Want to Drive Big Impact? Start Small


by Lily Mathews

Jessica Rudnick had big ideas when she joined a Net Impact chapter last fall, ready to make an impact on campus. But she quickly discovered it wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d hoped.

The sophomore, currently studying environmental sciences and engineering, found the Net Impact Washington University (St. Louis)undergrad chapter “tight-knit and dedicated,” yet lacking in numbers. The question loomed: how do you reach folks who haven’t integrated social and environmental values into their everyday habits? For Jessica, the answer was found in one of Net Impact’s newest undergraduate programs to date, the Small Steps Big Wins Challenge.

Even if you’re out of school, you can still learn from Jessica’s experiences. If you’re finding it difficult to enlist new people to your cause – whether it’s launching an impact initiative at work, or growing your Net Impact chapter – take heart. By employing some of the Challenge’s best strategies for success, such as starting small and identifying common ground, you can quickly find fresh faces to bring on board.

What’s your point of entry?

The secret to big success? Start small. It’s an idea often cited in social psychology and business lit. As Chip and Dan Heath explain in Switch, “Small targets lead to small victories, and small victories can often trigger a positive spiral of behavior.”

This is the guiding philosophy behind Small Steps, an undergraduate competition that awards points and prizes for taking a series of simple social and environmental actions. Cumulatively, these small decisions add up to big change. Last semester, students took more than 4,200 actions. Now in its second semester, over 50 campuses have joined on to the challenge to vie for experiential learning opportunities with executives at Kiva, as well as gift cards for REI or Timberland.

After last semester’s struggle with chapter participation, Jessica became a Small Steps Campus Director in the hopes of enlisting new students. She quickly saw that the idea of starting small resonated immediately, and discovered a lot of enthusiasm for the campaign beyond her current network. “I was surprised how much support we found among the student body outside our chapter,” says Jessica. Now Jessica’s campus holds first place on the Small Steps leader board.

Because the Small Steps actions run the gamut – from reusing a mug at the coffee shop to organizing a campus volunteer day – participants from many backgrounds can find an entry point that suits their ambitions. Whether you’re driving change on campus or in the workplace, it’s important to offer opportunities that start small, but can easily scale up.

Leveraging alliances

So you know to start small – but how do you find your target audience when recruiting for a cause? To start, it’s important to establish common ground. For Jessica, partnering with other campus organizations has been a boon for participation. The group realized that students who haven’t taken part in social change activities may very well want to take part, but might not know how.

To reach new participants, the chapter has focused on building relationships with like-minded groups. By collaborating with the university community service office, for example, Jessica’s team helped coordinate a campus-wide blood drive – which went on to rack up a number of points for the competition.

Similarly, after the team spotted the “Eat Vegetarian for a Day” action on the Small Steps website, Jessica reached out to sustainable food clubs to learn from their network and previous experience. The team’s smart choice of meeting students where they already are – tabling on the campus green, partnering with extracurricular organizations – has allowed the movement to grow. “I think the Small Steps competition is a great way to get people thinking and excited about small lifestyle changes to make a very important difference,” says Jessica.

It goes to show that sweeping change doesn’t have to be forced; it can happen organically when people find connections and are given smaller opportunities to reflect and shift their perspective.

Making lasting change

Although Small Steps just launched in January, students on many college campuses have already witnessed the transformation stemming from collective action. “I really like the idea of getting individuals to think of ways they can personally make a difference in these huge problems we face globally,” says Jessica.

What’s more, the Challenge shows that doing good doesn’t shortchange having fun – by recruiting friends to join in and compete, the impact continues to grow. If you want to make change last, remember that people often prioritize projects they care about, but especially ones they enjoy.

So as you set your sights on bigger impact, whether on campus or at work, be sure to start small – and don’t doubt the power of a good time. Just ask Jessica and all the others who’ve already taken the first steps: “It’s been a blast.”

If you’re an undergraduate looking to vie for a spot on the Small Steps leader board, don’t hesitate to reach out. Get in the game by visiting smallsteps.netimpact.org.

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