Hilary Pennington visits SOM

Hilary Pennington, SOM Class of 1983, spoke at the Yale School of Management’s Social Impact Lab, sharing her thoughts on social impact, having spent the previous five years as Director of Special Initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The discussion focused on how nonprofit organizations can be most effective, on the role of companies like consulting firms in the process of social innovation, and on how leveraging networks can help enable organizations’ success.

Pennington began the discussion by sharing her observations on social impact from her time at the Gates Foundation. First, social impact requires disruptive ideas that have a well-designed business model, like charter schools. However, even  if these models start as challenges to the status quo, social entrepreneurs must be prepared to work with established businesses and governments, as these sectors allow for organizations to scale and expand. Second, organizations need to change how they advocate for resources. Third, leaders need a sophisticated understanding of how hard execution is, as they often have competing visions on how to scale their ideas. Finally, foundations create feedback loops as they focus solely on one issue; they begin to think in silos and see everything through the lens of that one issue.

From these observations, the discussion transitioned into the role of management consultants in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, as Hilary opined that many organizations become overly-reliant on these firms. Management consultants have their own viewpoints, which can at times miss more nuanced patterns that enable success. Many students shared their experiences working in nonprofit organizations which had received management consulting services, which had at times proved less than helpful. These experiences highlighted what Hilary referred to as the difference between those doing the work and those planning, funding, and measuring, it, supporting her point that networks integrating all stakeholders are necessary for success.

To close the conversation, students asked Hilary about the role of MBAs in creating social impact. She was very positive about the role of MBAs in the sector; she just wants them to have field experience so they understand the underlying issues they seek to address. Hilary believes that those who want to make a social impact need to focus on changing prevailing assumptions in order to fundamentally change the underlying systems. To her, “the world doesn’t need another nonprofit taking more money”; instead, it needs innovative and disruptive people who can execute great ideas. 

By Jean Goldwyn, SOM ‘14

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