As a lifelong runner, I have a special friendship with time.
This holiday season marked the 10th anniversary of the first shoe drive I held that eventually snowballed into the nonprofit organization Give Running. The idea was simple: to pay forward my love for running, and the opportunity and joy running has fostered in my life.
To date, Give Running has donated more than 17,000 pairs of running and athletic shoes to disadvantaged youth and engaged more than 750 youth in our programs.
Several season-ending injuries including a hip stress fracture had taught me that running is hard, but not running is harder. And it wasn't just the races - it was the camaraderie and inside jokes with my teammates; it was the time spent in the fresh air and in the present moment; it was the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from a workout well run.
So, from October 2006 through the end of the year, I collected running and athletic shoes to donate to several youth-serving nonprofits in my hometown of Ventura, California. My initial goal was to collect, clean by hand, and donate 100 pairs of shoes by Christmas. When I was feeling really ambitious, I would imagining donating 200 pairs of shoes.
By the end of 2006 - thanks to the generosity and enthusiasm of my family, friends, community members, and kind strangers - the shoe tally topped 500 pairs!
I realized I couldn't stop - and I didn't want to stop. Give Running was off to a running start and the rest, as they say, is history and hard work. Here are ten of the many lessons I have learned about social impact in the ten years since:
1. First, Focus
The social impact challenges we take on each day are so interconnected that there is often great risk of taking on too much. We cannot do good work, let alone great work, if we do not stay true to our mission and values; this applies to individuals and to organizations.
Focus means that we are mindful of where we devote our gifts because we all have limited time, energy, and other resources. And at times focus means saying "no" to what matters in order to say "yes" to what matters most.
I have found it powerful to pair focus with an understanding of how our strategy both builds upon and builds up the work of others. This ecosystems perspective often brings clarity to tough decisions around where to expand, where to go deeper, and when is the proper timing.
Many of the social enterprises I look up to, including Embrace Innovations and Learn Fresh and Moneythink, have both a powerfully clear mission and a nuanced understanding of the specific roles they are playing within wider ecosystems.
2. Partnerships Make It Possible
We must practice focus because we each can only do so much - and then we can partner with others to collaboratively address interdisciplinary, cross-sector challenges that require the expertise and resources of many diverse stakeholders.
As Albert Einstein observed, "We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them."
From the beginning, Give Running has partnered with community-based organizations domestically and internationally to integrate our shoe donations and youth programs into their work. This collaboration not only ensures our efforts are more sustainable and tie into local priorities, but we have learned so much from the people we have been privileged to work with and befriend.
For instance, when Give Running partnered with iStandAbove and Witness Hope in Ghana, we discovered there was hunger for a coaching clinic for elite youth coaches in Ghana - and we quickly developed a half-day training to meet the opportunity.
Give Running began adding a gender lens to our programs by partnering with Girl Rising during the United Nations' first-ever International Day of the Girl back in 2012, before girls' education and inclusion was at the vanguard of international development.
Partnerships across sectors are also essential: we have been fortunate to grow our shoe donations and increase our reach by partnering with Patagonia Headquarters, New Balance factory stores, and other businesses.
Embracing partnerships - and entering with humility and openness - can ensure our intentions best translate into impact. The work may end up looking different than we initially anticipated, but building meaningful relationships is a reliable North Star for success.
3. Access Does Not Equal Success
For Give Running, the shoes have always been a means to a greater end of promoting health, education, self-esteem, and positive relationships with others. While I am proud of the 17,000-plus pairs of shoes we have distributed to date, in truth, measuring the number of shoes donated only gets at part of what we are trying to do.
Access to opportunity is a crucial foundation, but success comes from continuously supporting people in making the most of their opportunities and creating additional opportunities for others.
There is a similar discussion happening globally around education and development - universal access to education is a fundamental human right, but it must also be quality education in order to be truly transformative.
We should take heart in the progress achieved so far and continue pushing forward with urgency. Each horizon we reach brings us a view of a new landscape stretching into the yonder.
4. Experiments are Better than Hypotheses
The grandest plan cannot replace the smallest action. It is important to be mindful and strategic, but planning must not get in the way of actually getting out there and getting started.
