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How Do You Teach Social Good?

The Power of Social Technology class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business unpacks social media concepts.

Stanford Graduate School of Business offers a class called the Power of Social Technology, the goal of which is to arm entrepreneurial business students with social media tools that create social good. The class has also spurred research on the “ripple effect”—the idea that small acts of goodness can create big change—and has welcomed speakers from Pixar, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Groupon, and Google to talk about how students can harness social good in a way that goes hand-in-hand with profit-making.

But when we talk about creating “social good,” what do we even mean? Most define it as a good or service that benefits the largest number of people in the largest possible way. Classic examples include improving literacy, as well as access to clean air, clean water, and health care. But sometimes seeking to bring about this type of "social good" feels like an elusive, unreachable goal—too big and grand to be within reach. "Change the world? Sounds a bit out of my league. I think I’ll just get back to checking my e-mail."

And yet it is becoming increasingly clear that the work of making big changes in the world is not limited to massive nonprofits or peacekeeping missions; it can come from anywhere, from an individual with a YouTube account all the way to a big-budget business. We live in a world increasingly connected through social networks that make it possible for all of us to make those big changes the world really needs. You can even use those e-mails or tweets to make a difference.

What if we step away from traditional views of social good and instead define social good as the benefit a social network creates for those outside its constituents? For these purposes, let's define a social network as an entity connected by bonds of computer-aided communications. Constituents of that network act on it, influence it, but it’s under no single constituent’s control—akin to neurons in a brain. When that network acts to benefit others—manifesting the collective will of its parts—a “good” is created at speed and scale unprecedented in human history.

Indeed, in today’s world, the rules are rewritten: small acts can create big change; actions can have ripple effects far beyond their original scope; and profit can be used for good.

We like to think of three key concepts as important to keep in mind, each an important piece of the social good puzzle in our socially networked world:

Focus on others. Research shows that when people simply focus on creating good for others (vs. simply focusing on the self), positive consequences result. And ironically, those positive consequences don’t just result for the others who received the good, but for the person how created and spread the good. For example, Liz Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Mike Norton conducted a study where they examined the manner in which employees at a Boston-based company spent a profit-sharing bonus impacted their long-term happiness. The results show that when people spent that money prosocially on others (giving gifts to friends, donating to charities), greater happiness resulted.

Make ripples. Small acts can create big change. Every long journey starts with a first step. Consider the story of Alex’s Lemonade Stand, Alex was a young girl who put together a lemonade stand in her front yard to raise money, 50 cents at a time, for cancer research, after she was diagnosed with the disease. Fast forward years later, and Alex’s Lemonade Stand has become a national organization which has raised over $20 million for cancer research projects, with the help of people who were inspired by Alex's story. The small act of taking life’s lemons and making some lemonade became a multimillion-dollar organization. Why? Because one act of good can inspire dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of others to tackle similarly small goals that when combined yield disproportionate success.

Big business can be a force for change. There is an emerging realization that social good does not need to be divorced from profit making motives; in fact, for-profit corporations can have some of the most powerful impact in perpetuating social change, in part because profitable business strategies can be effectively applied to generating social good. Consider Toms Shoes, Google, and Whole Foods. Corporations with goals other than solely being profitable often end up more profitable. Give, and you shall receive.

Social good is within reach for everyone—whether you are a CEO of a large scale corporation or a young girl with some posterboard and a batch of lemonade. What have you done to promote social good in your own house, your own community, and beyond?

Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Through its new curriculum, Stanford Business School connects students with opportunities to create social good through online conversations. Topics range from the definition of “social good” to the use of design process and empathy techniques in developing social media, to the art of storytelling and the engineering of virality. The community includes experts such as Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg, blogger Robert Scoble, MC Hammer, Dave McClure of, and’s Jessica Jackley.

Illustration by Joelle Leung.

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