Want to magnify your impact? This is the place to go.

If you’re working to change the world, the Center for Social Impact Strategy at the University of Pennsylvania can change your world.

 I can tell you this with complete confidence because CSIS took my mission as a #Firestarter and #MovementMaker to a whole new level. I earned a certificate at the CSIS Executive Program in Social Impact Strategy. That program was so beneficial that I went on to complete my master’s degree in nonprofit leadership/social impact strategy at UPenn. (I was even the commencement speaker!)

CSIS has released application deadlines for the next sessions of its executive programs, so I wanted to make sure all of the #MovementMakers in this community know just what awesome opportunities these programs are. But don’t just take my word for it. In this article, you’ll also hear from some other former and current students in CSIS programs, as well as CSIS Managing Director Ariel Schwartz.

What Is CSIS?

The Center for Social Impact Strategy is part of the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school. UPenn is located in Philadelphia, and thanks to Benjamin Franklin, it’s one of the oldest institutions for higher learning in the U.S.

The mission of CSIS is “to make tools and resources for social impact available to anyone, anywhere.”

What Programs Does CSIS Offer?

 The center offers a variety of programs and resources, but today I want to focus on the executive education options. They include:

‘You Don’t Know Where Your Career Is Going to Take You

I know that many of you in this community are looking for ways to make a social impact through your work. So I asked Nancy for her advice on this topic. Her first tip? Stay open-minded and flexible. “I never thought I would be doing this work,” she says. “You don’t know where your career is going to take you.”

Can a CSIS Executive Certificate Count Toward a Master’s Degree?

It did for me! If you’re interested in UPenn’s master of science in nonprofit leadership, visit the SP2 website for details on how a CSIS executive program can start you on the road to a master’s degree. 

Who Teaches the CSIS Programs?

 You can get to know the CSIS team here, including faculty director Peter Frumkin.

“These are people that have been in this space for so many years,” says Nancy Dalton, the head of marketing and community partnerships for Amazon Consumables and a current student in the CSIS Social Impact Strategy program. “They really provide you with not just the academic side of things, but also with the true, real-time practical experience that will help you to really be successful.”

Ariel (the CSIS managing director) points out something else that’s important to know: In some online courses, you listen to lectures from faculty members, but don’t interact with them. That’s not the case at CSIS, though. “They are so available to you, and not just for delivering the training,” Nancy says. “If you reach out to any one of them, they are so approachable, so giving and really committed to helping you to be successful.”

Who Studies at CSIS?

CSIS serves students from around the world, across a variety of professional sectors and of different ages and career stages. That’s very deliberate, Ariel says, because a diverse enrollment promotes cross-pollination of ideas.

“It spans the whole gamut of different industries, which makes it so much richer in terms of learning and knowledge exchange,” Nancy says.

Are CSIS Programs in Person or Online?

 Programs are available in a variety of formats:

  • Social Innovation Design (XSD) blends online and in-person learning (an on-campus convening event).
  • Social Impact Strategy (SIS) is offered in blended and online formats 
  • Digital Media for Social Impact (DMSI) is an online program.
  • Penn Social Impact Accelerator (PSIA) is offered either in person or online.
  • The Global Social Impact House (GSIH) is a residential program.

 The convening events in the blended-format programs are a highlight for many students. They provide a chance to strengthen relationships with both classmates and CSIS professors.

What Kind of Time Commitment Do CSIS Programs Require?

The executive education programs at CSIS have different durations. The executive programs in Digital Media for Social Impact and Social Impact Design both take five months. The Social Impact Strategy program requires eight months, while the Social Impact Accelerators are 2-3 days.

The digital media, design and strategy programs were created to fit into the lives of busy professionals. “You have a lot of flexibility,” says Tatiana Gonzalez Quiroga, public policy director at the Alzheimer’s Association Louisiana Chapter. Like me, Tatiana holds a certificate from the Social Media Strategy program. Since participants hail from around the globe, you don’t have to watch classes at a certain time. They’re recorded so that you can view them on your own schedule. 

Another factor that makes the programs time-efficient is that students’ “homework” can involve applying what they’re learning in their existing social impact work. “Most of my time was actually done during my workday, because I was working on a project that was relevant to my full-time job,” says Ashley Mudd, program director at Reaching Out MBA and another Social Impact Strategy alum.

How Much Do CSIS Programs Cost?

