If I had the power to inspire a movement, it would have to be to help more people discover and live their purpose with full consciousness. I would love for a life of meaning to be available to everyone, to help more people move from surviving to thriving and for everyone to have clarity for their reason for being. When we have a clear sense of purpose, it’s easier to get through the hard times, it’s more likely that we will make meaning of our setbacks, you have something to make decisions based on because you know where you are going. It’s also way easier to get less distracted or compete with others on artificial or material terms. When you have purpose, you have clarity and energy. And that’s an unstoppable force that comes from the inside out.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sona Khosla, Chief Impact Officer at Benevity and Host of Speaking of Purpose Podcast. Sona Khosla is the Chief Impact Officer at Benevity, where she heads up Benevity Impact Labs, an incubator and resource hub. Benevity Impact Labs brings cutting-edge data, research, insights and best practices to help organizations and individuals maximize their impact and authentically live their purpose. Since joining Benevity in 2015 as Vice President of Marketing, Sona has helped companies stay at the forefront of emerging trends and identify and adopt groundbreaking strategies to maximize their social and business impact. Sona is also the host of Benevity’s podcast, Speaking of Purpose, and makes guest appearances on radio shows and podcasts discussing topics such as building purpose-driven brands, authentic employee and customer engagement, the shift to virtual volunteering and remote culture, and corporate giving trends.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for inviting me!
It all started with a panel I was on for International Women’s Day almost four years ago. Every year, our ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) put on events and panels on specific topics. That year, I was asked to share my experiences as a woman in leadership with Benevity-ites. After the panel, Bryan de Lottinville, our Founder and then CEO, pulled me aside and said, “I want you on the Executive Team and I think we should consider a role like Chief Impact Officer.” I was surprised and flattered but admittedly not entirely sold on the title. At the time, I was the Vice President of Marketing at Benevity and there were no other Chief Impact Officers out there. But the more I thought about it, the more it aligned with my personal purpose and passions. Over the years, I started to get more excited about the idea. It wasn’t until Kelly Schmitt, our current CEO, became my boss that it actually happened. In one of our first one-to-ones, she asked me what I wanted to do and I told her. Five months later, I was promoted to become Benevity’s first Chief Impact Officer — and it just happened to be the same week Prince Harry was announced as Chief Impact Officer for another SaaS company! I felt like I made the right choice when that happened! I always did like that guy…
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your role?
I was in my role just 3.5 months when the devastating news about the discovery of mass grave sites at Canadian residential schools and institutional sites started rolling in where to this point the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada is conservatively estimating between 4,000 to 6,000 deaths of Indigenous children. While the history of colonialism is somewhat known in Canada, this was the first time that it made headlines and hit mass consciousness. As Chief Impact Officer and as someone on our Executive Team, I was asked to say a few words about the news at our weekly company town hall. But to be honest, I had no words. What do you say when you realize that there was sanctioned mistreatment and death of innocent Indigenous Peoples in the country you love and call home? When you realize you are a part of a system of oppression? When you realize your ignorance is harming humanity? I will admit, I didn’t want to say anything because I hadn’t fully processed the news myself and I didn’t feel like I could speak on behalf of anyone or say anything of value. But one of my tenacious colleagues kept pushing me, telling me how important it was to our people. So I did. And after that, a groundswell of action started in our company in support of Indigenous Peoples and Communities. It was incredible to see how many people came together to share their learning, their insights and the resources they were leaning on to do their part to start the reconciliation journey. Ultimately, Benevity ended up granting $100,000 to 8 Indigenous-focused causes supporting Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, clean water, reconciliation, residential school survivors, Indigenous youth and more. This experience taught me that together, we can help each other be better and shape a more equitable future for anyone who we take the time to learn about and care about.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh boy, how do I pick just one? I made so many mistakes, unfortunately not many of them were funny (or at least they weren’t at the time!). The most recent mistake I made was during COVID. At Benevity, we ran a 1:1 donation matching campaign for the public to donate to causes who were struggling right when the pandemic hit. It was mid-March 2020 and we announced that we’d match up to $300,000 in donations to any nonprofit. Well…I underestimated the appetite for people wanting to help during a time of crisis. Within 1.5 hours of the campaign being launched, we processed $636,000 in donations! That put us over our matching budget by more than $300,000. One of the most awkward moments was having to tell our CEO and CFO that I had misjudged the world’s desire to help. But in true Benevity fashion, our leadership team did the right thing, and we gladly matched all the donations. By the time the campaign was over, 2.3 million dollars were donated to 812 unique nonprofits. Coming out of that, I learned never to underestimate the power of collective action in a time of need and to be grateful to be working for a truly purpose-driven company.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
