The Freedom of a Volunteer

Charles Thrasher, Operations Project Manager and Co-Chair Microsoft Net Impact Chapter

I spent four hours talking to MBA students at the annual Net Impact conference this past weekend. I talked continuously about Microsoft as a matrixed organization and the potential for an individual to influence change far beyond their pay grade. I talked about Microsoft’s sponsorship of the first corporate chapter of Net Impact and how Net Impact could be used as a fulcrum for employees to lever change, exerting greater influence than possible for an individual alone. Together we’re stronger, more capable, more innovative and bolder than we are alone.

Our presentation Bringing Net Impact to Your Organization: A Microsoft Case Study proved popular. The room was crowded to capacity with an audience of MBA grads, professional chapter members and corporate representatives. They were engaged and filled the Q&A session with relevant questions, continuing even after the presentation.

There are a lot of people closely watching what we’re doing and an audience eager to follow our experiment. We have more than just internal stakeholders.

One thing I realized from the conference was the discrepancy in the number of full-time positions available in corporate citizenship and the number of people hoping to fill them. The odds are slim to none that all of those hopes will be realized. Many will be unsuccessful if they define success as a full time position in citizenship. Then something Dan Bross said resonated with me. Any employee can more effectively influence sustainable business practices at Microsoft than can a full time employee working in corporate citizenship.

That surprised me. It seemed counter-intuitive. Later it made sense.

As members of Net Impact we have the power of the group and the freedom of volunteers. We can focus on achieving resulting and taking responsibility for our passions without assuming all the overhead of a full-time position. We can be as fluid as water flowing through the cracks of formal org structures, finding the point of leverage where persistence and passion can produce outsized results. We can work for a meaningful outcome rather than an annual review, an outcome that’s personally meaningful like the recent conversation about creating learning software for autistic children. There was passion in that conversation because it was parents talking about their children or the children of friends and relatives. It was personal. It meant something to them and the people they loved. Acting upon that passion, whether or not it contributes to the company’s bottom line or is captured in a balanced scorecard, is the freedom of a volunteer.

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