Net Impact: 6 ways to be a sustainability superhero

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“Breaking Boundaries” was the theme that informed the keynotes and over 100 breakout sessions at Net Impact’s 2014 Annual Conference in Minneapolis last weekend.

Speakers such as Net Impact’s CEO Liz Maw and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheryl WuDunn spared no effort inspiring attendees to break boundaries and drive transformational change in their workplaces and the world.

As a learning and organization development professional, I was inspired by the conference’s energy and discussions about leadership and employee engagement.

Here are the boundary-breaking ideas that I took away:

1. We all can be superheroes

Introducing the theme of breaking boundaries, Maw’s opening comments encouraged participants to look for the heroes in themselves. “There are superheroes around us, everywhere we look,” said Maw. “Just like Wonder Woman or the Green Lantern, but maybe in more subtle outfits.”

Maw shared a quote from screen and real-life superhero to many, Christopher Reeve, who famously said: “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”

Ultimately, we all have the ability to make a positive net impact, and we accomplish more when we combine our “super powers” — our individual strengths, skills and talents.

2. We have to solve the big problems together. It’s the only way

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges shared this idea and challenged attendees to look for more ways to incorporate service learning into their organizations.

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s masters of sociology program, Hodges sees service learning as an important way for organizations to solve big problems, while developing workforce and leadership skills and serving communities.

During her remarks, Hodges commented on some sustainability-related accolades Minneapolis has received, such as having more green buildings than any other city in the U.S. and having the highest literacy rate. She also acknowledged that the city has some real challenges, such as one of the highest equity gaps in the country.

When facing change, Hodges encouraged attendees to be courageous, referencing a well-known line from the serenity prayer, “the courage to change the things I can.”

“Change means you’re doing something different. You don’t have a map,” she said. “If you’re going to do that, you need courage, because you will get pushback. Change takes courage.”

3. People yearn to be asked to do the most they can do, not the least

With a TED talk that’s been viewed by over 3 million people, Dan Pallotta is breaking boundaries within the non-profit sector.

Pallotta is the innovator behind the multi-day charity event industry (AIDS rides, breast cancer walks). His keynote articulated a compelling business case for why we need to think differently about non-profits, specifically as it relates to compensation (including CEO salaries), advertising and marketing expenditures, risk taking and innovation.

In this context, he suggested that people yearn to be asked to do more. And that asking more is important, especially if we want to rapidly accelerate progress on some of the most significant social issues we face.

Enlightening for many were Pallotta’s views around non-profit overhead expenses.

Many of us have been trained to ask, or seek out the answer to, what percentage of my donation goes to the cause vs. overhead? Collective focus on this question forces many non-profits to go without the infrastructure they need to grow donations — creating a vicious cycle.

One way Pallotta hopes to break this cycle is through the creation of the Charity Defense Council. He envisions the council playing an important role in transforming how the public thinks about the non-profit sector. To help launch the organization, Pallotta asked attendees to consider joining the Charity Defense March. The group’s goal is to have 500 people walk 60 miles over three days and help raise $1 million in June.

4. If societies won’t function, businesses won’t function either

1 in 20 children don't make it past age 5.

800 million people go to bed hungry each night.

2.5 billion still lack access to clean water.

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, shared these statistics and his perspective on sustainable business during an interview Friday morning with Joel Makower.

While we face great challenges, there are also amazing opportunities. According to Polman, capitalism works, if you make it work. We need to help it evolve. When you do this, you can achieve miracles.

According to Polman, Unilever has seen a huge increase in employee engagement. The company’s focus on sustainability has unleashed new energy in the organization, which is good, because Polman also feels that the next five years will be critical. We need to start to think about innovation, in terms of what society needs vs. what companies think they can sell. You cannot increase growth without addressing poverty alleviation, water issues, etc.

Polman also encouraged attendees to take responsibility for the challenges and stay positive: “You need to keep your mind focused on positive force and positive energy.”

5. People want business to be used in a different way

This is Andrew Kassoy’s perspective. Kassoy is co-founder of B Lab, and shared his views during a Friday session titled "For Profit and Purpose: What’s the Future of Mission-Driven Business?"

While the number of B Corporations is still small (just over 1,000 as compared to over 23 million registered entities on earth), B Lab has over 20,000 organizations using their tools, and an increasing number of subsidiaries of public companies choose to become certified B Corps.

All companies should be socially responsible, but “do no harm” is not particularly inspiring. Building on the idea presented by Polman, Kassoy suggested that what’s needed is a movement — an evolution of capitalism itself. This type of movement can increase the number of businesses striving to create greater value for society (not just shareholders) and give everyone the opportunity to use business as a force for good.

6. Seize opportunities

One boundary breaker who received a standing ovation last weekend was Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University.

A well-known author and speaker for her work related to livestock-handling equipment design and autism (as the most well-known adult with autism in the world), Grandin overviewed her work and her ideas regarding boundary breaking.

Related to her life’s journey, her advice to participants was to seize opportunities. Grandin shared that when she got on a break early in her career, she didn’t feel she was 100 percent ready for the project she was asked to help with, but she said “Yes” anyway, and made it happen.

“The door opens sometimes, just for a second.” When the door opens, you’ve got to walk through it, find the people who will help you and do it.