One of the perks of my job is that I get to meet some of the most talented innovators and entrepreneurs from all over the world. I even get to mentor and support some of them. But they’re the exception, not the rule. Not everyone who sets out to make the world a better place is going to come up with a new, groundbreaking, innovative idea that achieves their goal. Not everyone is going to end up running their own social venture. Not everyone is going to win prizes for their efforts, and not everyone is going to have huge, global impact.

Not everyone is going to have huge, global impact. And that’s fine. Tweet This Quote

And that’s fine.

One of the most frequent questions I get asked, particularly at student events, is what young people can do to help make the world a better place. Many realize that the chances of becoming the next Muhammad Yunus are slim, and instead they look for something more achievable and realistic.

During my time as a mentor with Unreasonable at Sea, I had the honor to sit on a panel with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in front of several hundred students hungry to find out how they could help make the world a better place. It was a wide-ranging conversation, which you can see in full below. (The Archbishop later wrote the Foreword to my first book, which you can read about here.)

The advice that I always give can be broken down into four complimentary actions. These only work if done together.

1. Take an interest
Read widely. Watch documentaries. Make an effort to meet like-minded people. Take time to understand the world, to understand the context of the problems we face as a people and a planet.

2. Empathize

Empathy is key. Empathy plus knowledge is invaluable. Tweet This Quote

Take time to understand what life is like for those less fortunate than yourself. Try to spend time with them. Travel to the places they live if possible. Be open to learning. Empathy is key. Empathy plus knowledge is invaluable.

3. Pick something big
Get behind a major global campaign that addresses a major global challenge. Don’t let the enormity of the task put you off, or the fact that you may never know the impact you, individually, may have.

4. Pick something small
Get behind a local organization addressing a local problem that you’re passionate about. Volunteer your time. Get involved. See, experience and feel the impact you’re having, and draw comfort that you’re making a difference.

If you immerse yourself, anything is possible. Tweet This Quote

Most of the innovators I get to meet didn’t come up with their ideas or solutions overnight. Many were already taking an interest and spending time with the people they ended up helping. The most important lesson you can learn from this? If you immerse yourself, anything is possible.


This originally appeared on Ken’s blog.

About the author

Ken Banks

Ken Banks

Ken is the founder of kiwanja.net, Means of Exchange, and FrontlineSMS. He is a Pop!Tech and Ashoka Fellow, Tech Awards Laureate, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has been internationally recognized for his work applying mobile tech for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. Ken is also the Entrepreneur in Residence at CARE International.

  • kiwanja

    I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on the four ways I discuss, plus any others you know of that I’ve almost certainly missed!

  • Parth Patel

    This was an interesting article because it is something that I talk to many people about on a weekly basis; yet, I think you should consider going a step further in
    thinking about passion versus interest, and practical limitlessness.

    I believe that passion is, and always will be, stronger than interest. It sounds weird because they seem like the same thing, but still are starkly different. I can be
    interested in knowing about a world problem (i.e. famine, lack of access to
    water, etc.), have a nine to five job in a first world country, and help donate
    to nonprofits that do the work already (which is helpful, but does not solve
    the problem). However, I believe that passionate people is what is needed to
    make them change from their normal worldview of security and complacency to take
    a risk on themselves as well as underprivileged people, and unlocking their
    potential power to foster change. This risk type mentality I think can only be
    achieved if someone is willing and passionate enough about what they are doing,
    and their motivation will inevitably follow. That’s why I think that passion
    speaks to a person stronger than interest does. I think having passion about world change (or rather community change) is a waking of the soul, while interests are a starting point of attempting to wake up; both, of which are important.

    Additionally, I believe that advocating for practical limitlessness should be listed as a goal. Well, first off, what does it mean? I mean that being practical about the
    society that exists (i.e. underdeveloped countries and the relation to
    corruption, the systemic inequality between industrial and underdeveloped
    countries, etc.), and still realizing that change is not only possible, but
    feasible. Now, what about limitlessness? I mean that realizing, and having the
    ability to recognize, our own inner limitless potential, and giving it to
    others. Through instilling that mentality in underdeveloped countries, we begin
    to create a chain reaction of communities realizing their own potential and
    giving it to others around them. You know, the classic social entrepreneur
    mentality of giving someone something is helpful, but not sustainable. Rather
    empowering them to know how to do it on their own is a true shift in empowering
    a community. What would be more rewarding than giving people the mentality of
    accessing their inner potential to help break the cycle of poverty? My answer:
    nothing.

