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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 the support of nonprofits to deliver critical services like these and many others.

Volunteering is another aspect of service work. 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 first-hand 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 considered the causes of hunger and food insecurity. You asked questions about what prevents many children from being able to read at grade level by the fourth grade. You became interested in systemic obstacles to educational achievement, health equity, or economic opportunity. You try to register people to vote and you wonder why some are 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.

Understanding the drivers of 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 deeper: are we actually part of the problem we’re trying to fix?

Sometimes, hard-won magic happens and we make progress towards rectifying social problems. A piece of legislation passes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title IX. Minimum wage. Maybe a case comes to the Supreme Court and stops a form of discrimination. Or an organization rises up in its community to push back against injustice, changing the community and culture in the process. A school district funds healthy school lunches or makes laptops available to all students. A playground is built in a previously vacant lot. A business community creates a scholarship program for local college-bound students and inspires their dreams.

Social impact is work that 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 and social climates change. Our world actually does become a better place.

The work is hard. 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 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.