Impact House, Staff Voices

The Power of Place, People, Play & Purpose

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“Creating social impact is an essential challenge to all organizations, regardless of geography or sector.” — Dr. Peter Frumkin, Professor of Social Policy and Faculty Director of the Center for Social Impact Strategy at the University of Pennsylvania

It started with the five week Social Entrepreneurship class on Coursera, where thousands of people convened online to learn the fundamentals of building profitable businesses that make a positive impact on the world. Hundreds of those students applied for one of 23 spots in a week-long leadership program called Global Social Impact House. The house is put on by the Center for Social Impact Strategy, a research and action center with the mission that anyone, anywhere can create positive change in their communities.

Today, just three weeks after that gathering, we look back to the experience and couldn’t be more excited about the magic that was created. Fellows—and even the team—left transformed and reinvigorated, which sparked the question: What made this year’s experience so powerful? After reflection, we narrowed it down to four key elements: place, people, play and purpose.

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Building on the fundamental belief that being in nature is an important conduit for creativity and connection, Global Social Impact House always takes place at an inspiring location in nature. We scout locations around the world that lift us from the ordinary and help us see and experience things in a new light.

This year’s gathering took place at Rancho Margot, a sustainable eco-lodge in the heart of Costa Rica’s rainforest near Arenal Volcano. There, in the company of hummingbirds, multicolored frogs, monkeys and sloths, fellows showed up ready to participate in workshops on design thinking, storytelling, community building and business strategy. Fellows got their adrenaline going by plunging into the Arenal lake, riding horses atop mountains and befriending water buffalo. But some of the best moments in nature were the simple ones, like laying out on a grassy patch underneath the stars and relaxing in the country’s natural hot springs.

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The 23 creative leaders we brought together are from diverse economic, social, religious, political and educational backgrounds. They hail from 12 countries, collectively speak dozens of languages, and self-identify as artists, activists, lawyers, coaches, innovators, technologists, farmers and educators. Each fellow is currently working on growing a social enterprise to positively impact their communities. To share what just some of them are doing: they are building educational revolutions in Pakistan, sparking youth music movements in Brazil, bringing environmentalism to Mexico, reskilling young farmers in Israel, creating healthy and trendy restaurants in Indonesia, starting a premiere football academy in Sudan and addressing race issues head-on in the United States. Though an incredibly diverse group, they all share a deep commitment to social justice, sustainability and each other.

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During the eight days, our faculty members train the fellows with tools and mindsets for effective storytelling, community building, creative problem solving, design thinking, business strategy, venture development, positive habit building, and goal setting. Leveraging their diverse passions and expertise, we also empowered fellows to facilitate their own peer-learning sessions and community-led activities.

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Play allows us to suspend reality and create something in the moment. Improv allows us to deeply connect and help others look good. Play is fun, but it’s also integral to the creative process. Our communities are stronger when we can play well and laugh together, that’s why we brought this dimension into the experience through workshops, icebreakers and activities like our annual pop-up GSIH Variety Show.

Play is not only fun, but it’s conducive to building culture, inspiring creative confidence and bringing people together—it was an essential part of building human bonds and community at this year’s Global Social Impact House. Each day, we opened the day with games and playful exercises that allowed fellows to engage in the creative process and generate more out-of-the-box ideas for their ventures. By inviting play into the curriculum, we created a safe space for failure, vulnerability, and possibility. 

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Every fellow is selected to be part of the Social Impact House program because they want to make a positive impact in the world. Our goal is to help fellows clarify their “how” and own their “why.” Each morning we started with an active reflection to frame the day ahead. It was equally important for us to create i-ching, everyone to look within and reconnect to the purpose that drives their work and lives.

At the end of the week, everyone had the opportunity to share a story from their life, which made their purpose and vision come alive. They shared their plans – both bold and concrete – to make the change they want to see in the world. In our quick moving, interconnected world, we sometimes don’t give ourselves the time to slow down and reevaluate what’s truly important and meaningful for us. The exploration of what makes us come alive and come into our true, authentic selves is an incredibly important part of GSIH.

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So what’s next? After our week together in Costa Rica, our hope is to build on this momentum and strengthen the community’s connections and impact through retreats, peer mentoring, collaboration, new projects and continued conversations. The most exciting thing about the future is that much of this effort will be led by the fellows themselves, who have all truly stepped up to own the responsibility of unleashing the potential of the collective. We are also excited to, for the first time ever, bring together two years of GSIH fellows. We’ll be able to expand our community and the possibilities moving forward.

From the bottom of our heart, we wanted to take this time to thank every single person who helped create such a memorable and transformative Global Social Impact House. Here’s to kicking off the year with a real and deep connection to place, people, play and purpose!