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How to Bring a Sense of Place to the Convention Center

<p>The Net Impact conference kicking off in Portland this week, is bringing dedicated sustainability professionals together from around the country, and using some innovative ideas to connect those people to each other and their host city.</p>

This Thursday, the nonprofit organization I work for will convene more than 2,600 individuals -- representing every sector and nearly every industry -- in Portland, Oregon, to explore the many ways people are using their business skills to make environmental and social change through work.

While business events often face the challenge of creating a sense of community amongst like-minded strangers, the Net Impact Conference is largely driven by its highly engaged network. For us, it becomes a matter of how to create a real sense of place among so many diverse attendees, and how to leverage this into lasting impact on the ground -- including our host city.

To accomplish this, we've created Portland Impact, a series of workshops in which conference attendees will serve as short-term business consultants to a group of Portland-area nonprofits and social innovators.

Portland is frequently cited as one of the greenest cities in America -- and it's earned its reputation thanks to the collaborative efforts of individuals, companies, and local government. It's truly a city where "working for good" simply works. So Net Impact turned to our local Portland chapters to uncover on-the-ground examples of this.

Our student and professional chapters are extremely tuned into their community of local changemakers -- the folks who are coming up with really interesting solutions to the challenges faced by their local community. But these challenges are also shared by many cities across the U.S., and even the globe. Integrating these local organizations into the conference program in a significant way allows us to treat Portland as a proving ground for social and environmental innovation.

go boxOne of these organizations is a company called GO Box. Founded by Laura Weiss in 2010, GO Box is working to eliminate the 60,000 disposable food containers tossed out by Portland lunch-goers every month. "We love our food carts -- they offer great food and great prices," says Weiss. "But they also offer a lot of waste." So Weiss created a reusable container service that allows Portlanders to have their lunch and reduce their waste, too. "After three and a half months, we've attracted 24 food carts and over 300 subscribers, so we're doing something right."

But like most start-ups pioneering new business models, early success also brings certain challenges. "The challenge for us is how to take GO Box outside of Portland -- what are the things I should be thinking about and doing?" says Weiss. "What are the models we could use to do that?"

To get some answers, the company is one of several taking part in the Portland Impact sessions. Other groups involved in the sessions include nonprofits like the Bus Project, a democratically driven group of Millennials tackling sustainable philanthropy, and Focus the Nation, which is helping young leaders accelerate the transition to renewable energy.

"Net Impact is attracting smart, motivated, creative MBA students who have a lot to contribute, and will hopefully have some creative solutions and ideas," explains Weiss. By bringing together students and working professionals to tackle these business challenges in real-time, GO Box hopes to walk away with "new ways of thinking about what these [solutions] might look like, and how I can make them work."

While Portland Impact allows our participants to roll up their sleeves and put many of the theories being discussed in sessions and panels into action, other structured programming helps build community outside of the conference itself.

A bicycle-building session held on the second day of the conference, for example, will leverage the manpower of such a large gathering to build dozens of bicycles. The bikes, donated by Intel, will go to Portland's nonprofit Community Cycling Center, which strengthens the Portland community and protects its natural resources by making bikes accessible to people of all ages, abilities, and incomes.

This kind of hands-on, experiential programming not only engages participants in real solutions that directly impact the Portland community, it infuses the entire weekend with the understanding that social and environmental change requires more than inspiring conversations -- it requires action at the community level.

By participating in such activities, Net Impact Conference attendees are better able to bring this sense of local community home with them, to make change large and small across the globe.

Top photo CC-licensed by Luc Byhet; inline image courtesy of GO Box.

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