Big Ideas: “Skills-based volunteerism; create the connection between people and the places they can make a difference.” with Common Impact CEO, Danielle Holly

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Holly. Danielle Holly is dedicated to creating previously unseen pathways for individuals to meaningfully contribute to making their communities thrive. She envisions a world where every person is able […]

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As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Holly. Danielle Holly is dedicated to creating previously unseen pathways for individuals to meaningfully contribute to making their communities thrive. She envisions a world where every person is able to bring their values and personal mission to their day jobs, integrate healthy and sustainable personal lives and, as a result, have the drive and energy to make our communities more equitable and vibrant.

She is currently the CEO of Common Impact, an organization that designs programs that directs our society’s most strategic, philanthropic asset — our people — to the seemingly intractable social challenges they’re best positioned to address. Danielle has supported hundreds of nonprofit organizations on capacity building and growth strategies to in order to effectively scale their models of social impact. In addition, Danielle has helped numerous corporations navigate the new era in corporate social responsibility and skills-based volunteering, including global powerhouses JPMorgan Chase, Charles Schwab, Marriott International, and Fidelity Investments.

She is a contributing writer for Nonprofit Quarterly, a member of the NationSwell Council, and has served on the Board of Directors for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and Net Impact NYC.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I worked on Wall Street early in my career, I was exposed to the massive amount of money that was moving through the system on a daily basis — and how decisions were being made, sometimes poorly, around where that money was being directed. My day ended when the bell rang at 4pm and, with the disposable time that my early 20s allowed, I started supporting nonprofits in the area with their finances — modeling, basic bookkeeping, anything that was needed — what I would now call skills-based volunteerism. It was remarkable to me how much these small cash-strapped nonprofits were able to accomplish, and how necessary their services were to the community. My daytime and evening experiences were, literally, like night and day, and I became fascinated and motivated by this idea that we have the resources that we need in the world — we’re just not directing them appropriately. We needed a mechanism and, specifically, we needed to give citizens the easily accessible, eye-opening experiences like the one I had — where just a few hours spent supporting a mission-based organization changed the way I thought about my own mission, career and the ways I could use my skills and experiences to make a difference.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I first started my career, I worked at ABC News in New York. This was in 2002, right after September 11th had occurred, and the media was past coverage of the immediate impact, and focused on the analysis and stories that came out of that world-changing event. I worked closely with my boss to review and edit coverage that would make it to the nightly news, and it was during that — albeit short — period of time, when I learned about how many different perspectives, nuances, stories and dimensions exist on any one issue, and the storyteller’s privilege (in this case the media’s privilege) in crafting the perspectives that get shared and heard. Since then, and as someone who has been in position of storyteller myself, I am relentless in understanding as many different perspectives as I’m able and constantly fascinated by how people see the same thing in vastly different ways.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

What if we were able to tap into and direct the passions and the talents of our citizens towards the social challenges they’re best positioned to address? Right now, people read news headlines and see the challenges that communities are facing. They want to help, but they don’t know how. And so that intent, those passions and skills remain dormant. Our big idea is a simple one — create the connection between people and the places they can make a difference. We call it skills-based volunteerism which is based on the core mission of directing people from passively reading headlines to being a part of the story. Our organization, Common Impact, matches a company’s volunteers with non-profit organizations to assist them within each volunteer’s area of expertise — marketing, communication, accounting, bookkeeping, management, etc. The result is extended, focused assistance for the non-profit that “has legs” or a long-term impact, making a genuine difference in that organization’s operation — and its future.

How do you think this will change the world?

We have the resources we need to solve every social challenge we face. We have enough food to feed every person on this planet, but billions of people are starving every day. We have enough shelter to put a roof over every person’s head, but our homelessness challenge grows. By tapping into our neighbors and citizens who want to be engaged but aren’t, we break down the barriers that are blocking us from connecting those resources to the areas of need. We unlock new resources, we better access those we already have, we help each other better understand these challenges and most importantly, how we can solve them.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

No, the idea of skills-based volunteerism is, at its core, driven by human empathy and ambition which is timeless and can exist within any economic and technological environment.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

The capabilities of our workforce are our largest untapped philanthropic asset. I don’t think we have a chance of solving our communities’ largest challenges — and the issues that so often divide us — if we don’t tap into the talents and empathy of our citizens. This has the potential to be as powerful a force as financial and philanthropic investment if we see widespread adoption.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  • Listen more closely to criticism than praise
  • Never assume you know everything about a situation or question — there’s always something to learn
  • Don’t let someone else’s priorities define your day
  • Choose your battles — at home and in the workplace
  • Recognize your biases — be gentle with yourself when you fall into assumptions but work hard to fight and learn from them.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

We’re moving towards a society in which the siloes and structures that used to exist are being blurred. Work and life are less distinct than they were as individuals refuse to check their values and passions at the office door. Businesses are realizing that a single bottom line mindset isn’t sustainable or resilient. Organizations across all sectors and industries are recognizing the importance of a cross-discipline, matrixed approach to problem solving — and that strategy, human resources, marketing, technology and finance can no longer live in neatly defined departments and roles. The new workforce has to recognize that, and focus on building a nimble, adaptable set of skills that allows them to have insight and impact on challenges that transcend functional areas, industries and sectors.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

Social enterprises and mission-based organizations that are engaging people in place-based change through public, private and nonprofit sector collaboration

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Every morning I wake up thinking about Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” It means different things to me on different days, and motivates me in different ways, but it always keeps me from being complacent. Whether it’s in my personal or professional life, I actively practice moving myself outside of my comfort zone. I’ve learned that most things are much scarier when they’re left unexplored. And those that are truly scarier than they appear — those are the places that usually need my focus or attention — those are the places where you grow and support others the most.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Everyone gets their energy in different ways — from different types of people, different types of work and at different times of the day. Pay close attention to when your energy is the highest, and use that time to take stock of your personal and professional goals, answer your most complex questions, do your hardest work.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

What would you say if I told you the solutions to our society’s largest challenges was standing right in front of us and we were ignoring it? If I told you it was with us all day every day — when we were at work, on our commutes, and at home. The talents and experiences that we all have are our largest, most effective philanthropic asset and right now they’re left dormant. Research tells us unequivocally that individuals have more intent to give, to volunteer and to become civically engaged than they are. They need a connection point, a way to transform those intentions into action. Common Impact is that mechanism — channeling the many talents and expertise that reside in our citizen towards the challenges they’re best positioned to address. The result: deeper, more strategic civic engagement, a more conscious, resilient workforce, and the acceleration of solutions to social challenges.

How can our readers follow you on social media?





Danielle Holly

Common Impact

ProBono Perspectives Podcast:

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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