My entrepreneurship classes at the University of Southern California taught me the mantra of "ready, fire, aim" in which success comes from trying, learning, and iterating along the way. I had a goal when I launched my first shoe drive, but beyond that, Give Running's research and development has mainly been repeated cycles of trial and error.
The only way I was going to discover what shoe-collection locations brought in the most high-quality shoe donations was by setting up bins in running stores, gyms, schools, and other locations - and then seeing how we could experiment our way to improvement.
Give Running's model has gone through almost as many iterations as a runner goes through pairs of shoes in a decade. A one-time campaign became a year-round organization.
What was initially a centralized pipeline in my hometown of Ventura, and then Los Angeles, became a decentralized platform spawning college chapters and supporting affiliates from Oregon to Massachusetts to Australia to Spain.
We have experimented with fee-for-service youth programs; served as the official shoe charity for the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon series; and provided technical assistance to individuals, clubs, and service organizations looking to replicate our model with shared values.
All this exploring and refining - with many hills and valleys along the way - has helped Give Running hone in on its niche where service learning and volunteerism meet sports for development, health, and education.
The real world is quite good at refining our business plans by exposing gaps in our thinking. Tom Chi, the former Head of Experience at Google X, wisely teaches that when we minimize our time between iterations, we maximize our rate of learning. I have learned to approach endeavors with a chief goal to be learning from the process.
The importance of action - however small - applies equally in our personal lives. Be generous with praise; be there for your friends; buy flowers for a loved one just because. Giving compliments does a lot more good than taking out the trash, and thus should be done more than once per week.
5. The Process is Part of the Outcome
Outcomes depend on relationships, which are formed and strengthened as processes.
The Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, sports teams, and various communities that lead shoe collection drives undoubtedly benefit from Give Running along with the "beneficiaries" of our shoe drives and youth programs. Volunteerism builds community, self-worth, and so much more.
What is more, doing something a second time is often more important than the first time in terms of developing sustainability and scale, which come down to repeatable processes.
Our partnership with the nonprofit organization Vive Peru, for instance, began when my USC Track teammate and friend Jeff Brown brought 22 pairs of Give Running shoes with him on a service trip to Peru, where he was volunteering at a rural medical clinic.
This led to leveraging Vive Peru's U.S. office near the University of Arizona - and the organization's expertise serving many of the most vulnerable children in Peru - by distributing most of the 600 pairs of shoes collected in the University of Arizona Athletic Department's 2015 shoe drive through Vive Peru.
As I have learned where Give Running can directly influence and indirectly assist, I have gained an appreciation for how a perspective attuned to processes helps make the impact of our work as robust and multifaceted as possible.
6. Patience is Indispensable Because Good Things Take Time
Patience is a bitter seed that bears sweet fruit. A challenge I have come to call the Social Innovator's Dilemma is how we balance the patience required for building enduring impact with the urgency that compels us to impassioned action.
Getting my hands dirty lugging shoes around informs big-picture decision-making, which in turn inspires me when I am cleaning the next bin of shoes.
Connecting people and causes takes time. Indeed, time is the medium by which we give our full effort - and in so doing change hearts and change minds, change habits of behavior and change real-world circumstances.
The good fight is worth fighting. As the great John Steinbeck put it, "Goodness is venerable as nothing else in the world is."
7. Progress Comes From Bringing People Together
Bringing people together is what leads to progress, from the first small groups of humans forming larger tribes, to the groundswell of people joining the civil rights movement. The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice and towards inclusion as long as we do our work to bend it by bringing people together. There are real tensions that come with this, too.
Indeed, I have learned that leadership is a process that belongs to everyone rather than a role filled by one individual, and involves more questions than answers. When we come together, we must do so with humility and an eagerness to learn from each other's life experiences, cultures, passions, questions, and wisdom.
Much of Give Running's progress has come from brilliant people joining our cause including Allen Li leading our Soleful Schools initiative and Jen Nguyen founding Give Running's first satellite chapter at the College of the Holy Cross.
When we build on the passions and strengths of diverse stakeholders, we advance towards our goals and also realize new opportunities.
8. Gratitude Opens Us to Giving and Receiving
It is vital that we be generous and humble both in giving and in receiving. If you enjoy helping others, allow others to experience the joy of helping you; while you cannot always repay those who have supported you, you can pay forward kindness in their honor. We are all in this together, after all.
