When we dedicated our business to social impact, we didn't actually know what that meant.
This is how we defined it on our website:
We understand impact organizations to be those that use ingenuity to actively help people and our environment, by providing solutions to real problems. We've found that we do our best work when it engages real problems, when we are helping create a world where no one is limited by their circumstance.
The understanding that effective social impact works to create a world where no one is limited by their circumstance, is one that we gained from a conversation with Unreasonable co-founder Daniel Epstein. This definition made the most sense to us because it takes the vague aphorism of 'making the world a better place' and gives it definition and illuminates the potential that exists for this aspirational 'better world' if its inhabitants were actually free from the limitations of their circumstances to be able to do something improve it. This definition also acknowledges the deep and nuanced complexity of doing good in this world.
However, my initial and naive approach externalized the responsibility of what limiting the circumstances of our lives actually means. I thought that running a social impact organization was as simple as working with like-minded clients that are doing 'impactful' work. We would build technology for companies that addressed 'real problems' such as social injustice, environmental degradation, gender inequality, poverty and hunger. And vicariously we would be creating impact. But... it's not that easy.
As it turns out, creating impact isn't something that others can do for you, even if you are supporting their impactful work. We've been lucky to work with clients that are are powerhouses in the impact they make, but just writing code for them doesn't mean that we are creating impact ourselves. It has to go deeper than that.
One of our biggest challenges has been maintaining clarity about what impact means and sticking with it. It's not simple. We've learned that just because a client was doing good work, that does not mean that we were necessarily a good fit for one another and should necessarily work together. Other times what looks like positive impact might not actually be that straightforward: as technologists we often have the access to see that what might look good from the outside might not actually be doing much good once you look under the hood into the technology or business practices. Or sometimes there’s just a difference in approach for which we could not provide the best support. Also, our idea of working exclusively with ‘impact clients’ meant that we were counting out the possibility of working collaboratively with more conventional clients to make their products more impactful.
We realized that, for us, impact really means doing purposeful work, whether that be technically, culturally, socially, environmentally or personally purposeful. Doing purposeful work means that we are enlivened and inspired by what we're doing and bring that to our relationships with our clients and each other. It means creating trusting relationships that allow good technology and design to inform the impact that companies and their products can create. It means sticking to our gut feelings, not being simplistic about ideology, and always practicing rigor in our craft. It means we can never be lazy.
Chögyam Trungpa said it, pointedly:
“You don’t have to rush out to become the mayor of your city or the president of the United States in order to help others, but you can begin with your relatives and friends and the people around you. In fact, you can start with yourself. The important point is to realize that you are never off duty.”
For dojo4 this has meant starting with the seed of our own company and building a place that supports each of us in our own lives. It's meant building an environment that aims to fosters honesty, kindness toward ourselves and others, and supports good work and good fun. It might seem like a small impact to simply create this within our own organization, but it is a seed. If every small company was able to provide this kind of friendliness internally and it its community, that would have a huge impact on people and populations. And this seed within our individual lives, allows for greater real potential for large scale impact. One way to say it is that we can't effectively help others until we can help ourselves.
This is something that any organization can do. Any business can be an impact company - a hardware store, a insurance brokerage, a janitorial service business, an advertising agency, etc. We can all aspire to create a world where no one is limited by their circumstance, but to do that we have to think close to home and inclusively about what that means. We can all work to address the world's many and real problems, but in order to do that effectively, we have to start with ourselves. We can't let ourselves off the hook: have to look at and help ourselves and create companies that are genuinely engaged, kind and joyful places before we can be any help to others. That's not a simple or easy thing to do, but if we can do it, the effect is truly impactful.