How to Make a Positive Social Impact—Without Quitting Your Day Job
Want to make a difference in the world, but aren’t sure where to start? The Executive Director of MIT Solve shares her advice.
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People young and old ask me all the time how they can get started in social impact. Some are recent graduates looking for their first job, and their dream is to go work for the United Nations in Africa. Some are frustrated lawyers who want to do more than rewrite obscure arbitration clauses into yet another contract (not that this is all that lawyers do!). Others are nearing retirement and want to use the productive time they have to give back and think about their legacy. Regardless, my advice is always the same:
- Find your purpose, or at least harbor your best guess.
- Start with 10 percent of your time and money.
I firmly believe that we all want to do good in the world and that finding and living your purpose is hugely rewarding. There is no better experience than being in the flow of your purpose and feeling aligned with what you wake up to do every day. It’s also what the world needs right now. If we are going to get serious about solving the world’s most intractable challenges—inequality, injustice, exploitation, and extraction—we need everyone to get in the game and pitch in. That’s why I decided to write my first book, The Answer is You: A Guidebook to Creating a Life Full of Impact (also available here if you want to support independent bookstores!). My book helps everyone think about how they can make an impact in the world, through both problem-solving frameworks and inspiring stories of social entrepreneurs, impact investors, activists, and other changemakers.
Here’s my advice for those who want to get involved with social change but aren’t sure where to begin.
Find Your Purpose
The first step in this journey is to search for your purpose. That can be hard and confusing for many, especially when you are just getting started. There are so many big challenges in the world and so many things you could devote your time to—so how do you choose?
Don’t start by asking what problem you should tackle or what solution you should jump into. Instead, look within yourself and ask: What are my superpowers? What am I uniquely good at, in terms of my skills and my lived experience, that I can bring to the fight? You don’t need to be a superhero (nobody can go it alone!), but we all have superpowers: our talents, our ingenuity, our compassion, and even our traumas that we can bring to bear.
Then, as you think about real problems affecting millions and billions of people, ask yourself: Which problem resonates most with my own story? A problem can resonate directly because you or a loved one have been affected by it, or indirectly because you have spent time studying it and talking to the people most affected by it. It’s the problem that keeps you up at night, that robs you of your sleep, that makes your blood boil over the injustice it causes—that is a problem worth your time.
At the intersection of your superpowers and that problem lies your purpose.
There are many real problems in the world, but if an issue doesn’t resonate with you deeply, or if you don’t have the right superpowers to help, it’s not your purpose—even if it’s a worthy cause. Conversely, if you know your superpowers, but you are using them to solve the marginal headaches of the most fortunate among us—well, hopefully you are making lots of money doing this, but you are not living your true purpose.
I’m not saying that finding your purpose is easy. It often involves trial and error and doesn’t follow a linear path. But the time to start is now.
Guess and Test
List out your superpowers on one side of a piece of paper. On the other side, list out problems that both resonate deeply with you and matter to millions or billions of people. Find some interesting intersections and hazard your best guess as to which problem you could get sufficiently energized (or enraged!) about to try to solve.
And then test it out!
For the frustrated lawyers among you, that does not mean you should hand in your resignation right now, unless you really want to (and can afford to do so). Many of you reading this have, by and large, the choice of what you do with your waking hours, and that is truly already a privilege. Nonetheless, many of you have obligations to your family or to your student loan company, which might mean you can’t just up and go.
This brings us to my second piece of advice: Start by devoting just 10% of your time and money to impact. This echoes Patrick J. McGinnis’s advice in his book The 10% Entrepreneur, although you do not need to be an entrepreneur to follow this rule.
Follow the 10% Rule
10% of your time is less than one day a week, which allows you to be flexible. Perhaps you’ll choose a weekend afternoon, or 1-2 evenings per week to devote to your purpose. This could look like:
- Volunteering with an organization you admire and where your skills could be truly valuable (e.g. you are a frustrated lawyer—an NGO will always welcome some pro-bono legal support!)
- Preparing a business plan for a social enterprise you’d like to launch and then creating a prototype, or even a Minimum Viable Product, as Eric Ries advises in The Lean Startup (Ann Mei Chang updated his methodology to apply directly to impact in her book, Lean Impact)
- Taking a course on impact investing or developing a skill that’s needed in your area of focus
- Watching TED talks and reading books on climate change, or whatever area you’re interested in, to help you learn more
Whatever it is, it’s okay not to go in 100% from the beginning. Devoting 10% of your time is achievable and something you can build on over time.
Devoting 10% of your money to a cause does not have to mean giving away 10% entirely (although many religions do, in fact, advise this). While the average American gives away only about 2% of their income a year, lower-income Americans and people of color are more generous. If you can give away a full 10%, please do! Regardless of where you start, give something, and give a little bit more every year if you can. In terms of where you donate, think about it strategically—what are the problems that you want to help solve? Give to those organizations, and if you want to do more, see if they need volunteers, or if you can help out in a meaningful way in addition to giving money.
Invest with Purpose
You can also think about using your money for social impact in terms of your investing and purchasing decisions.
If you have a 401(k) or a brokerage account, how much of your money is invested for impact? If you don’t know the answer, it’s probably zero. This likely means that some of your money that’s hard at work growing for your future retirement is invested in stuff that is harming the planet. Instead, you can choose investments that are, at the very least, screened with an ESG (environmental, social and governance) lens, although these typically do not go as far as they should. And new impact-driven investment options are coming out every day.
Wherever you are on your impact journey, know that you are not alone and that when we all take up our seat at the problem-solving table, we can solve the world’s most intractable challenges. The world cannot wait.