At Benevity, we help companies help their people do good. Whether it’s Starbucks using our platform to engage their retail workers and nonprofits in community initiatives, or Coca Cola empowering their employees to volunteer for the causes they are most passionate about, or Levi’s enabling customers to round up their donations to support impactful nonprofits at checkout. We are privileged to power the purpose programs of more than 700 of the world’s most iconic brands and help them use their businesses as a force for good. To date, we have processed 7 billion dollars in donations, 38 million volunteer hours, tracked 340,000 positive actions and awarded one million grants to 303,000 causes around the world. And we know that this kind of positive impact is not just good for the world, but it’s also good for business and for the individuals who engage in doing good. It may seem like a lot of impact, but at Benevity, we genuinely feel like we are just getting started.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
It’s impossible to pick just one individual. We have supported more than 303,000 causes in our time, and I can’t even begin to fathom just how many organizations, people, animals and communities that looks like. One thing I can say for sure is that it’s not just the beneficiaries of the goodness that are positively impacted. The people doing the acts of goodness — whether that’s donating, volunteering, or taking action — also come away with a sense of purpose, meaning, impact and efficacy. And in a world where many of us are “languishing,” feeling hopeless or helpless, it can be helpful to remember that all it takes is one act of goodness to make an impact. You don’t have to be Bill Gates, MacKenzie Scott or Bono; every little bit matters and every action counts.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is what you do with the truth. As leaders, we are charged with the well-being and success of others. So, it is incumbent upon us to create a place where people feel safe enough to speak up and advocate for themselves, their teammates, the company and the communities it serves. And when we do that, we are responsible for acting on that information in a responsible, ethical manner.
What are your “3 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You are not what you think you are. I spent most of my career second-guessing myself, doubting myself and generally feeling insecure about whether I was good enough. I listened to the inner critic and gave that voice way too much power. Now I listen to the inner mother voice who believes in me, advocates for me and knows all my flaws, but loves me anyways!
- Empathy is a strength, not a weakness. I was often told that I cared too much, that I identified with my team members too much or I felt too much. I found myself crying in bathrooms a lot when I was early in my tech career, working mostly with men who didn’t experience work and challenges the same way I did. I later learned a lot of women spent time crying in bathrooms and I realized that we have been trained to hide our feelings. Now, I see the ability to bring feeling and empathy for others to the table as a critical skill of the future for any leader, regardless of your gender or job title.
- Your suffering is what makes you, not what breaks you. I suffered a mental health crisis in 2011 which triggered an extended period of anguish, pain and anxiety. Having come through that time of great darkness, I have learned what real confidence is. It’s knowing that inevitably, you will experience pain in your life. But it’s also knowing that your pain doesn’t have to break you; it can make you softer, more vulnerable and more attuned to the suffering of others. And that will make you in ways you never expected.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a person of influence, but if I had the power to inspire a movement, it would have to be to help more people discover and live their purpose with full consciousness. I would love for a life of meaning to be available to everyone, to help more people move from surviving to thriving and for everyone to have clarity for their reason for being. When we have a clear sense of purpose, it’s easier to get through the hard times, it’s more likely that we will make meaning of our setbacks, you have something to make decisions based on because you know where you are going. It’s also way easier to get less distracted or compete with others on artificial or material terms. When you have purpose, you have clarity and energy. And that’s an unstoppable force that comes from the inside out.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When my mother died suddenly a few years ago, a friend texted me a message that my mom sent to her only a few months earlier. It said, “We all have a finite number of breaths to draw on this planet. Some have more, some have fewer, but you cannot take one more breath than you were destined to, so be bold with your life.” In that moment, my mother’s words rang through my entire being and gave me solace knowing my mom believed she lived all her breaths. Her quote also gave me the courage to stop delaying the life I knew I wanted to live.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Most of the people I’d want to have breakfast with are no longer with us: Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Marion Woodman, Carl Jung, Marilyn Monroe, Rumi. But if we are talking about famous people who are alive it would be a toss-up between Russell Brand, Alice Walker, Adam Grant, or Indra Nooyi. It would depend on my mood that day!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m active on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sonakhosla/. Don’t bother following me on Twitter or Instagram unless you are curious about what I was up to in 2018 (which wasn’t very interesting).
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Ditto, thank you for the opportunity!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Sona Khosla Of Benevity Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.