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WHAT IS SOCIAL IMPACT?

When you think about what nonprofit organizations do, you probably think about specific programs or resources that help people in need.

A food pantry, a shelter or a blood bank—all communities need nonprofits to support and deliver critical services like these and others to people in need.

Community service is part of that model. Maybe you had your first community service experience in high school. In college, you might have volunteered in service activities—maybe you cleaned up a neighborhood park on Earth Day, collected books for a literacy program, or tutored at a local afterschool program. You’ve seen for yourself how important service is to a community and how nonprofits not only meet needs, but also help to inspire a sense of social responsibility and connection.

If you’re like most of our Fellows, your involvement in service was only the beginning. After a morning spent sorting food for a food pantry, you consider the causes of hunger and food insecurity. You ask questions about what prevents all children from being able to read by the third grade. You become interested in what hinders educational achievement or health status or economic opportunity. You try to register people to vote and you wonder why some feel disenfranchised and disconnected.

Maybe you took a course or two in college that explored social inequality, racism, gender equity or civil rights. Maybe you started to connect what you’d learned to what you were seeing in the world around you. Somehow you arrived at a point where you thought we can and should do more. You might have even felt a sense of outrage.

Understanding the drivers of social inequality is where social impact starts. The next steps involve thinking not only about responding to social problems, but also figuring out how to fix them. How do we address the problem? Do we need governmental change? Do we need a different approach? How do we solve it forever and everywhere?

No surprise—social impact leaders regularly challenge systems, assumptions and the status quo. They ask questions that make people uncomfortable and even agitated. Are we creating a new problem with this approach that we’ve invested in for so many years? Even worse—are we actually part of the problem we’re trying to fix?

A social impact team proposes new solutions. Debate intensifies. Should we advocate for extending the school day? Should we create and share a civics curriculum to encourage voting? Can we bring food education or environmental education to more people?

Ideas get critiqued, revised, tossed, revived, tested, iterated and maybe piloted. Is the approach financially feasible? What’s the business model? Can we scale this solution? How do we get the word out? How do we measure our impact? How do we make it better? And who will be our strategic partners, our allies, our friends?

And then, sometimes, hard-won magic happens and an actual social problem gets solved. A piece of legislation passes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title IX. Minimum wage. Maybe a case comes to the Court and stops a form of discrimination. Or an organization rises up in its community to push back against injustice and changes the community and the culture in the process. A school district funds healthy school lunches or makes laptops available to all students. A playground appears in an otherwise vacant lot. A business community creates a new scholarship program for local college-bound students and inspires their dreams.

Social impact transforms cultures, communities and assumptions. Communities notice and get excited when social impact organizations achieve results. Citizens start to question their own assumptions and ask how they can amplify the work of the organization and add to it. In this way, social impact has the potential to rewrite the rules and create momentum for real change. The political climate changes. The social climate changes. Our world actually does become a better place.

The work is hard work. It takes a person who’s excited about problem-solving, who cares deeply about community and social justice and achieving real goals. You have to be a dreamer, but you also have to be incredibly practical, tough, resilient and persistent.

Few experiences are as rewarding. Not everyone gets a chance to be part of righting an unjust wrong or making the kind of change that affects hundreds, thousands or even millions of lives.

Humbling, for sure, but also thrilling.