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A 5-question brainstorming exercise to set your next social impact project in motion

Let's say you want to start a new project but don't know where to begin. Or maybe you want to address a social issue but you don't know how. A few weeks ago, I gave a School Talk to Peak School's Year 6s, who were about to begin their exhibitions for the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program.

The 5-question framework I gave them essentially clears the same hurdles above, so I thought I'd share it.

What "exhibition" were these Year 6s doing?

To me, "exhibitions" are art shows, but to these 10 to 11 year olds, they're projects centred on real-world issues. Year 6s following the IB curriculum are expected to carry out a hands-on project by interviewing, researching, and synthesising information to tackle big-ticket problems and create social impact.

So what do I have to do with any of this?

The Year 6s needed to pick topics for their exhibitions. They needed to identify an issue that they wanted to address, then charge ahead finding a way to create a social impact within that space. I was there to guide them through the brainstorming process, using The Hong Konger (which I would argue is just a glorified exhibition) as a template.

What did we do during the interactive session?

To facilitate the brainstorming, I asked five questions and we mind-mapped our answers during a 45-minute session.

These were the five questions:

  1. What do I like to do?

  2. What am I good at?

  3. What is a problem I care about solving?

  4. What will have an impact on the problem?

  5. What will get people excited?

If these questions whiff of something familiar, it's because I based them on the Japanese concept of "ikigai", which translates into "a reason for being" and is the intersect of four ellipses in a Venn diagram. Ikigai is often used to help people identify fulfilling careers, but I wiggled the concept around to facilitate this exercise with the Year 6s.

Ikigai as a Venn diagram.

At each question, I told a chapter of my story... or rather the story of how I created The Hong Konger. Then, we spent 2-3 minutes mind-mapping our own ideas individually. I didn't want to focus on actions though. I wanted to emphasise the thought processes that led to developing an idea, then scaling it to have a social impact. For me, that looked like:

a. coming up with an idea for an art series (The Hong Konger)

b. finding a way to get people to care about it enough to pay for it (art fairs, prints, a book, etc)

c. identifying a social cause that could benefit from the revenue (inequality in Hong Kong)

d. developing a program to channel that revenue towards that social cause (The Hong Konger donation program)

Here's a SparkNotes version of how each question took us through the process of developing an idea to achieve social impact:

1. What do I like to do?

My main takeaway for this question was that you do not have to be good at your hobbies. You just have to enjoy them. The reason being that there would be times during the exhibitions where students would want to throw in the towel. Things would get stressful, overwhelming, and discouraging. But as long as things were still engaging, students would be more likely to power through. For me, I like comedy, storytelling, and tech. These things would conveniently translate into telling funny stories through digital art.

2. What am I good at?

Now we tackle skills. These don't need to be things you enjoy. You just need to be good at them so your project isn't a flop. I don't particularly enjoy contract-writing, admin, or bookkeeping, but I am good at them. I also find social media stressful, but I am good at manipulating the Instagram algorithm. Because these were my skills, I deliberately leveraged them when launching The Hong Konger by relying heavily on social media marketing and not outsourcing legal, administrative, or financial services. (I didn't say that last bit to the Year 6s, but I'm just contextualising here for you).

3. What is a problem I care about solving?

The first two questions were focused on the individual, "you". Questions 3 and 4 zoom out to consider the social impact on a community, the "us". I rattled off causes students could consider having a social impact on: pollution, gender inequality, racial injustice, hunger, and so on.

I also encouraged students to look at their immediate surroundings for inspiration. Would food go to waste in the cafeteria every lunchtime? Did bullying affect them? For me I felt personally affected by disability and gender inequality, but with The Hong Konger, I wanted to tackle inequality more broadly in the city.

4. What will have an impact on the problem?

We brainstormed all sorts of products, services, and events students could put on to tackle the issues we identified in question 4. Building a website, putting on a fun day or concert, writing a song or selling art, publishing a magazine or launching a letter-writing campaign. What would raise funds or awareness?

For The Hong Konger, my impact — to put it crudely — is money. Being disabled, I don't have the physical capacity to do much. I can't build houses for Habitat for Humanity or spend all day on my feet canvassing houses. But I can make stuff that makes money. The way I eventually figured out to fundraise was through The Hong Konger donation program, which donates 20% of all limited series prints to local registered charities in Hong Kong.

5. What will get people excited?

The keyword in "social impact" is social. You need people to like your idea so much that they spend time or money on it. They need to read your magazine, attend your event, or, in my case, buy your art. I threw out some literal and abstract ideas for the Year 6s to consider.

Literal ways to get people jazzed included incorporating prizes or competitions into their product, service, or event. Think raffle tickets, auctions, or three-legged races with trophies for the winners.

For abstract incentives, I offered up appeals to people's emotions. I explained that with The Hong Konger, I appealed to Hong Kongers' senses of humour and identity. People like The Hong Konger because they see themselves in it and (sometimes) they find the art funny. They make easy but heartfelt gifts for friends. They facilitate social connections and closeness. The big question is: how do you pull on people's heartstrings (without being totally scheming and manipulative, obviously)?

To close out this School Talk, we all held up our mind-maps and had the opportunity to share any breakthroughs we had. But I also emphasised that these maps are to keep and add to. They're not homework. They're not graded. They're a breeding ground (that phrase grosses me out but I'm rolling with it) for future ideas and inspiration. Mind-maps are great, because you can add to them at any time.

The goal with this framework isn't to make a mind-map in 45 minutes with me gabbing away in the background. The goal is to start a mind-map, then develop it as the project develops over the rest of the school year. The Hong Konger didn't come to me fully formed in one brainstorming session. It percolated and marinated (and still is evolving). Especially when school can feel very milestone-focused and measured, I ended the session hammering home that the best things develop and change over time.


In case you're new here, my name is Sophia Hotung. I am a disabled writer, illustrator, and digital artist best known for creating The Hong Konger art collection and The Hong Konger Anthology book. You can read my bio here.

If you would like me to speak at your school, club, company, or event, email or visit my School Talks or Talks pages.

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