners and academics on the public obligations of philanthropy.

Start-Up Phase | 2000 – 2001

The Center is founded

  • Jim Phills, professor of organizational behavior, joins the Center as its first faculty director.
  • First public conference, High-Impact Philanthropy, focused on maximizing philanthropic impact.

First two Executive Programs for social sector leaders

  • The Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders, a first-of-its-kind endeavor that will become the center’s flagship leadership development program.
  • High-Impact Philanthropy focused on helping individual donors maximize philanthropic impact.
Founded in 1971

Arjay Miller envisioned a program that would educate government leaders who understood the needs — and techniques — of business as well as businesspeople who knew something about government.