2012: Amber Smith #LT30for30

Leadership Triangle
7 min readOct 4, 2022

Since 1992, Leadership Triangle has been a convener, educator, advocate, and amplifier for some of our region’s most engaged leaders and organizations. To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we’re telling the stories of 30 Fellows from 30 years of programs. Each Fellow highlighted will represent one year of impact: from 1992 to 2001 to 2022.

Amber Smith holding sign that says Change The World or Bust.

Amber has lived in North Carolina for the majority of her life and is currently a resident of Raleigh. Amber founded Activate Good in 2005 (then known as ME3) when she noticed that people seemed to want to get involved to help the community but were not sure how to get started, and that many causes could benefit from the help of more volunteers. Before Activate Good she volunteered with organizations such as Kiwanis, Hope for the Homeless, and Amnesty International. She completed a Masters in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management at N.C. State University where she also advised undergraduates in the Nonprofit Studies Minor. Amber hopes all individuals will see the potential they have to make a difference, and act to fulfill that potential. Amber is a 2012 Leadership Triangle Goodmon Fellow.

My inspiration to start Activate Good began when I was a kid. I learned about problems like climate change, homelessness, human trafficking, and bullying through books and television commercials. Like many people, I started to feel angry that these problems existed in the same world where we’d figured out how to travel to the moon and back.

Owen Jordan: What is your story?

Amber Smith: When people ask me nowadays where I’m from, I say North Carolina. That’s because I did all of my most important growing up and coming-of-age here. I was born in Boise, Idaho, lived in Detroit, Michigan for a few years (yep, we still went to school when the snow was up to my eyeballs!), then moved here with my mother when I was nine years old.

I completed my undergraduate and graduate degrees at North Carolina State University, studying social change, leadership, and nonprofits!

Outside of my work with Activate Good, I love art and music — I paint, draw, and sing show tunes and Broadway music with my mother at retirement communities during the holidays! I love the Fall (who doesn’t?), hikes with my partner, my dog Kira (outing myself as a nerd here — she’s named after the best Star Trek Deep Space Nine character) and my two cats, Bailey and Caleb. I also host a YouTube channel where I provide tips and strategies to people who want to create a social impact through nonprofits or social enterprises.

Activate Good pledge signing

Owen Jordan: What inspired you to found Activate Good in 2005?

Amber Smith: Quick context for those who may not be familiar — Activate Good is a nonprofit with a mission of mobilizing, equipping, and empowering people in the greater Triangle area to make an impact through service and civic action. If you’re trying to figure out how to help our community and find a cause that needs your volunteer time or skills, but you’re not quite sure where to start, we’ve got you covered!

My inspiration to start Activate Good began when I was a kid. I learned about problems like climate change, homelessness, human trafficking, and bullying through books and television commercials. Like many people, I started to feel angry that these problems existed in the same world where we’d figured out how to travel to the moon and back. So I started to study these problems and what people were doing about them. I wanted to learn what I could do about them. I was introduced to volunteering in high school, and one of my first service experiences happened at my after-school job at a bakery cafe in Raleigh. When I noticed perfectly intact pastries were getting thrown away at the end of the night, I lobbied our manager to get them collected and donated to a local charity.

In college, my appetite for service grew stronger. Along with my best friend, I found myself volunteering for student chapters of Amnesty International, Hope for the Homeless, and other groups. We raised money in the college courtyard to buy blankets for people experiencing homelessness. We volunteered with groups to serve meals at the Shelter, build habitats for rescued tigers, and more.

Halfway through college; we wanted to take our service to the next level. So we saved up some money and drove around the country for 2.5 months, volunteering and doing acts of kindness in over 20 states. On that life-changing journey, we learned something amazing: Most people also want to help, to be of service, and to change their communities for the better. And if they weren’t already helping out somehow, it wasn’t because they didn’t care. We learned that people often felt the call to help, but that understanding what problems need help and knowing how to get started helping is a big barrier to getting started.

So when we arrived home, we started Activate Good: a nonprofit with a mission of helping people get connected to all the ways they could help in our community. Over the past decade, we’ve connected over 30,000 people to opportunities to support nearly 600 Triangle area causes!

Amber with volunteers

Owen Jordan: What brought you to Leadership Triangle back in 2012?

Amber Smith: In 2012, my work with Activate Good was at a crossroads. I had been leading and managing the organization as volunteer Board President for several years at that point, and I knew that if we were going to take our mission to the next level, we needed to invest more in our capacity, infrastructure, and leadership. The Board was, at that time, assessing our budget and considering how we might invest in moving me to a full time Executive Director position to lead the organization forward.

Leadership Triangle was pivotal for me at that crucial juncture. I’d had a taste of what it meant to run an organization through my Founder and Board leadership roles with Activate Good, but a nagging imposter syndrome cast secret doubt within me that I’d be the leader I wanted to be in my mind (I learned later this was not uncommon!). Through Leadership Triangle programming, events, and the amazing relationships I built, I achieved the confidence to rise to the occasion. I also learned something critically important about leadership: It’s not about being the best, the most confident, or even the most knowledgeable. It’s about knowing and amplifying the talents of those around you to get good things done.

One year later, in 2013, I was honored and thrilled to finally begin my role as Executive Director for Activate Good, not only allowing the organization to invest proper time in the cause, but also fulfilling my personal dream of being able to do this work that I love full time!

Amber at formal event

Owen Jordan: What does leadership look like in your role as the Executive Director of Activate Good?

Amber Smith: Leadership has looked like a lot of different things in my role as Executive Director at Activate Good, because I’m constantly understanding all I don’t know on new levels and working to adapt, and I think that’s a good thing. One thing I came into the organization craving and is something myself and our amazing team is always working towards is ensuring the work stays Human. I’d worked for large corporations and other jobs before I started full time with Activate Good, and felt so empty whenever I felt like a faceless cog in the business machine. I never want to work for an organization like that again, and I never want Activate Good to become that way, even if we grow to a much larger team size than we’d ever had before. How this Human-ness manifests in the work includes trying to maintain a culture of open communication, taking good care of our people, and honoring work-life balance.

A few other big leadership lessons I’ve learned include the importance of clear communication, focusing on end outcomes, and working towards effective coordination and collaboration as a team. Human beings are so varied in their beliefs, thinking, and ways of communicating — it takes a special but worthwhile effort to keep the team moving towards the same goal!

T-Rex costumed person



Leadership Triangle

Leadership Triangle builds leadership capacity and promotes regionalism across the separate communities of the Triangle (Chatham, Durham, Orange, Wake County).