  • Elise Rodriguez

    Ken,

    I think you chose the perfect time to give some insight on
    this topic. So much talk is going on these days about the millennial generation,
    and how it is more interested in making a real change in the world than any
    generation before it. Being part of this generation myself, I notice the desire
    for change and social entrepreneurship all around me and within many of my
    peers. However, I do often find myself asking if anything I do will really
    bring forth any change. It is often hard to fathom, with all the environmental,
    political, and social issues plaguing the world these days, how any single
    person can really make an impact.

    Lately, I find myself eager to learn more about social
    issues facing the world. I want to be more informed so that I can really have a
    grasp of what these issues entail, and small ways that I may be able to help
    alleviate them. I love how your first piece of advice is to take an interest in
    the world around you. I believe that if we were all a little more well read and
    informed, we would be well on our way to making the world a better place.

    I have always thought the way to make social change was to
    become heavily involved in a small organization. As you mentioned, it is
    gratifying to see your actions making a real impact. I find it interesting that
    in your pieces of advice, you also recommended picking a large cause to get
    involved in. I have never really believed I could have a significant impact on
    a major global issue, but I think that embarking in a task this daunting could
    have a positive personal effect on me. In another sense, if someone interested
    in making a global change were to immerse themself in a huge campaign, they
    would have a greater understanding of the tools and skills needed to
    successfully contribute to a huge cause. That person could then take these
    skills to their community, and put them to practice at a grassroots level.

    Thanks for your insight and advice on this topic!
    – Elise

  • kiwanja

    @Elisa – Thanks for the positive comment, particularly on the timing (where I agree with you). Regarding the impact you can have supporting a larger organisation, if millions of people did this then we’d potentially get the momentum we need to solve some of the bigger, more challenging problems. You might not see your own personal impact, but by joining with others you would still have it. Do check out my book (link in the article above) if you want some inspiring stories of people making the world a better place against the odds.

    @Parth – I fully agree with you on the passion point. For me, passion and interest are the same thing, but I agree there might be a difference in definition. Whatever you call it, if it drives you to learn more and strive to create change, then I don’t mind. Passion is certainly more likely to keep you going when times get hard, unlike just an interest. And I also fully agree on the point about empowering others to create their own change, rather than just trying to make change yourself. This is something I’ve strived to do in my own work for the past 20 years or more.

  • Aravind Krishna Vellakali Nara

    Ken, I really enjoyed reading your article. I’d like to thank you for including the recording of your panel in the article. It was quite interesting to listen to the views on the various points discussed from both your’s and the Archbishop’s perspective. Some of the insights that the Archbishop gave on how people felt to be on the receiving end of the social ventures were new and made me realise the need for sensitivity in our ventures. I really felt the way you breakdown the needed course of action into 4 simple statements is a brilliant way to get across to the fast paced World that we live in.

    I have read various articles on social entrepreneurship and how the youth can get involved in a large scale but as you discussed during the panel, most of the information just dissipated with time. I believe that the large scale of the challenge that faces us is also a huge deterrent for immediate action. I believe that people are scared to act on social issues as they believe that they may not be able to bring about a quantifiable impact on society. The contrasting views shared by you and the Archbishop on this issue was quite interesting. While you maintain that we may not change the world through our individual actions, but can make it a better place, the Archbishop believes that each and every action has a profound effect on society and urges us to action in belief that it will create a ripple effect. This clash of reality versus optimism is quite interesting because, just as the Archbishop pointed out, most of the world’s greatest social revolutions were due to small acts from individuals such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks or Mother Teresa who’s actions created ripple effects which eventually snowballed into large movements. However, being a member of the current generation, I believe that such small actions creating huge revolutions is practically not possible due to the sheer frequency of such small acts occurring across the globe. Like you pointed out in the discussion, there are more organisations for the protection of white rhinos than white rhinos themselves.

    Considering the frequency of social ventures emerging across the globe and the reach that each one has, I agree completely with you on the fact that as an individual we may no more be able to change the world, but we can and will make it a better place! I believe that your suggestions for people entering the field of social entrepreneurship are quite straightforward and simple to follow and your quote “Empathy is key. Empathy plus knowledge is invaluable” is a simple yet powerful message that the young social entrepreneurs need to keep in mind!

    Thank you for your advice on this topic!

