Introducing the personal impact canvas

If you want to make a difference but don’t know where to start, this tool can give you a quick roadmap.

If you’re like me, the past month has caused a bit of an existential crisis — and made you fired up and ready to do something.

But if you’ve never been involved in the kinds of fights you’re interested in, it can seem overwhelming. I’ve had many conversations over the past few weeks with well-intentioned people who see big problems and a big, intimidating white space before them in terms of where to start.

As I’ve been trying to figure out how I want to contribute to the hard work of progress in the next few years, I’ve found it helpful to think across a few dimensions: where I am in life, how I can reasonably help given my resources and constraints, where I want to put my energy, and what I need to invest in now to have an impact on the future, just to name a few. As I’ve gotten closer to signal for myself, I started realizing there may be a model here that will help others with their own journeys.

Out of that thought process was born the personal impact canvas, a quick model you can use to map how you can make a difference in a meaningful, specific ways:

Download and print the personal impact canvas here.

I believe that one of the biggest obstacles to social change is that most people find the problems overwhelming, especially given the other priorities in their lives. It’s unsustainable to worry about everything that needs fixing all the time.

But we can’t ignore the work that needs to be done all together. The stakes are too high. The personal impact canvas is an attempt at helping you find that space in your own life.


Here’s a quick guide to the canvas, to get you started:

The top half is meant to compel you to put on paper some answers to big picture questions:

  • What kind of change do you want to see? What are your pie-in-the-sky ideas? What’s your ambition? Think big here. If your ambition is to abolish racism, for example, say it out loud. Put it on paper.
  • Then narrow it down: What kinds of current issues do you specifically care about? Immigration, voter disenfranchisement, and criminal justice reform all seem pretty relevant right now to me, but what keeps you specifically up at night?
  • Assets and constraints is meant to give you a reasonable sense of how you might plug in. For me, a big constraint is that I’ve got three kids, one of which is already in school here in Chicago. But I’ve got a network of people I’ve worked with in the Obama network and across the world. That’s an asset I can bring to the table.

Hopefully that gives you some reasonable sense of self-reflection, because the middle part is the juicy part. Given what you care about, given what you bring to the table and what your constraints are, what are you going to do?

  • How are you going to use what influence you have to make a difference? We all have some level of influence, over our friends and family, over our coworkers, over our elected representatives. But some of us have big social circles, and ways to have an even broader influence. How are you going to use it? At the very least, we have ourselves, and what we can do right now. I plan on speaking out when I see racism or Islamophobia, and using my body to stand with those being oppressed. How are you going to use what you have?
  • The three time horizons are meant to make you think about where you need to invest now, in the near future, and in the long-term to make the kind of change you want to see.
  • Important point: Even though the things on the far right are long-term, this model is meant to give you ways to start thinking about how to invest in those things now. For example, long-term I’m interested in teaching as a way to build up the next generation. That’s something personal to me that won’t happen for at least a few years, but I need to start thinking about it now in order to get there.
  • Note that you’re not meant to have tons of things to fill in every single box. This is meant to be a helpful heuristic more than prescriptive. These are guidelines, not rules. Especially as you move to the bottom right boxes, the things you’ll want to do will be intentionally harder to put your finger on. (Changing the world in the long-term is hard work!) But I still think it’s worthwhile to put it on paper. It’s important to be ambitious and optimistic. One of the things I have there, for example, is to create greater civic participation in the United States. I don’t know how we get there, but I know I need to start now.

The bottom section may be my favorite part, because it’s about personal growth.

  • If you really want to achieve your ambition, what tools do you need to add to your toolbox? Do you need to learn Spanish? Figure out who your local government representatives are? Learn how to organize? Go back to school? How do you need to invest in yourself?

This is just a tool, meant to give us all a path forward. I hope it’s helpful to you in your journey — and if it is, tell me! Would love nothing more than to plot out some “good trouble” with you.

Download and print the personal impact canvas. Let’s go.