Dustin Wells CEO Headspring

Social impact can get lumped in with concepts like Corporate Social Responsibility or philanthropy, but it’s not the same. Social impact for business is not about our responsibility or “giving back,” it’s about taking action to create change. What difference are we making in our day-to-day? What’s our passion and our purpose?

This doesn’t mean writing a check, or building a house, or hitting some sustainability mark (though those are all great goals). It means leveraging our core competencies to make a positive impact on stakeholder groups like our communities, our clients, and our employees.

The hard part is making it meaningful and lasting (i.e., self-sustaining). How do you funnel valuable skill sets and time into something more than a one-off project? We’ve struggled with this as a company, too. But real change takes work. There are four challenges to be addressed if you want the impact you make to be real, and felt.

Challenges of social impact for businesses

Leveraging core competencies
What is your business’s special power? What are your people’s greatest skills? That’s what we want to tap into and activate in the real world. Captain Planet wouldn’t go around trying to code an app, just like a software consultancy might not be the most equipped to tackle climate change. However, when we leverage what we’re actually good at to do good in the world, the work is more authentic, more impassioned, and hopefully more effective.

Going with the workflow
We’ve participated in some amazing events with great employee turnout that had a real impact on the organizations we’ve worked with. These were rewarding experiences, but the momentum only lasts so long because they occur outside of the realm of people’s everyday. What if we could find a way to integrate social impact efforts into our day-to-day workflow? It’s the only way to maintain momentum internally, create impact over time, and make sure the ethos inspiring our social initiative becomes part of the organization’s DNA.

Building a sustainable model
Like people, companies only have a finite amount of energy and resources to spare. If an initiative becomes a drain on a business’s people, time, or finances, it will eventually fizzle and flop. The challenge is to figure out how to recycle those resources by creating a feedback loop between the community you’re helping and the business itself. An ideal example would be to build a scalable marketplace that both involves and supports a particular community or cause.

Finding the synergy
In addressing the issue of limited resources, we need to consider that something good for the community should also be good for the business. Not because we want to make money off of our efforts, but because we want to sustain momentum, maximize buy-in across the organization, and, yes, grow financially so we can do more. It’s kind of like how one person’s personal growth can benefit the entire business, while the growth of the business in turn creates more avenues for that person to progress. We want to mimic this concept in our impact efforts. Growth can, and should, be symbiotic.

Our evolving approach to social impact

Social impact is not scratching some surface, it’s about leaving a lasting mark. Again, it’s okay to benefit as a business because that’s what makes it sustainable. Some of the most successful examples come from organizations that have created their own “social impact ecosystems.” I witnessed this when I visited a boutique hotel in Morocco last month, owned by Virgin’s Richard Branson. The hotel itself provides jobs and lifetime skills training (the staff is 90% local), offers free English lessons, and brings real cash flow into the surrounding Berber community. Through the Eve Branson Foundation, it also supports initiatives like Pack for a Purpose, encouraging guests to bring school supplies to local children. They’ve also hosted successful workshops to train women entrepreneurs and set up sustainable businesses in the community including a carpet workshop and craft house. The hotel itself then serves as a thriving market for wares sold by local makers and business owners. Branson’s secret to sustaining change was creating an ecosystem in which social impact can scale along with the business itself.

Criteria for creating change

Not every company has the resources to launch an initiative at this scale, but we can draw inspiration from Branson’s model. It starts with engaging with the local community, identifying needs, figuring out how your strongest skills can be of real use (in Branson’s case, social impact is anchored in hospitality and the Virgin brand), then developing a plan for maintaining a certain level of momentum.

So, in terms of Headspring’s social impact initiatives, we’ve identified a few core criteria:

    • Makes a positive impact on communities in which we work
    • Leverages something core to who we are
    • Fits into daily workflows (i.e., doesn’t drain internal resources)
    • Is self-sustaining by providing mutual benefit to the stakeholders we serve and to the business

This doesn’t mean that individual partnerships or one-off initiatives should be discouraged. For instance, we participated in the very cool, day-long event called GiveCamp, where developers partner with non-profits to solve urgent IT challenges (see our Senior Director, Deran Schilling’s article on how partnering with non-profits can make a real impact). We’ve also participated in initiatives that involved things like stuffing backpacks, building bikes, or building houses—all to support causes that our employees are really passionate about. The problem is, these activities can require a great deal of outside effort and are beyond our wheelhouse in terms of skill sets and competencies. They’re not ones we can own or scale. So how do we connect impact directly to the business?

How Headspring is making a difference

We’ve been working to find our own stride, and we’ve made some important headway in terms of programs that meet different levels of these criteria.

Volunteer Activities
We’ve participated in and run yearly GiveCamp events, during which developers dedicate a whole weekend to helping non-profits tackle IT challenges. In 2012, we hosted the event at our Austin HQ and delivered software for nine local non-profit organizations: Arlington Urban Ministries, A.S.P.I.R.E. (Awarding Students and Promoting Increased Rigor in Education), Austin Partners in Education, Bluebonnet RCD, Colorado River Foundation, Dallas Rape Crisis Center, Texas Hill Country RCD, Texas Kidney Foundation, and TexVet. In years since, we’ve hosted and participated in events in our Austin and Houston locations, most recently helping a grassroots wellness organization called The dWELLing to build a website that serves as a hub for their community-building efforts.