A friend recently shared a Buddhist lesson with me about the three ways to hold a coin in our hand. First, we can clench the coin in our fist with our fingers facing down, which requires significant tension. Second, we can rotate our hand so that we are still clenching the coin, but the coin is also resting on our palm, using gravity and reducing tension.
Third, we can open our hand so that the coin rests upon our palm - eliminating tension and also allowing us to receive more coins. Keeping our hands open, trying and trying again even when our hands are weary, and never ceasing to view life as a blessing, is what resilience means to me.
Gratitude, and the resilience which flows from it, are a proactive choice under our control that better prepares us for those things that are outside of our control when they inevitably come.
We tend to see what we look at - and when we direct our attention to the blessings in our lives, they flourish.
9. People Are Wonderful
While I have been fortunate to receive support and acknowledgment for leading Give Running, it is all the people who have donated their shoes, time, effort, expertise, financial resources, spread the word, provided advice, and done so much else who deserve great thanks.
Olympians to avid athletes, toddlers to octogenarians, all have donated their shoes and goodwill. Quite often this thoughtfulness and generosity come unprompted, too.
Journalist and editor Joyce Chen remembered Give Running's coverage in the Daily Trojan USC student newspaper and successfully pitched us for People Magazine's "Heroes Among Us" section when she worked there.
Needless to say, the full-page spread was beyond huge for our exposure and growth, especially at the time when Give Running was a fledgling organization.
Olympic Gold Medalist and heart-of-gold humanitarian Tina Charles has been Give Running's "Saint in the Paint" since she entered the WNBA in 2010. Tina has participated in shoe donations and been an authentic advocate for our work along with founding the Hopey's Heart Foundation.
Recently and unexpectedly bumping into Tina at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting was a serendipitous highlight of my 2016; it reminded me how far we have come, and also how the people we journey with make the journey.
There is so much hurt in the world, but there is so much heart, too. Each day I am privileged to see generosity, kindness, and selflessness in people around the world through Give Running.
10. The Effort is the Reward, Especially When the Effort is for Others
There is no substitute for effort. Part of keeping Give Running running has been to lug shoes from collection sites to where we clean, sort, and store them before donation to our charity partners. Rather than thinking of hauling shoes and cleaning shoes by hand as grimy chores, I instead think about the smiles the shoes will bring.
I have learned that each pair of Give Running shoes connects two lives. While the giver and receiver of each pair of shoes may not meet face-to-face, they nevertheless meet foot-to-foot and heart-to-heart.
Acumen Chief Innovation Officer Sasha Ditcher, in his recent reflection on Acumen's 15th anniversary and his ten years there, brilliantly noted: "If there's one thing I've learned in this time, it's that the only way to become the kinds of people who show up, who hammer away, and who do the work is by showing up, hammering away, and doing the work."
Over the past ten years, I honestly feel that I have been Give Running's greatest beneficiary. The people and experiences Give Running has guided into my life are among my life's chief blessings - along with the satisfaction of the hard work itself. The sweat, the laughs, and the tears teach me about the courage and strength in being here.
Which brings me back to why I love running so profoundly: effort is the true measure or a race, more so than time. Indeed, through our full effort, we transcend the bounds of time. We connect with others and with our truest, best self.
It is humbling to reflect on all the ways in which I have changed in the past ten years. And yet, so much of what makes me me has remained the same. If anything, the greatest changes have been my learning more about who I am, and living that self as authentically as I can.
A decade ago, I remember being filled with hope and gratitude as I kicked off my holiday shoe drive with a pair of my own running shoes. Three months and more than 500 pairs later, those feelings were even more immense. My purpose had emerged.
I am thankful beyond measure for this journey and for all the people who stride with me. As far and as fast as we have run together these past ten years, there are still miles and miles of journey ahead.
We will continue to fight the good fight. We will continue to devote our time, effort, passion, and other gifts to helping others lace up a pair of shoes, take a step forward, and never stop running toward their dreams.
Time spent bringing together and building up people is time well spent - for it is not spent as much as it is suffused with meaning. This is the opportunity and joy at the heart of Give Running.
Time flies when we're having fun and when we're working hard; best of all is when we are doing both.