  • Leonard Jackson

    This was indeed an interesting article that addresses an important issue. Indeed, people are often skittish about engaging in social initiatives as they erroneously believe that their actions will be minuscule and will not be impactful. “Doing good” for the benefit of others should never be about worrying about how big or small our impact will be. Instead, it should be it about how our actions will create positive impacts in the lives of others. Hence, what might seem like a small action on our part could mean “a world of good” to
    others. Furthermore, if we review history, individuals who changed the world from a social standpoint (Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey etc.), never set out on a mission to change the world. Instead, they saw social, political and economic injustice and in their own small way, set out to
    create positive change and make the world a better place. They never start out seeking fame or glory, instead, they all wanted to make the world a better place for everyone.

    I appreciate the four step approach to creating positive change. Step one (take an interest) is an excellent idea as it encourages individuals to take an interest in a social cause, and further, to take time to understand, and get a feel for what is happening in the world. This knowledge will enable individuals to get a good understanding of social issues locally and globally. I am often shocked and surprise how parochial we can be in our thinking as we often tend to focus only on our immediate environments. Watching documentaries and reading widely undoubtedly will provide a better understandings
    of social issues. Empathizing or “walking in the shoes” of others is also important in truly understanding the issues faced by others. While watching documentaries and reading widely can enlighten us about issues, I fully agree that whenever possible, the best way to truly understand how others live is to travel to their place or residence. To make the world a better place, it is a good idea to become associated with a global organization and a local organization. In this way, one can commit to, and have small positive impact on making the world a better place.

  • Evan Schroeder

    I wanted to start off by saying how much I enjoyed this article and the perspectives it shared. This article wasn’t the longest by any means, but what it had to offer is something to be considered. A lot of
    aspiring entrepreneurs set out to make a difference, and one day I hope to join that crowd, but with so many issues facing our world today and being a single individual, we sometimes have doubts about what we can actually achieve. This presents monumental internal challenges that we have to overcome before we can
    even begin to focus on a specific issue.

    Once we get past our own self-doubt and gain a confidence in our ability to tackle a
    problem, this article has some really strong tips for undergoing the process. I
    would agree with Ken’s first tip. A young entrepreneur must take an interest in
    something important to them. But what if I have multiple interests, or none
    that I feel that strongly about? There are multiple avenues one can use to
    develop an interest, whether it is through readings, watching documentaries, or
    talking to like-minded people. The latter is the best option in my opinion
    because you can bounce ideas off one another. Being like-minded, it is probable
    that you carry similar concerns and interests, possibly giving you someone that
    is willing to work alongside you towards an issue.

    The most important piece of advice I derived from this article was to pick something
    small to start. A difference is a difference regardless of its magnitude, and
    every little bit helps. Most major changes started out as a miniscule effort
    that developed over time. By taking on a challenge that is smaller in stature,
    you are more likely to be successful. This success builds confidence in the
    entrepreneur, and confidence leads to bigger and bolder success. It also builds
    experience, no matter how many people you talk to or books and article that one
    reads, experience is irreplaceable.

  • kiwanja

    @Aravind – I’m glad you enjoyed the video and the different perspectives, and I agree fully with the need for sensitivity (and the importance of being respectful). And, as you say, because the world is so fast paced these days it’s sometimes easiest to condense action points down to small chunks, which is what I tried to do in the post. Good luck in whatever is next for you!

    @Leonard – You’re spot on with some people’s hesitancy to do anything because they think the problems are just so vast. The irony is that enough people take on these vast problems, they don’t seem so unsolvable any more. And motives are extremely important, too. In my last book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”, Wes Janz said that people who set out to change the world rarely did, and might be better off leaving things alone. If we just go out there with our eyes and ears and hearts open, the right cause and life’s mission will find us. I’m a strong believer in not having an objective when you first start thinking about how to help make the world a better place. The answers are often unexpected and in the most unlikely places.

    @Evan – Sometimes the best articles are the shortest and most direct ones. =) On the subject of interests, I also had many and tried to read and expose myself to things which captured as many as possible. So, for example, most of my work with mobile technology took me into projects dealing with health, human rights and conservation, all things I was passionate about. If you’re interested in international development, as another example, studying its history and performance (and its problems and challenges) answers all sorts of questions, covering many areas of social change. And starting small is very important, too, as you say. “Small Is Beautiful”, as E.F. Shumacher might say (it’s a great book too, by the way).

  • Simone Anwtwi

    Thank you for posting this informative article. This information in this article can not be more relevant at a time like this. With the emergence of the millennial generation and them wanting to make large immediate impacts on society, this article helps that want become a reality.
    Personally being apart of this generation I too have want to make an impact on society but I am paralyzed by the fact that regardless of what I do locally it will not have an impact on a large social issue. Not many people think that volunteering locally will have a huge dent on the larger social issue at hand.
    The four complimentary actions you listed are a more digestible way to make an impact. The answer isn’t to just do nothing because you don’t think it will make an impact, you still have to do something to help. By taking a large social problem and breaking down your approach to it makes it easier to stay motivated.

