Social Impact Heroes: “What’s so frustrating about our largest societal challenges is that we have the resources to solve them, but we’re allowing our differences to stop us from doing so” With Danielle Holly of Common Impact

What’s so frustrating about our largest societal challenges — poverty, inequality, food scarcity, even climate change — is that we have the resources to solve them, but we’re allowing our differences to stop us from doing so. Part of what we’re trying to do at Common Impact is to bring people together who would otherwise never be in the […]

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What’s so frustrating about our largest societal challenges — poverty, inequality, food scarcity, even climate change — is that we have the resources to solve them, but we’re allowing our differences to stop us from doing so. Part of what we’re trying to do at Common Impact is to bring people together who would otherwise never be in the same room in order to solve big problems with new ideas. I really believe the most powerful thing that leaders from any sector can do is to encourage diversity of thought and discourse.

As part of my series about “companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Holly. Danielle is dedicated to creating previously unseen pathways for individuals to meaningfully contribute to making their communities thrive. She envisions a world where every person can 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 direct companies most strategic philanthropic asset — their people — to the seemingly intractable social challenges they’re best positioned to address. Danielle has supported hundreds of nonprofit organizations on positioning and branding strategies to more 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 on strategic corporate engagement. She is 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 doing this with 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 daily — 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 leading your company?

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 share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

As a major media organization, ABC News is a very fast-paced environment. When I was there, there was a culture of work hard, play hard — to use every hour of every day to be productive and every hour of the night to take advantage of NYC. “You can sleep when you’re dead” was a common refrain. As I was starting my career, I was very eager to keep up and be a part of that culture. I remember one day, in the middle of the day, I had completed all my work and had nothing that immediately needed my attention. That hadn’t happened before (and wouldn’t happen again), but I remember being so eager to keep going that I went into the footage room and organized all the tapes in date and alphabetical order. My boss walked in and found out what I was doing and all but doubled over in laughter. When he stopped laughing, he said something to me that I’ll always remember. He told me to soak in the natural pauses in life and allow myself to recharge and I’d see that I’d be more effective and more valuable to the people around me. I’m still pretty driven and still like to move quickly from one big mandate to the next, but I’ve learned to detect when I need to step back or slow down to cut through the noise of my days. I now make sure that every Wednesday of every week is meeting free so that I can pause, think and reset course. I probably work longer hours those days, but I always leave them rejuvenated and equipped to be a better compass for the rest of my team.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Common Impact is a nationally recognized nonprofit that works to build a society in which individuals and businesses invest their unique talents towards a shared purpose: strengthening the local communities in which we live and work. We connect business experts to nonprofit organizations with proven models to tackle the greatest challenges our communities face. The organization was founded in 2000 and since then we have provided an estimated $21 million in Social Return on Investment (SROI) by engaging thousands of skilled volunteers in more than 700 projects with nonprofits throughout the country. This work helps break down the barriers that exist between sectors and industries to create meaningful partnerships between companies, social sector organizations and the people that drive them. The common purpose of these connections and our work is to deliver real value to each partner through innovations in community engagement, and ultimately to address deeply rooted and complex social challenges. Readers can learn more about our work at

Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?

I am lucky to work closely with Steve Neff, Head of Asset Management at Fidelity Investments, who is a former board member for Common Impact and also a champion for diversity and a model of inclusive leadership at Fidelity Investments, where he has managed a number of large global teams for more than 20 years. He was an early believer in skills-based volunteering and helped make Fidelity one of the early adopters of a formal firm-wide program that channeled the expertise of employees towards social challenges. That early partnership helped strengthen Common Impact into the organization it is today.

Personally, he’s been a mentor to me. Early in his tenure as a board member, he shared a personal experience he had in his career that taught him two fundamentals that he passed along to me: 1) never prejudge and 2) truly inspiring people are rare and your own life will be poorer if you don’t open your heart and mind to learning from them. Those words remain at the heart of Common Impact’s mission in bringing together individuals from across different sectors and perspectives.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

What’s so frustrating about our largest societal challenges — poverty, inequality, food scarcity, even climate change — is that we have the resources to solve them, but we’re allowing our differences to stop us from doing so. Part of what we’re trying to do at Common Impact is to bring people together who would otherwise never be in the same room in order to solve big problems with new ideas. I really believe the most powerful thing that leaders from any sector can do is to encourage diversity of thought and discourse.

