Being involved in philanthropy is known to deliver benefits to both the donor and the recipient. For Charley Johnson, vice president of sales and marketing for Draper, Utah-based supplier HandStands, contributing to the greater good has encouraged a shift in perspective—his own. According to Johnson, the first step toward making any sort of social impact does not start with outward action but rather, an inside job.

“If you really want to help the world, you need to get your own house in order first,” he says.

Johnson recently returned to the promotional products industry after a six-year hiatus—from April 2011 to September 2017—during which he served as a board member and later as president of the board for the Pay It Forward Foundation, a nonprofit inspired by the 2000 movie Pay It Forward—starring Haley Joel Osment, Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt—which was based on Catherine Ryan Hyde’s 1999 novel of the same name. Hyde, who founded the Foundation, based her book on the simple notion that one small act of kindness can have unforeseen implications. The movie’s message then struck a chord with Johnson, who took the idea and ran with it.

“It was just a natural step for me,” Johnson says about his decision to leave the promo industry and join the Foundation. “I needed to evolve and that was part of my evolution. I loved the simplicity and the inclusiveness of Pay It Forward. I loved the fact that no matter who you are, no matter how much money you make, you can do something nice for someone.”

Johnson, who served as executive vice president for Jordan, Utah-based supplier SnugZ USA for 15 years, left behind a booming career and joined the movement to make the world a better place. He was involved in several initiatives for the Foundation, including the development of bracelets to raise awareness, which were distributed to more than 3.5 million people in more than 135 countries. The idea behind the bracelets, which read “Pay It Forward,” was for the wearer to offer an act of kindness to another person—hold the door, exchange a smile or help someone to their car—and then remove the bracelet, give it to the person and tell them it’s his or her turn to “pay it forward.” He also founded the PIF Experience, the website of the movement, where people can share personal stories, as well as the Pay It Forward Hall of Fame, of which Hyde was the first inductee. 

But after devoting six years to pushing the movement, Johnson realized that if he truly wanted to make a lasting change, he needed to start with himself. “For me, there was a sense that something was still missing after being successful in business and then in the nonprofit world. It was as if I was running from something, distracting myself from all I needed to work on personally. My involvement showed me there is an incredible number of people who are doing good things, but if you want to make a difference, you need to better understand yourself, your bias, your emotions, why you do what you do and how. Once you are more centered, more grounded, less like a leaf in the wind, the impact you’ll have when you do step out into the world to help others will be a thousand-fold.”

As fate would have it, Johnson’s decision to join HandStands—and return to the industry—proved a perfect match in his deck of cards. “It was perfect timing,” he says. “There are things, people, situations in this industry that will help me evolve. This time around is drastically different. My first life was all about making sure we were seen on magazine covers, awards and we were all over social media. This time, it’s different.”

This time, Johnson is focusing on development, both personally and professionally. “I want to grow. I want to evolve. I want to strengthen my weaknesses. I want to figure out how to get better, be more at peace, because if you are not at peace internally, all you do is cause more chaos externally, even when your heart is in the right place,” he says.

His intent is partly inspired by his experience with SnugZ USA, a company that offered him a profound opportunity, he says. “I didn’t grow up with any business background. I didn’t go to college and I really had no training. But there were people in this industry who took a chance on me and let me fail if I was going to fail and succeed if I was going to succeed. I believe that people tend to have a great amount of talent inside of them, but they’re often micromanaged and mismanaged by managers with deep-rooted fears and insecurities. If people are used to that, when someone comes along that lets them be free, encourages them, shows them they have something inside them they might not be able to see yet, this is where evolution happens for both sides.”

Using the insight he acquired over the past few years from “incredibly enlightened teachers,” Johnson continues to do good in a more internal way, remaining mindful throughout  all of his day-to-day activities. “We need to meet people where they are. We need to lead by example. My acts of kindness have evolved, they have become more spontaneous, I allow them to find me and what happens next is of no concern of mine. I’m using my experience and teachings to be present. You settle in, you let life find you as it always has. You release control of that which you never had control of in the first place. You let go.”

The easiest way to do so, he says, is to be present, just by being. “Just be in the moment, whatever that moment brings. Extremely simple and yet incredibly hard for most,” Johnson says. “Try it right now after reading this. Just be. Don’t grasp for anything. Don’t push anything away. Take right now as it is. Nothing needs to be fixed or done. Allow the thoughts, whatever they may be, to come and go. Just be in this moment, as this is all we have and ever will have.”


Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.