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Danielle Holly of Common Impact: “Giving voice to the voiceless”

I’ve been so inspired by how we have adapted and taken precautions to care for each other and keep each other safe. A year ago, we could never have imagined that we’d be where we are right now; that face masks would be the norm, that we’d dance back and forth on the street to […]

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I’ve been so inspired by how we have adapted and taken precautions to care for each other and keep each other safe. A year ago, we could never have imagined that we’d be where we are right now; that face masks would be the norm, that we’d dance back and forth on the street to avoid getting to close to our neighbors, that we’d be so connected to each other by this common crisis. It’s been incredible to watch how we’ve shifted our behaviors as a society to ensure that we can come through this together.


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Holly.

Danielle Holly is dedicated to creating previously unseen pathways for individuals to help their communities thrive. She is the CEO of Common Impact, an organization that brings companies and social change organizations together to create meaningful change through skilled volunteerism. For the past 13 years, Danielle has led the social sector movement to channel individual talents and superpowers as a force for good. She has helped Fortune 100 companies shape their community engagement and investment programs, supported nonprofits in effectively leveraging service for strategic ends, and built the industry-leading tools that enable companies and nonprofits to work together effectively. In addition, she hosts Pro Bono Perspectives, a popular podcast currently in its third season that highlights the careers of cross-sector leaders.

In addition to leading a rapidly growing nonprofit, Danielle is a member of the NationSwell Council and serves on the Board of Directors for Women in Innovation and Fan4Kids. She is a contributing writer for Nonprofit Quarterly and has been featured in Stanford Social Innovation Review, Triple Pundit, sgENGAGE, and more. Danielle has presented at major industry conferences including 3BL Forum, bbcon, the Points of Light Conference on Volunteering and Service, and Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Nonprofit Management Institute.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I had a classic NYC childhood. I was born and raised in NYC, as were my parents who were from Queens and Manhattan. I grew up with a lot of New York pride and rooted for all the city’s underdog sports teams (being a Mets and Jets fan has been a tough ride…). I left the city for about 7 years, living in Boston and New Haven, but I knew that I wanted to raise my kids in the city and allow them to be surrounded by the incredible cultures and opportunities it offers.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. I’ve read the book before, but the author himself is the narrator on the audiobook and it’s incredibly powerful. He shares so many stories and examples of how deeply racism is embedded in our society and that it exists within all of us — even the author himself. It has reminded me to constantly check my assumptions and biases, which has been challenging but critical work.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

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.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

I’ve served as CEO of Common Impact since September 2012. Our mission is to alleviate inequality by building the capacity of social change organizations fighting for equity. We accomplish this through our skilled volunteerism programs and partnerships with companies, the largest and most sustainable source of pro bono expertise. Last March, when quarantine orders forced many organizations to cancel in-person volunteering, Common Impact was already ahead of the need for a solution with several years of experience in virtual volunteering under our belts from virtual half-day pitch competitions to months long online consulting projects.

We worked closely with our nonprofit and corporate partners to refocus their capacity-building programs for the virtual environment and new and increased needs relating to COVID-19, racial justice, and other urgent community needs. Part of this involved expanding our virtual volunteering catalog to include new models like a pro bono hotline and virtual education offerings, as well as free resources for nonprofits. This enabled us to better serve organizations where they were, whatever that meant in terms of their needs, resources, and capacity.

Many of our skills-based volunteering engagements and partnerships over the past year have focused on COVID-19 relief, either primarily or secondarily. One that I’m most proud of is our 2020 Skills for Cities event. Common Impact made the decision to dedicate our flagship multi-nonprofit, cross-company day of skills-based volunteering to exclusively support racial justice or BIPOC-led nonprofits as they responded to the dual pandemics of racial injustice and COVID-19. We knew there was unprecedented need for a high impact capacity building event like this, so we took it national and virtual for the first time, creating a 100+ person virtual volunteering experience that brought together volunteers from 11 industry-leading companies to collaborate with 14 nonprofits on solutions to their most pressing operational needs. Skills for Cities 2020 provided 146,000 dollars in pro bono services in just one day, the impact of which the nonprofits will feel for years to come.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

The willingness to be uncomfortable, scared, or sacrificing in order to do what you feel is right.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Giving voice to the voiceless
  2. The courage to understand your fears and face them in order to accomplish what you know is right or needed
  3. An ability to look past one’s own comfort and privilege and sacrifice for the greater good
  4. An ability to shift the current mindset or operating framework
  5. An ability to admit mistakes and to openly learn from them so others can as well

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

It’s going to sound a little trite, but at the end of the day, I believe it’s love that drives people to have courage and demonstrate heroism. Love for their families and children for whom they want to provide a better world, love for their beliefs, love for their neighbors, love for their cities and countries, love for themselves.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

I’m not sure I would describe it as heroic, but last year — after the consecutive, high profile murdering of Black Americans — Common Impact decided to be vocal and unforgiving in its call for racial justice. We had discussed having more of a social justice voice over the years. While our mission is rooted in alleviating inequality, members of the board and staff had historically been nervous that if we appeared too political, we’d damage our brand as a bridge builder or we’d lose funding. In 2020, we decided that we needed to be on the right side of history. We were willing to lose funding and to weather reputational shifts to say something that shouldn’t be remotely controversial — that every human being is deserving of equal opportunity, fair treatment, and access to the basic necessities of life.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

