How to Identify and Focus Your Personal Impact

Our news feeds are full of tragic stories - climate disasters, social inequalities, racism, violence, political unrest, war - the list goes on and on. Every day we are inundated with content that reminds us of all the problems we face, and it leaves many of us feeling a deep sense of existential dread. For the last two years, the pandemic has compounded this feeling, but it has also led many people to reexamine their lives and search for opportunities to be a part of positive change. Now, as we continue to face these difficult challenges, we are also experiencing a strong collective longing to imbue our days with more meaning, more connection, and hope for the future.

Simultaneously, there has been a growing realization that we live in an interconnected and interdependent world. We are becoming more cognizant of how our actions affect the systems in which we live, and increasingly aware of the fact that what happens to people, animals, and the environment in one place will inevitably have a ripple effect on other aspects of the global system at large. This holds true - not just for the negative impacts, but the positive ones as well, which is great news! It means no single individual, group, or organization is responsible for solving the world’s problems alone. In fact, it’s much better to have a bunch of specialists working on separate issues than to place that burden on one set of shoulders.

Humans are remarkable innovators, especially in the face of known challenges. There are already many inspiring examples of individuals, NGOs, and private companies working to address, prevent, or reverse the negative consequences of unbridled industrialization. What these success stories all have in common are two key drivers of change: passion and specialization. So if you are looking for your own path to having a positive impact, focus on an area or issue you’re passionate about, connect with a community of others who share the same mission, and then leverage your specific set of skills and expertise to make change happen.

If you’re wondering how you can be part of the solution; how you can make a difference, you’re not alone. Many of us have been re-evaluating our priorities and trying to figure out how to use our time and resources to help drive change. But there are so many problems to tackle, it can be difficult to decide what to focus on.

If you’re looking for inspiration, we highly recommend checking out the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, often referred to as the Global Goals or 17 SDGs. They provide a great framework for understanding the big picture of impactful work, and may give you some more ideas for where your passions can support global efforts to make a better world.

The Global Goals

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the world’s shared plan to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet by 2030. These Global Goals emerged from the most inclusive and comprehensive negotiations in UN history, and 193 nations committed to do their part to achieve them. They built on decades of work by individual countries and the United Nations, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Millennium Development Goals, and the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Goals call for urgent action from all countries, working in a global partnership to address climate change and work toward a more just and sustainable world. They have inspired people from across sectors, regions, and cultures, serving as a rare example of global cooperation and aspiration.

Making this ambitious agenda a reality requires urgent global collaboration and partnership, combined with heroic and imaginative efforts from private and public sectors, and a strong commitment from all stakeholders (including you). These goals are designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” (click here to read the detailed report), and this is precisely why they are a great resource to help you identify the kind of impact you want to make.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are:

  1. No Poverty - End poverty in all its forms everywhere

  2. Zero Hunger - End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

  3. Good Health and Wellbeing - Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

  4. Quality Education - Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

  5. Gender Equality - Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

  6. Clean Water and Sanitation - Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

  7. Affordable and Clean Energy - Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth - Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

  9.  Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure - Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

  10. Reduce Inequalities - Reduce inequality within and among countries

  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities - Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

  12. Responsible Consumption and Production - Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

  13. Climate Action - Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

  14. Life Below Water - Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

  15.  Life on Land - Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

  16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions - Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

  17. Partnerships for The Goals - Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Identifying the Impact You Want to Make

Now that you’ve read this list of goals, take time to reflect on them and identify any that stood out to you or felt particularly compelling. To help with this process, consider the following questions:

  • What problems are you most passionate about or interested in?

  • Which issues break your heart or elicit an emotional reaction?

  • Which goals serve as a rallying cry for your ‘inner activist’?

  • What are the issues that have the most impact on your community?

  • Which goal feels the most pressing or urgent to you?

While we can and should work collectively as a global community, we each need to narrow our focus to maximize our individual efforts. With this in mind, pick the top three goals that resonate most with you. Then you can begin to explore how you want to contribute to the solution(s).

Making Your Impact on the World

Gaining clarity on the impact you’d like to have can help you make more informed decisions about how you live, where you shop, and what products you buy. It can provide guidance as you determine where to volunteer or make charitable donations, and even how you spend your free time.

This self-awareness is also an invaluable tool in your pursuit of more meaningful work. When you understand the difference you want to make, you can narrow your search to only include positions at conscious companies that are working toward the same goal, and avoid languishing in a job that doesn’t engage or motivate you.

“Employees value salary, benefits and company leadership, but meaningful work drives job satisfaction more than ever.”

~ Society for Human Resource Management

When researching companies, start by visiting their website. They probably won’t describe the goals they are working on by directly referencing one of the 17 SDGs, but they may articulate their mission, vision, values, and other information about the company on their about page. These can help you identify which goal(s) they might be working on. Compare these to your own impact areas to see if they are in alignment. If it’s not clear from your research, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for an informational interview with companies that might be a good fit. You can ask direct questions about how they are striving to achieve their mission. If you’ve already started the interview process, be prepared to ask what the company is doing to address the specific issues that are most important to you.

Achieving the Global Goals is going to require the collective efforts of everyone, no matter how big or small their contributions may seem. We need both visionaries and people on the ground, advocates and activists, leaders and supporters. We all have a part to play in the solutions to the problems we face, and we need to face them together. Remember that however you decide to participate as a changemaker, there is a large community that shares your vision, and they’re waiting to welcome you.

author photo

Maren Keeley

Maren Keeley is a curious and creative social entrepreneur with a passion for purpose, systems thinking, deep conversations, and paving the way for a better future. As the CEO & co-founder of Handprint, she’s on a mission to help social-purpose companies build brilliant, engaged, & diverse teams. Previously, Maren co-founded Conscious Company Media, which she exited in early 2018 after selling CCM to the SoCap Group. In her free time, you’ll find Maren hiking with her dogs, cooking, woodworking, listening to other podcasts, tending to her epic houseplant collection, running, and practicing yoga.