  • Andrea Cepeda

    Ken, as young adults we’re often pressured to graduate college and immediately set out to change the world. Your advice is so fascinating to me because the actions you recommend are things we can incorporate into our everyday lives. Your article offers aspiring entrepreneurs a sense of comfort because although we may not change the world, we may help our planet in a small, yet significant way. Today, our world faces so many complex problems that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and tempted to give up on the issues that speak to us. Your suggested simple tasks offer a great starting point for people who have yet to figure out how they want to impact the world around them. I especially like that you challenge your readers to think big by picking an issue that addresses a major global issue, but you also encourage us to get involved in something where we can experience first-hand the impact we are making.

    Your first step is key to understanding the world and the issues we face as a society today. Keeping ourselves informed not only brings us a step closer to contribute to society, but it also helps us learn about ourselves: what we like/dislike, agree/disagree with and what we can do to affect or change these things. Once we are able to know what truly matters to us, we can begin to explore the ways in which we can impact these problems. It’s very encouraging to be reminded that ideas don’t happen overnight; they take time. Your last point is very powerful because if we don’t immerse ourselves in what we truly care about, we will never be able to fully understand it and have the impact we yearn for.

    I truly enjoyed reading this article because it offers a comforting, practical way for people to achieve their goals without feeling discouraged. Thank you, Ken!

  • Andreina

    I want to start off by saying how I appreciative I am to have stumbled across the article. I think it serves as a necessary reminder for things we often forget to acknowledge. I can account for often being critical of myself for not leaving an impact or doing my part to instill a positive change. I think this article inspires more than just entrepreneurs, it inspires us to be more “human” and to view ourselves as global citizens.

    We face an increasing number of challenges locally and globally each day. Some are easier to fix than others, but there’s no progress to be made if we do not stop for a second and abide by the four complimentary actions you’ve advised us of. We must have an interest for knowledge and an interest for growth, by aspiring for these things we can progress.

    Empathy is something I personally have been prioritizing. You have to be open and understanding to all in order to come to solutions that benefit everyone. The emphasis I make on empathy is because, as many can note, productive merits of selfless work are often credited for much of the economic achievements that have taken place in different countries across the globe. As individuals and as a collective, we must strive to partake in tackling challenges big and small, constantly.

    From what I’ve learned through my yoga philosophy and practice training and my Global Business Ethics class this semester, it has become clear to me that we are interconnected in almost all ways. And to our benefit, we strive to create value, and our natural urge is to create things with others and for others. This is what permits for businesses to work. It’s crucial to put people first and take part in social and environmental responsibilities.

  • Jessica Stanfield

    Often people want to make a difference in the world and help fix a problem , but when they truly start to think about what is required to solve the problem it becomes overwhelming. Ken Banks’ article does well to relieve the pressure of developing and making grand changes by providing a simple action plan. As Ken Banks wrote, not everyone who sets out to make the world a better place is going to have a huge, global impact through the development of new innovative ideas; but if one immerses oneself anything is possible. To immerse oneself, Ken Banks tells people to continuously complete the following actions together: take an interest, empathize, pick something big, and pick something small.
    I would agree with Ken Banks choices for key actions. In order to understand how one can help people and make a difference, the person needs to understand the problem and to do that they need to take an interest and be able to empathize. By taking an interest and empathizing a person can come to fully understand the context of the problem and how that problem affects people at a personal level. Also in order to curtail the feeling of being overwhelmed and that efforts are futile, an individual needs to get behind a major global campaign so they can stay connected to something big, but they also need to get behind a small organizing addressing the problem at the local level so they can see and experience the impact they are having.

    Committing to completing these actions together can help solve the problems that most people face and ultimately admit defeat to while trying to make a difference in large social and environmental issues. I believe this because people tend to be results driven, without being able to see the impact they are having they often being to believe they can not make a difference and give up. However, making a big change requires time. As Eknath Easwaran said, “Nothing really worth having comes quickly and easily; If it did, I doubt that we would ever grow.” Although this quote typically is applied to personal growth, it also applies to growth in society. The path to making an impact in society and environmental issues is a long, hard and complex one, but implementing the actions suggested by Ken Banks may help to make the a little easier.

  • kiwanja

    @Andrea @Andreina @Jessica – Thanks for the supportive comments! I’m glad the post resonated and hope it might be of some use to you, and any friends, hoping to get out there and make the world a better place.