  • Reach across the aisle: From politics, to philanthropy to business, we often allow our identity — whether it’s our political affiliation or the sector we work in — to define the stance we take, how vocal we are, and with what we agree or disagree. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to break the algorithms of online and social media that are designed to feed us reinforcing, narrow perspectives. We need our business and political leaders to model a more nuanced, less polarized discourse on what our society needs.
  • Shift our investment mindset: The private sector is starting to realize that a sole focus on financial returns is not a sustainable way of doing business. Companies need to look at institutions and solutions holistically as they design and redesign their services. What returns the greatest initial profit is not necessarily the best long term solution. While most companies understand this in concept, the investment community continues to demand quarterly results, encouraging harmful short-termism. We need the investor community to step up and evaluate companies and investments based on their overall, long term benefit to society — and to both shareholders and stakeholders. Larry Fink, CEO of Black Rock, has led this charge by stating that his firm — one of the most influential investment firms in the world — will be evaluating companies in this way. We need to see more investors leverage their influence on the private sector to inform a more sustainable economy.
  • Adopt a local mindset: Research tells us that most people want to be more deeply civically engaged than they are right now, but they don’t know how to get involved. Local business, nonprofit and public sector leaders need to do a better job of translating big missions into local actions, and help people understand how they start to tackle big societal challenges in their cities and towns.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I believe leadership means inspiring the people around you to be a part of something larger than themselves. Whether it’s your organization’s employees, the members of a board, volunteers or your family, a leader guides the people around them to see the “big picture” and how their support can make a difference. Everyone knows what it’s like to be inspired by a big picture mission, but what I’ve found critical to leadership is, after inspiring people with that mission, to very quickly and specifically give them a sense of how they can help — and the issues or challenges on which they’re uniquely positioned to make an impact.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Everyone doesn’t have to be a friend. That’s the one thing I, as a young person wish I knew early on. As a leader and as the head of an organization, I know now that it’s acceptable for people to respect you for what you accomplish and to know that, even if they disagree with you, their voice is welcome.

Silence is okay: Silence in a meeting can be awkward, but the moments when I’ve paused longer than is comfortable, when I’ve let the silence linger, is when I’ve heard some of the most important feedback and perspective. It’s easy, particularly when we’re all busy, to churn through topics and nod along even if you have a question or disagree — creating those moments of silence, particularly when you’re detecting that there’s perspective that isn’t being heard, can be one of the most powerful things you do as an inclusive leader.

Assume you don’t have all the information: It’s easy to take shortcuts when you’re in a position of power, and to assume that you have the information you need to make decisions when you’re making dozens of decisions each day. When a colleague comes to me with a different perspective, or one with which I disagree, I try to dig into what’s informing that perspective, and assume there’s information that I’m not privy to that could change my mind.

Don’t interrupt: Interrupting conversation is one of the most common meeting practices, and one of the most harmful when it comes to creating an inclusive environment. It communicates, whether or not it’s true, that you think your point is more important, that you’re not listening or that you don’t respect your colleague’s perspective, which are all counter to an inclusive environment. I make a practice of never interrupting unless I truly need more context to understand the point that’s being made.

Create space for different workstyles: While I thrive on direct communication, there are members of my team, including those who report directly to me, who appreciate a more passive style. I’m an extrovert who’s comfortable playing with new ideas in real time and talking through a challenge — but I know that’s not an environment where all my colleagues and clients thrive. As an inclusive leader, I do my best to provide direct communication, which I value, yet also space for my colleagues who absorb and react to information differently. I may do this by sharing information with colleagues in advance of a discussion or calling some of my team members directly to share more challenging news outside of a group setting. This has allowed me to not only get to hear the more personal reactions from my team, but also find ways to add their viewpoints to a group discussion in an approach that is comfortable and inclusive for all parties.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

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.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, 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. But maybe it would be better to meet with the current resident of the White House to be a voice for those who are doing without. If everyone in a position like mine had that opportunity, perhaps it would make a difference.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@dholly8 on Twitter

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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