America has never been short on ideas. We’re innovative, relentless and fueled by success. The gift and the curse of our mentality is that for every idea, there is a counter idea. Sadly, in place of constructive debate during moments of opposition, we frequently find ourselves in paralysis. The result is we perpetuate the status quo for systems that are in desperate need of transformation. Is it possible to surface a big idea that could strengthen the collective fabric of our country, and can we rally our country behind that idea?
That is the question that challenged myself and a group of social impact leaders from around the country during a recent event. We started by identifying myriad sectors that are holding back the potential of individuals and our nation as a whole. You could make a strong case for education being our top priority, yet you could also argue for health care, the environment, civil rights and more. Picking any of these sectors would lead you in the right direction, but would it truly transform our collective consciousness?
In evaluating the 2016 presidential candidates – recognizing that one of them will be tasked with the same challenge that confronted our group – we realized that a major idea was notably absent from their rhetoric and campaign promises. It’s an idea that inspires, connects and lifts all of us. It’s the idea that propels our greatest movements and established America as the world’s greatest beacon of hope:
Service: the idea that our lives are better when we contribute to the greater good.
Service does more than lift the wellbeing of children, families and communities. It creates empathy, a critical ingredient for any form of widespread social change. Through empathy, we can gain a stronger understanding of the issues that confront our nation, and thereby improve our ability to transform the areas of education, health care and more. Furthermore, this mindset ensures that new ideas will be designed for our collective interest, thus creating a pathway for more people to maximize their potential and contribute to all.
You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who believes that service is a bad thing. A recent study showed that giving back creates a “high” that is only rivaled by physical intimacy and chocolate. So, what prohibits more people from service? You could blame work hours or a lack of opportunities, but the reality is that we haven’t committed to service as our chief priority. With that realization hitting us like a ton of bricks, we found our big idea.
Here’s the good news: Establishing service as our country’s big idea is within reach. Here are three key ways to make it happen:
1. Start with the youth
Our lives are guided by our experiences as children. If our children are encouraged to be individualistic, then they will not develop the empathy that is necessary to positively shape our country’s systems. On the flip side, if they are encouraged to give back and look out for the welfare of all, then they will actively contribute to the betterment of our society for the rest of their lives.
To realize this goal, service should be a mandatory component of the K-12 curriculum for every school. Service in a school setting can take many forms, and several schools around the country have already engrained service in their curriculum and realized powerful results. My mother’s third grade class in Florida responds to natural disasters around the world with fundraising drives. In addition to raising tens of thousands of dollars for disaster-stricken areas, her kids have developed a passion for giving back that has galvanized the entire school to follow suit. Recognizing that one classroom can spark an entire district, Chicago Public Schools created a Service Learning curriculum that has yielded successful projects in civil rights, hunger, immigration and environmental science.
The natural counterargument is that kids already don’t have enough time in the school day, so how can they commit to service? The good news is that service actually strengthens the academic experience, instead of inhibiting it (as proven by studies). Service projects develop vital 21st-century skills in youth, such as communication, critical thinking and collaboration. Furthermore, they can expose children to new areas of learning, as they can impact civic engagement, the environment, nutrition and more. Through service, we can equip our youth with the outlook and skills that are necessary to become positive, transformative leaders for our country.
2. Sign up the business community
Some companies, like Morgan Stanley and Kind, recognize that giving back is a business imperative. Service strengthens the communities in which they operate, it improves employee morale (and performance, by association), and it bolsters the recruitment of millennials (their future workforce). With that knowledge, the most progressive, high-performing companies go beyond the “one volunteer day a year” model. They encourage their employees to give back on a frequent basis, which creates a shared commitment and culture of service.
We should ask all businesses to commit to at least four hours of service a month. I know, your Microsoft Excel spreadsheets just exploded. Still, we ask you to think beyond the gravity of your next meeting or presentation, and remember the long-term benefits of service. If your employees are giving back, they will be more productive, more connected to their colleagues, and take part in efforts that holistically improve our communities. Imagine if every adult in America served for four hours a month. We’d deliver a powerful blow to our nation’s most malfunctioning systems and create a happier, more hopeful general public.
It’s critical to remember that service is not the sole responsibility of the business community. The government should support this effort by offering tax incentives to participating companies, especially for small businesses with tighter capacity. As for consumers, we already know that 90 percent of us will support a cause-oriented business over a business that does not support a cause. When businesses are stepping up to contribute to a service society, and they are enabled and recognized by the government, all of us will benefit.
3. Make a real difference
I’m sorry to say this, but we don’t need any more walls to be painted. To solve our nation’s greatest problems, we need a skills-based service approach. This strategy isn’t only the right strategy, but it also galvanizes adults by tapping into their expertise and passion. People in finance could contribute by mentoring young adults on financial planning; consultants could help social impact organizations with strategic planning; marketers could coach youth on shaping their personal brands; and more. If we break out of the old rules for service, we can comprehensively fix societal problems and enable success for individuals of all backgrounds.
A movement toward a skills-based approach requires two things: the identification of needs and simple mechanisms for connecting adults with service projects. Identification can happen through several means. The local government could work with community-based organizations to identify local needs, and consultants, as a form of service, could do the same. Once those needs are identified, we can utilize platforms like Volunteer Match, Taproot+, and Catchafire to link adults with projects that satisfy their interests and skill sets. The same platforms can track the results of projects, which will undeniably yield an ROI that justifies our shift toward skill-based service.
A nationwide commitment to service is bold – but isn’t that who we are as Americans? We leap when it is easier to take a step, and throughout our history, we’ve reached out a hand when it is easier to keep our hands by our sides. There is no immediate solution for the problems that confront our nation, but service can be the common thread in our fabric that brings us together and lifts the prosperity of all.
Image credit: Pexels
As a nonprofit leader by day and hip-hop MC by night, Ahmen is the Batman of Social Impact. His #Troublemaker movement uniquely combines message and music to galvanize and give a voice to everyday people. Ahmen has traveled the country as a performer, activist, and speaker, all with the singular focus of shaking the status quo. His insights are from a likeable place, people want to hear them, and he simplifies it all to a beat. Ahmen helps people to be alright, they’re not alone when he’s there; his music is no different. Ahmen was named as a "40 Under 40" Rising Star in the New York nonprofit community and he is releasing a new album this summer. Learn more about Ahmen and his campaign for music that propels social change.