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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!

As its web site states, the “net” in Net Impact “benefits not just the bottom line, but people and planet too.” But the net also refers to the network of 30,000 members who can make an impact across the globe. That’s what CH2MHill’s Jan Dell is hoping to tap into as she seeks to enroll students to help with the company’s WaterMatch Initiative. Dell wrote about the initiative in GreenBiz last year and after a trial period with universities in Arizona and southern California she’s ready for schools around the globe to jump in.

In her GreenBiz article Dell meticulously describes the program, albeit from a bit more of a technical angel. At a Net Impact session she took a lighter tone, summarizing it as a combination of a Facebook page for water and a dating web site. The goal is to match municipal water treatment centers with corporations that could use the treated water instead of drawing from freshwater sources. “But the difference between this initiative and dating sites is that it’s OK to make more than one match.”

Mixing crowd sourced student resources with social media offers WaterMatch the best chance at success. By partnering with Net Impact, the initiative may become one more small step that results in a big win.

Putting Net Impact on Your Calendar

As Makower wrote in regards to attending the BSR conference this year, there are very few conferences my GreenBiz colleagues and I attend. But Net Impact is refreshing. One of the last panels I saw focused on “The Business Case for LGBT Equality.” I’m not sure what other conference gives you Areva’s Director of Sustainable Development Laura Clise cajoling attendees to clap and stomp like a human beat box as she rapped an introduction to the session. Or where you would hear Microsoft’s Steve Lippman explain how “Some of my best friends are in government affairs,” while going on to explain why his company and others view LGBT equality as business getting on the right side of history.

But perhaps the best reason to attend Net Impact next year in San Jose is not the panels or the expo or even the keynote speakers. It’s the students who make up the majority of the audience. They are not afraid of asking tough questions. They are excited about the change that can happen. And they can re-energize you and remind you why you too are working for change.

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