My ears perked up. I wrote the words in capital letters in my notebook and drew a large box around them.
Dave Stangis, a Corporate Responsibility Leader for Campbell Soup Company, made this statement at the Net Impact Conference in 2014. I decided to attend the conference because of an ongoing interest in the environment and international development. I was toying with the idea of moving from my established career in human resources into corporate social responsibility.
It quickly became a non-decision. Prior to attending the Net Impact Conference I felt that I needed a job title to make a real difference. I learned, however, that many people driving change were experts in something completely unrelated to sustainability or community relations. They were supply chain managers, engineers, and entrepreneurs that layered sustainability on top of their expertise to create an impact in an area where they had influence.
Last week I heard a story on NPR about Carmen Bachmann, a professor of tax and finance in Germany. She saw that the 6,000 refugees living in shelters in her town spent most of their time just sitting and waiting. Carmen felt this was a waste of human capital; a loss for the individuals that couldn’t use their knowledge and a loss for society that wouldn’t benefit from their work. She called the unemployment office and discovered there were no jobs available for highly skilled workers in science and academia. She thought to herself, “My contribution to this problem is what my profession is. I know the special need for the people who have an academic background and I thought, this is what I can contribute.” In other words, Carmen Bachmann decided to act from her position of impact. Carmen worked with a grad student to build a website that matches refugees with a science background to jobs in academia. The website had a slow start, but after Carmen visited shelters and made personal connections with refugees, people began to sign up. Now over 100 refugees have registered on the site and European Union officials have asked Carmen to speak about her work.
I cried as I listened to this story in my car. I cried again while replaying it in Spyhouse Coffee to write this post. I shed tears partly for the stories of the refugees that had held respected positions in their home countries and were now waiting to be recognized and utilized in a new country. I also cried from inspiration. Carmen Bachmann is an ordinary person. Is she solving the refugee crisis? No. But instead of being overwhelmed and paralyzed by the enormity of the crisis as a whole, she looked at what she could influence, how her skills and connections could make a difference, and she acted. Imagine the total impact if everyone behaved in the same way as Carmen.
Perhaps you already know your position of impact and are affecting positive change in your community. If so, I would love to hear your stories. If you’re reading this post and wondering what difference you can make, reflect and ask yourself:
- What skills and talents do I bring to the table?
- What are my connections to people and organizations in my community? Who is within my sphere of influence?
- What causes or organizations align with my values? What am I motivated to work on?
I believe your position of impact comes from the overlap of these three areas: skills, connections, and values. Determine this sweet spot for you and then look for – or create – opportunities to act.This perspective has shifted how I pursue community service. For years I volunteered with kids programs in organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Perspectives, and CLUES. They are doing excellent work in the Twin Cities and were great experiences for me, but I knew I had skills that many nonprofits couldn’t afford – someone to facilitate team development, coach employees, or provide an HR perspective. I also wanted to learn more about how I could connect employee development in my organization to community service. Exploring these overlapping areas led me to a meeting with HandsOn Twin Cities, an organization that seeks to increase the impact of volunteerism through working with individuals, companies, and nonprofits. I joined the Board at HandsOn six months ago and it has already been a great opportunity to utilize my skills and experiences to help the organization achieve their mission. Additionally, I connected with members of the community relations team at my company to co-create a leadership development program for individuals that lead our employee networks and community councils. I will never invent a life-saving vaccine, provide pro-bono legal work, or donate billions of dollars to anything. My position of impact is with people – developing and training others so they can fully utilize their talents to build and transform their teams and communities.
Your position of impact may be entirely unrelated to your occupation. I now know that I want my writing to reach someone or something beyond myself. I reflected while composing this post and realized that I have already been doing this for many years. In high school I wrote an absurdly long letter to the editor of the local newspaper speaking out against moving to a four-period school day (it happened anyway). As a college intern for the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) I volunteered to write an article about the history of Earth Day and opportunities for involvement in local Earth Day events. To my surprise it was published in the Wisconsin State Journal. I had no degree, title, or experience that qualified me to write an op-ed in a newspaper. But my connections to WISPIRG, a personal value to protect the environment, and a little skill in writing allowed it to happen. If only one person participated in Earth Day events because of that article, there was impact. If one of you considers your position of impact and takes action after reading this post, there will be change.
We are limited in our time and energy. Acting from our strengths and values guarantees that we can make the greatest difference with our resources. Start from your position of impact and the battle is already halfway won.