Social purpose. Real-world impact or virtue signalling?

Does teaching children about ‘making a difference’ make a difference? By Zofia Niemtus.
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From Insta-worthy ‘voluntourism’, to corporations obsessing over ESG (environment, social and governance) ratings, you could be forgiven for sometimes feeling like everyone is preoccupied with appearing to do the right thing, rather than actually doing it.
But Generation Z may be changing that. A recent Deloitte survey across 44 countries found that seven in 10 are “actively trying to minimise their impact on the environment,” while research from Edelman found that 70 per cent of Gen Z are involved in a social or political cause. But how should this intersect with education? Can schools explore social impact in a meaningful way? And should they?
Georgia Scarr certainly thinks so. She is currently studying earth systems science at Stanford University, but is also Co-Founder and Executive Director of Eco Circle International (ECI), a 100 per cent youth-led non-profit organisation that trains young people to be leaders and activists. Her story began at the British International School of Chicago, part of Nord Anglia Education.

“It started in year nine, after the Parkland shooting,” she says. “Me and some other students organised a walkout for anti-gun violence regulation. After that, we started hosting assemblies and things, and expanded into different social justice issues, particularly homelessness and gun violence, big issues in Chicago. And the school supported us by giving us the platform.

It showed that we could make change and allowed us to directly make an impact and get so many different students involved,” she continues.

Launched in 2020, ECI now turns out around 200 fellows per year, after they have completed two months of environmental education, one month of leadership training and two months of initiative planning and execution.

“We’re educating young people and telling them to focus on their communities and identify issues there, using the tools and skills they have developed to create change,” Scarr says.

Social purpose. Real-world impact or virtue signalling? | NAE - Social purpose

More action. Less talk.

Dr Leslie Williams, Senior Programme Lead for social impact and giving at Nord Anglia, says this approach encapsulates the international education group’s vision to “equip students with the skills and resources to amplify their voices and make a local and global impact.”


She explains the three pillars of social impact at Nord Anglia: developing student leadership skills; a global collaboration with UNICEF; and a programme of grants, which offers up to $50,000 in funding for student-led social impact projects tackling the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Grants have been awarded to many projects, including a rewilding programme in Budapest, a community project helping underserved young people in Florida, and student-led support for displaced Ukrainian families in Prague and Warsaw.

“It's easy to tell students that you believe in them,” Williams says. “But when you put money behind their ideas, and then expect them to come up with budget and implementation plans and create impact reports, it becomes more than that.”

Dr Jane Gaskell is the member of Nord Anglia’s Education Advisory Board who oversees the social impact programme. She explains that, when undertaken in the right way, such work can reshape young people’s understanding of their world.

“We don’t want them to be passive in the face of the things happening around them,” she says. “We want them to have a sense of empowerment, that this is their world and that they can do something. They have to feel engaged with what's going on, otherwise you can get kind of pushed around by the world.”

And, she continues, there’s also a clear link between mental health and social impact.

“People who have a sense of efficacy tend to be mentally healthier than people who don't. Of course, everybody's power is limited and we shouldn’t put the responsibility for solving everything on the kids. But it’s powerful when they can sense that they're part of a team and that they can collaborate with other people.

The skills they learn - whether that’s from reaching out to a community of people very different from themselves or budgeting for a project - give them the ability to make a difference. And those skills are going to serve them well, not just in social impact, but in jobs, in families, and in all kinds of other ways.”

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Big ideas. Big impact.

That was the experience of Kisum Chan, who attended Nord Anglia’s British International School in Ho Chi Minh City before going on to found social enterprise Rice Inc while at university in London. While Chan was studying for his biomedical sciences degree he came across the Hult Prize, which offers $1m and a chance to pitch at the UN. Chan and his friends “brainstormed through the nights” before winning with their idea to improve access to drying technology for farmers in Southeast Asia, reducing rice crop wastage (which can be up to 30 per cent otherwise).

Since its inception in 2017, Rice Inc has saved somewhere in the region of 10 million bowls of rice that would otherwise have been wasted, and Chan says the social impact focus of his school days helped shape his global view.

“There's this proactiveness to get the students to contribute to society,” he says. “And I would like to see even more proactiveness in encouraging students to really think outside the box, to not just take programmes that have been already established, but to create their own, to champion their own destinies and work on things that they care about.”

Nishma Shah, Senior Sustainability Leader at Legal and General, the global financial services company and investor, says that this demand for authenticity and meaningful commitment to social impact is also being heard as young people move into the world of work.

“There’s an increasing amount of research that shows that Gen Z are demanding more from their employers,” she says. “And we see that every year, that shift. That demand continues to increase, with the younger generation asking: ‘What are you doing in terms of the environment? How are you making change? And what can I do?’ That's the other thing, people don't want to just know what their employer is doing, they want to know what they can do to contribute as well. And I definitely see that coming across more and more each year.

Sustainability is about how businesses are run, making sure that you're not taking more than you're giving back, from the planet or from people.” This means, she continues, taking “a really proactive role in the social and environmental elements of the societies that you're operating in.”

At Oakridge International Schools in India, School Director Amit Jain says sustainability is a big focus among the school community, too. “In 2016, we held our first ocean conservation conference, which was an inter-school conference, organised by the students for the students,” he explains.

The students heard a “phenomenal” speech from Jason Lewis, an adventurer and sustainability campaigner who was the first person to circumnavigate the globe by human power. He talked about his experiences on the oceans, including being 2,000km from land and seeing what appeared to be a jellyfish, but later turned out to be a plastic bag. The students were deeply inspired, Jain recalls, and came up with “a set of recommendations and actions that were submitted to the local authorities” to feed into work on protecting their beaches and wildlife from waste plastic. Fast forward to today, and the project is continuing to go from strength to strength.

“As a school, we’ve just been facilitators,” Jain says. “This is what our students wanted and they're passionate about saving our beaches, healing our oceans. It’s the essence of sustainability in action.”

Social purpose. Real-world impact or virtue signalling? | NAE - Social purpose

It’s too important. Education plays a powerful role.

With such motivation and commitment evident among students, it’s perhaps not only possible for education to intersect with social impact, but vital that it does so. And in these difficult times - in a world facing a climate crisis and increased division - the challenges facing young people are arguably too important not to explore in school.

Dr Mark Starbuck, Principal of the Metropolitan School of Panama, thinks that the “job of school leader is sometimes to just bring people with ideas together.”

“I'm trying to give people the opportunities to come up with policies, initiatives and ideas, and the skills and knowledge to lead projects and take ownership of them,” he says.

For Starbuck, it is vital that social impact is not reduced to “raising money from bake sales and making charitable donations.”

“That’s really boring,” he says. “A hands-on approach is far more meaningful and it helps students to develop more empathy. They can actually see their impact, and that touches them.

If they’re Nord Anglia students, we’re assuming they’ll go on to become leaders. And whether they go into business, government, sports, music or the arts, they should be thinking about social impact. It should be in their DNA, developed at school, giving them a sense of social purpose and connection with the world around them.”

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