Resolving to change the tone of resolutions

New Year's Day

Maybe 2012 will be the year you finally quit smoking. Or drop those stubborn 10 pounds. Or call your mom more frequently.

But maybe 2012 will also be the year you volunteer some free time at a soup kitchen. Or begin recycling. Or build houses with Habitat for Humanity.

One web-based project on campus, Resolution ’12, seeks to encourage people to make New Year’s resolutions that aren’t just self-serving, but ones that also serve the needs of others. “What if a number of people made these commitments—commitments they weren’t already making?” asks the Rev. Charles L. Howard, Penn’s chaplain and the site’s creator. “A lot of good could be put out there in the world.”

On the Resolution ’12 website (, people can post New Year’s resolutions that focus on serving and caring for others in numerous capacities. Some pledge to help the homeless, while others have vowed to keep friends and family in their thoughts. “I think the beautiful thing about this is it’s a personal commitment,” says Danielle Heitmann, a 2010 Penn graduate who works with the Christian Association and is partnering with Howard on this project. “You help people connect their passions with a need that others have. This mechanism lets people make that commitment.”

A few notable names have already committed resolutions to the site, including the Rev. James Martin, an author and culture editor of America Magazine; Bucknell professor and cultural commentator James B. Peterson; and Penn President Amy Gutmann, who wrote: “I resolve to continue to cultivate opportunities for Penn to improve the lives of our local, national and global neighbors through research, teaching and civic engagement.”

Howard says the project began spontaneously, when he and two friends were thinking about a follow-up project to their book and CD, “The Souls of Poor Folk.”

“We were trying to experiment with how we could challenge people to put more good out there in the world,” Howard says. “Our conversation led toward challenging people to make these resolutions, which naturally fits with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s resolutions.”

Resolution ’12 is not a charity organization, nor does it directly connect people with volunteer opportunities or ways to serve others. Instead, the group’s organizers see this project as a way to change the tone around this part of the holiday season. Howard says such a shift is possible. “Twenty years ago, working on Thanksgiving at a homeless shelter was extremely rare, but every year, there are more and more people who are going out to food distribution places for Thanksgiving or Christmas,” he says. “That’s just a part of what people are doing now.”

The first site, Resolution ’11, was set up last year and received about 2,000 online resolutions. This year, Howard approached Heitmann in the summer so she could expand the project.

For Resolution ’12, they have partnered with a team from Wharton’s first-year Management 100 class. In the class, student teams work to craft and implement a project for a nonprofit.

“We wanted to have a personal connection with people,” says Tiffany Agalaba, a Wharton freshman who is part of the Management 100 team that is working with Resolution ’12. “We knew we needed to help them with the website, and then we could also influence people to make resolutions that could truly help someone. We were really attracted to this [project].”

Heitmann has been meeting with Agalaba and other members of the Wharton team to provide guidance and feedback. Already, the team has gotten creative with their marketing strategies, pushing Resolution ’12 on Facebook and Twitter, creating two YouTube videos and hosting a Nov. 11 event on Locust Walk.

The goal is not to get thousands of responses, they say, but to encourage people to make thoughtful commitments. “We’d rather have 10 meaningful resolutions from people, rather than 100,000 flippant ones that people don’t really care about,” says Howard. “I think we’re trying to change the culture around New Year’s Eve, so that along with fireworks, along with partying, the ball dropping, making service-minded resolutions is just a part of what people do.”

While Howard and Heitmann are still thinking about their resolutions for 2012, Agalaba has already posted hers to the site: She has committed to help her friends and family if they need her assistance. “Committing to a resolution just opens up your mind to how you can help other people, so I think it’s great,” she says.

Originally published on December 15, 2011