Another home-grown initiative is Headspring’s Got Heart, an employee-led online auction whose proceeds are donated to a selected charity. Headspringers make all of the auction items—ranging from paintings to handmade goods to skills training. Last spring, we raised over $2,000 for the non-profit GirlStart. This year we raised even more than that for the EasterSeals, in memory of a colleague who was involved with the organization.

In the past, we’ve also volunteered as a group with soup kitchens, and other community outreach initiatives.

Grow and Give
One of the programs I’m proudest of is our Grow and Give employee referral program: Headspring donates $2,000 to a charity of the referring employee’s choice, matched with a personal bonus. Since its inception, we’ve given nearly $50,000 to nonprofits ranging from well-known organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Alzheimer’s Association, and more—to groundbreaking groups that build technology to fund universal healthcare (Watsi), champion first amendment rights for comic book readers and writers (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund), and bring music to preschool-aged kids and their families (Heartsong). This program ties personal incentive to social impact and turns our company’s gain into a win for both employees and the world outside our walls. Perhaps the most rewarding part of this program are the stories behind employees’ contributions—whether they’re rooted in personal experiences with loved ones or a person’s pure passion for a cause. These stories have helped us get to know each other on a deeper level, and connect to one another and our communities.

Mentorship approach
We’re also leveraging our core values to create a greater impact through the work that we do day-to-day. We’re passionate about people and committed to ongoing learning and growth. These values drive our approach to active mentorship, embodied by our Career Start program. By actively recruiting early career talent, we create clear avenues to professional and personal growth for a diverse group of aspiring technologists. New hires go through an intensive 6-week training program, with curriculum developed by our Principal Engineer Patrick Lioi (check out the Built in Austin article on his mindful approach). They’re trained as leaders and collaborators, and these skills resonate within their own teams, with the clients they interact with, and in the world. We look forward to taking our mentorship approach a step further by opening up opportunities for other groups within the larger community.

Apps and open source
In terms of leveraging what we do best, our developers strive to make a mark within the tech community by sharing their own skills and on-the-job learnings. Unlike most consulting firms, who keep their “secret sauce” private, we make a point of turning our best practices and insights into open source projects. This strategy started nearly 10 years ago when our Chief Architect Jimmy Bogard developed the object mapping library, Automapper. Jimmy saw that if our team didn’t have a great object-to-object mapping layer, we were going to spend a lot of time writing boilerplate code. At the time, we didn’t think we were building something that would make an impact, but Jimmy was adamant open making it open-source—and he was right. It’s become one of the most widely available open source libraries out there—with over 26 million downloads—and is a member project of the .NET Foundation. A few years later, we did the same thing with MediatR, which is another library that grew out of a client project and has generated nearly two million downloads. Our Principal Consultant, Patrick Lioi, also created an open source testing framework called Fixie for .NET. Patrick started this as a personal experiment, but after a while, it was clear he was creating something really valuable. We helped Patrick to focus on this and make it a complete offering, and it’s become integral to many of our client engagements. Our emphasis in all our open source contributions is to build tools and libraries that help us and our customers deliver quality at scale, and then to take those proven approaches and make them available to the entire developer community—whether they work for Headspring, our clients, or anywhere else.

It may sound like a stretch, but these open source projects are a viable part of our social impact strategy, because they tap into our core values and make a difference to our key stakeholder groups. It’s the flexibility we’ve built into our work styles and our collective passion for learning and growth that drives us to look beyond the task at hand and deliver work that makes a difference to the communities that we’re part of.

Thought leadership
Beyond software gurus, we’re a company of thought leaders, and we leverage that to improve both businesses and culture. We consult clients in effective hiring, training, and engagement to create a strong and sustainable work cultures. This is something I’m personally passionate about, and that Headspring is rooted in. Culture is core to who we are, and also to what we do—we’re helping to change businesses, change minds, and create the workforce of the future. Improving culture is something that’s truly self-sustaining because it’s tied to the service-profit chain: engaged people create engaged clients create engaged teams. People’s satisfaction pays dividends for the business, and growth becomes synergistic. Central to this philosophy is starting with people, and that’s something we think can benefit both businesses and the world at large.

And it’s not just clients who benefit from our thought leadership. Our people at Headspring are active in user groups, present at conferences, and produce great content on tech-related topics (see: our blog). All of this to share what we’ve learned (and keep learning) with the greater community. Again, this does benefit the business in that it allows us to expand our visibility and POV, and that’s fine because it’s what makes all the extra time and effort sustainable for our employees.

So why strive for social impact?

Making an impact doesn’t have to be something as epic as solving the global hunger crisis—it comes down to simply using your skills to make your world a better place—not just now, but for the future. It takes some serious soul-searching as a company: What defines you? What do you value? What are your amazing superpowers and/or inherent competencies? How do you use these to create change in a sustainable way? Some businesses are built with social impact baked into their propositions, but for most companies, these will be tough questions. The discovery process itself can be valuable. Striving for impact will connect you back to what defines you, guide your purpose, unite your people, and make you an organization ready to take on the world…or at least improve your own corner of it.

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