  • Kaitlyn Whiteside

    Thank you for posting this. I am currently a college student taking a social
    entrepreneur class. I’ve been struggling because I’ve been learning about
    social entrepreneurs who have literally changed the world, yet I feel like I
    could never get anywhere near changing the world like they have. I honestly
    felt like I could never make a true difference. I really have a passion to
    change the world especially for people in Africa and China. After reading your
    article, I feel like now it doesn’t matter how big of a difference I make, but
    rather if I’m even trying to make a difference even if it’s in the smallest
    ways. My difference doesn’t have to be big, it can be small and yet still be
    important.

    The steps you had really helped me see if I’m on the right track to making the
    world a better place. Luckily I am. I have been watching companies that
    currently deal with the social issues taking place in Africa and China. I also
    watch mini documentaries of the social issues. I still need to truly empathize
    for the people in Africa. I need to spend some time there to get a true feeling
    of what it’s like to live there. I’ve been to China 3 times already and most of
    the time I’m there for half a month to a whole month. I know what it’s like for
    the people there. I’ve seen it, heard about it from relatives who live there
    and it truly saddens me. I currently am behind 3 companies that are big. I
    currently give money to Samaritan’s Purse, Mercy Ships, and Kiva. I would love
    to someday actually go into the field to work with those companies. My dad went
    on one of the Mercy Ships to help out for a while. He said the experience was
    life changing. The local organizations I work with are different churches in
    the area. I help them with their events that help the community.

    So,
    I just wanted to say thanks again for making me feel like what I do now does
    matter and is important.

  • kiwanja

    @Kaitlyn – Thanks so much for taking the time to write this, and I’m very pleased it has proved helpful to you. The social entrepreneurship field is obsessed with scale, yet very little really does (we only get to see the ones that succeed, most of the time). So continue on your journey, and spend as much time gaining the empathy you need to become a good human citizen. It sounds like you’re already doing a very good job. =)

  • Alanna

    I cannot tell you how much this article and video resonated with me. Recently, I have been experiencing many challenges where I set the bar high for myself and I don’t necessarily achieve or meet the expectations I had for myself. I can easily see how this also plays a large role for the social entrepreneur. Sometimes we want to set out to change the world and make a big difference, and we definitely can! However, this article has taught me that it is also okay if we can’t. It’s not necessary to always accomplish the greatest, but if we set out to accomplish and make a difference, the small things that we achieve will lead up to great things!
    I find it interesting you spoke about empathizing with people. I categorize myself as someone who does empathize with others, however many people have often told me that would be a trait that would hurt me in the future. I have found that empathizing with people has done nothing but help me gain a greater connection to people and understanding for what they feel and are looking for. I couldn’t agree with you more on that note! I also like how you instructed to not only pick something small, but pick something big! It reminds us to always aim big and aim to reach at “changing the world”, but remember the small things have an important impact as well!
    Most importantly I wanted to thank you for such an amazing quote: “if you immerse yourself, anything is possible.” I cannot agree more with this statement. Immersing yourself in the things you feel passionate about is absolutely powerful and does make anything possible. Thank you for this; this was great to watch!
    I hope that many others will take away from this what I have taken from it!

  • Carissa Mastrorio

    Ken thank you so much for reminding us all of this very important distinction. I think many people, especially young people such as myself, get caught up in the enormity of some of the problems our world faces today. It is too often that we look at these issues and think that there is nothing we could possibly do to make a substantial impact. This type of mindset and doubt is exactly why the world doesn’t change. No one thinks they can make a huge difference, but people forget that the difference they make does not have to be huge. If everyone on this planet worked to change one small thing it would eventually lead to change on a large scale. This is why it is so important to think about the difference we can make, rather than the enormous task of changing the world. Oftentimes I think about how much this planet is being destroyed and all of the species we are wiping out. As a scuba diver, it is scary to think about the very real possibility that in my lifetime I may live to see the end of our world’s coral reefs. These are such large scale problems that I often think there is nothing I can do to reverse our negative impact, but after reading this article I realize that if we all think like this change will never happen. There is so much I can do in my local community and in the state of Florida alone that could contribute to the conservation of our reef systems and the species that need them to survive. This type of mindset is so important for social entrepreneurs and anyone involved in social organizations. They cannot get bogged down by negativity, rather they need to focus on the difference they are making and the very small portion of the world that they are changing. I think it is still okay to strive to change the world, but everyone has to start somewhere and making a small difference can be just as important.