For the certificate programs (Social Innovation Design, Social Impact Strategy, Digital Media for Social Impact), current costs are in the $5,000-$6,500 range. For exact costs for all programs, visit the 2023-2024 Program Outlook Page on the CSIS website. If you’ve ever checked out the price of master’s degrees, I don’t have to tell you that CSIS executive programs are a lot less expensive. “We’re really oriented toward offering (programs) at the lowest price that we can because we really want to make a difference,” Ariel says: 

If you’re already working in a social impact role, your employer may be willing to pick up all or part of the tab for your program, especially if you can demonstrate the ROI it will deliver for them.

“I would encourage anyone who’s interested in the program to not be overly concerned about being able to fund it, because there are so many different ways in which you can fit it into your budget and make it more affordable for yourself,” Nancy says.

What Will You Gain Through CSIS Programs?

When you enroll in an executive program at CSIS, your toolkit as a #MovementMaker immediately starts to grow. You’ll learn about things like:

  • Strategic planning.
  • Design thinking.
  • Scaling your efforts
  • Framing challenges based on a community’s assets rather than its deficits.
  • Measuring impact.
  • Mobilizing others.
  • Analyzing data.
  • Ensuring all stakeholders have a place at the table.

But the impact doesn’t stop with your learning. You can also share these tools with your colleagues. (This is a great point to emphasize to your employer if you’re asking for their help in paying for your program.)

Besides what you learn in classes, another huge benefit of CSIS executive programs is the network you gain. Your cohort becomes a community of #MovementMakers sharing diverse perspectives to promote one another’s work. And that community continues even after you complete your program.

“I really just love how they’ve created it to build relationships,” Ashley says. “One of my best friends now —not just professionally, but personally — is a woman that I did the certificate with.” Ashley and her classmate don’t live in the same area, but they meet regularly online to talk about their work and share insights.

Tatiana had a similar experience. “Some of the highlights for me were definitely getting to know the other students in the program,” she says. “One of them is still my really close friend, and we support each other through our career paths. We chat almost on a weekly basis.”

Are CSIS Programs the Right Fit for You?

If you’re intrigued by what you’ve read so far, you may be wondering at this point whether a CSIS program is the best next step for you in your journey as a #Firestarter. So I asked Ariel, Ashley, Nancy and Tatiana what they think you should know if you’re considering applying at CSIS or perhaps even choosing between CSIS and other educational options in the social impact space.

Ariel says CSIS stands out because of its programs’ duration and rigor, as well as the opportunity to learn within a cohort. “We’re really focused on making sure that all of our participants get an education, and we assess them,” she says. Participants must demonstrate their competence in the tools to achieve social impact goals.

For Ashley, a big factor that attracted her to CSIS was being able to put everything she was learning to use quickly. “I define success not as my job title or the money I’m making,” she says. “It’s more about the impact that I can have. 

Nancy feels similarly. “The social impact field is evolving, and in order for you to be effective within it, it really helps to understand the tools and to build community,” she says. “And there’s no better place to do that.”

In Tatiana’s case, CSIS stood out because it was a way to continue her education without committing to a full master’s program. She also recommends checking out the values of CSIS. If they resonate with you, she encourages you to apply. “If you’re one of those people that wakes up in the morning and just is eager to make change in their community and make an impact in the world, this is the right program for you,” she says.

Ready to Take the Next Steps?

UPenn offers a free Coursera class, Social Impact Strategy: Tools for Entrepreneurs and Innovators, so that you can get a taste of what CSIS programs are like. Peter Frumkin is the instructor.

You can also learn more about CSIS by attending an information session. Here are the dates for upcoming 2023 info sessions. (All times listed are EDT; click on each session title to register.)

Choosing a CSIS Program

CSIS Executive Program in Social Impact Strategy

CSIS Executive Program in Digital Media for Social Impact

 (If you’re reading this after the above dates have passed, just keep an eye on the CSIS website as new dates are added.)

Already know you want to apply? High five! Let’s do this. Below are the 2023 CSIS application deadlines you need to know. (Again, if you’re reading this at a later date, head to the CSIS website for current application deadlines.)

  • Social Impact Strategy (SIS). November 19, or October 22 for discount.
  • Digital Media for Social Impact (DMSI). November 19, or October 22 for discount.
  • Penn Social Impact Accelerator (PSIA) Online. At least three weeks before the start of the session you’re interested in, or until class fills.
  • Penn Social Impact Accelerator (PSIA) In-Person. At least three weeks before the June 5-7 session, or until class fills.
  • Global Social Impact House (GSIH). February 20, 2024.

(The Social Innovation Design program is already in session for this year, so keep an eye out for 2024 application deadlines.)


As you can tell, I’m passionate about the work of UPenn CSIS — and I’d love to have you join me as an alum!


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