Net Impact at 20: It’s not just academic

Joel Makower recently celebrated BSR’s 20th birthday. In kicking off its annual conference, BSR’s President and CEO Aron Cramer observed that 20 years ago the Dow was at 3,300 (it now hovers around 13,300) and four gigabytes of flash memory would cost you half a million dollars (it’s now the price of a vente latte).

Another organization started 20 years ago as well. It was called Students for Responsible Business (SRB) and today it’s known as Net Impact. As it recently celebrated its birthday in Baltimore, some of the organization’s founders acknowledged the help they received from BSR when SRB was struggling.

Today, both organizations are thriving as their members work to create a better world. But while mature businesses are at the core of BSR’s efforts, most of the attendees at the Net Impact birthday bash were probably still in diapers when the organization was founded.  Youthful energy is what drives Net Impact and what sets it apart. At its recent conference, turning that youthful energy into action was the overriding topic of panel presentations and hallway conversations.

Small Steps, Big Wins

The week before the Net Impact conference, I gave a presentation at Ithaca College, where I met the local Net Impact co-Presidents Katie Oertel and Lauren Goldberg. During dinner that night they told me about a contest between campuses sponsored by Net Impact, and I seriously tried to pay attention while checking the score of the Giants game. In a beta program across more than 25 campuses called Small Steps, Big Wins undergraduate students perform relatively simple tasks to earn points and compete for prizes against other Net Impact chapters.

Later in the week I sat down with Shelby Hansen, the Small Steps campus leader for Oklahoma State University. Hansen was proud of her school’s number-two ranking in the contest and explained how the point system worked for the 16 actions students could take. Among the actions we discussed is “Making Laundry Days a Breeze,” which has a value proposition I’d long ago forgotten about:  “by skipping a trip to the dryer you’ll never come back to the dryer too late and find your clean clothes on the floor.”

One interesting consequence of the competition is that due to the relationship with Net Impact, chapter leadership was able to go to the residence hall assistants to work on a strategy for creating an infrastructure where students could air dry their clothes. This will be one small step that will leave a legacy after chapter members graduate next spring.

Net Impact CEO Liz Maw was most excited that the program is rolling out as both a web site to track progress, but also as a facebook app. Maw explained that small steps become habits and students develop those habits during this program because it’s fun. I asked Maw how corporations might help out and she mentioned a number of companies who had donated prizes such as REI gift cards, Southwest Airlines flights, and tickets to Coachella 2013. For the Net Impact campus director who leads the most successful team, he or she will get a chance to shadow Darell Hammond, CEO and Founder of KaBOOM!

Next page: A dating site for water?