I’ve been so inspired by the new generation of leaders that’s emerging. Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate who gave this year’s Inaugural address and inspired the world. Her words, “Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished,” was an uplifting, needed call after we had witnessed democracy itself tested in early January. Kyal Sin, the 19-year-old on the frontlines of the anti-coup protests in Myanmar, who was brutally killed while trying to protect her fellow protestors. Some of the strongest heroes of our time are our young people who are wasting no time in their efforts to shepherd in a more just society.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

I’m frightened about the mental health toll that we’ll feel for years to come and the role that stigma and lack of resources might play in preventing people from getting the support they need. We have essential workers who are risking their lives every day and, even if they don’t become ill, they and their families are feeling the weight and stress of exposure and uncertainty. We have children who are falling behind their peers in a virtual education environment because they lack access to the technology they need or because they have learning disabilities that aren’t being supported. We have young people who want to be out socializing, dating, falling in love, and instead are isolated. We not only need more extensive, widespread mental health support right now, but we’ll need it for years to come.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

As CEO of Common Impact, I cross paths with purpose-driven leaders across sectors on a daily basis. It’s a privilege for me to hear their stories and work with both corporate and nonprofit leaders to generate social impact and strengthen communities. One of our values as an organization is creating unlikely partnerships between people and organizations that wouldn’t otherwise be connected to learn from one another — the Black executive director of a small but thriving nonprofit organization and the white leader of a Fortune 500 company or the members of a company’s LGBTQIA+ employee resource group and the staff from an organization trying to expand services to that same community. These partnerships create change for the organizations and individuals, and it’s that sort of eye-opening change that gives me hope for the future.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

I’ve been so inspired by how we have adapted and taken precautions to care for each other and keep each other safe. A year ago, we could never have imagined that we’d be where we are right now; that face masks would be the norm, that we’d dance back and forth on the street to avoid getting to close to our neighbors, that we’d be so connected to each other by this common crisis. It’s been incredible to watch how we’ve shifted our behaviors as a society to ensure that we can come through this together.

Most disappointing are the people who opt out of that ecosystem — those who have set aside science, common sense, and common decency, who have decided against taking precautions and have willingly risked the lives of others. I do really believe these people are the exception — that there are more examples of good than bad — but it’s been disheartening and sad to see these selfish decisions being made.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

The crisis mostly reinforced the dimensions of society that I knew to be true but hadn’t looked at head on in the way that we all are right now. I knew that our BIPOC community members and friends were bearing the brunt of our society’s ills. I knew that the digital divide was a challenge. I knew that unifying our country was nowhere on the agenda of our previous administration and president. All of these pieces were reinforced for me — I now know them in a new way and I feel more motivated to be a part of addressing these challenges — but they weren’t new.

The one new understanding I have coming out of the pandemic is how quickly real change can happen. When forced, we can make fundamental changes to our lives, we can shift norms and routines, we can let go of practices we thought were essential. Climate change requires the same seismic shift from our society. I don’t know that we’re going to get the same rude awakening that COVID-19 brought us — at least not in time — to fight against climate change in the same way. Still, we now have a powerful example of what’s possible in the fight against inertia and the status quo.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

There’s been a lot of talk this past year about how COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequities in our society and how when we finally come out of this public health crisis, the goal shouldn’t be to return to normal, but to build back better. We have a unique opportunity to learn from the systems that broke under this immense pressure, the ones that persevered, and the ones that never really worked at all. I want us to reshape society to be more attentive to populations that have been neglected or taken advantage of by unjust policies, more inclusive of those who have been marginalized or discriminated against, and more receptive to new ideas for social change, no matter where they come from.

In particular, we need to be listening more to BIPOC leaders in nonprofits, companies, and government who, despite having innovative and oftentimes proven solutions to our most intractable societal challenge, are disproportionately less likely to receive the funds, resources, and support they need to scale their work. Common Impact posted a Black Leadership Spotlight series on our blog that highlighted some of these leaders and their recommendations for how companies and philanthropies can step up for Black and BIPOC-led nonprofits: learning about and connecting with local organizations with proven track records of impactful work, reducing restrictions on funding, investing in nonprofit capacity building and skills-based volunteering, and so on. I encourage everyone reading this to take a look at what these accomplished leaders have to say.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Former President Barak Obama’s May 2020 high school commencement speech included one of the most powerful calls to action for young people that I’ve heard: “No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job and afford college, if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

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 as volunteers to help others. This has the potential to be as powerful a force as financial and philanthropic investment if we see widespread adoption.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Barack Obama would be my first choice, because I’d like to hear his ideas on how to make the world better from the perspective of his new perch as a semi-private citizen. Or Eleanor Roosevelt. She’s a hero of mine and her famous quote “Do one thing every day that scares you” is on the wall above my desk as a constant reminder to push myself. She also seems like she’d be a fun lunch date and that we might just roll our eyes at the same thing!

How can our readers follow you online?

Check us out at commonimpact.org and follow us on social media! You can also find our podcast, Pro Bono Perspectives, on our site and wherever you listen to podcasts.

LinkedIn: Common Impact

Twitter: @CommonImpact

Facebook: @CommonImpact1

Instagram: @commonimpact

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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