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10 ways to kick-start your social impact career

How to transition to a social impact career to have more meaning and purpose in your job.
July 08, 2021
Talking on the street


In a world with no shortage of social issues to solve, millennials are craving more than a lucrative paycheck and a top-notch title. In less than two years, millennials will become the largest employee demographic and a recent survey indicates that 50% of them would take a pay cut to find work that aligns with their values. But making the transition from corporate life to make a positive difference is not as simple as it first sounds.

For those motivated to push for profound social change, upgrading one’s technical skills with a bootcamp or graduate degree may not be enough in a sector growing more competitive by the day. Trading the daily grind for deploying your well-earned skills for social change requires self awareness, an entrepreneurial mindset, and the willingness to just start.
Aliyah Kurji, 2014 Acumen Global Fellow, made the transition from private sector consulting to the social impact sector, but despite her current success, she’s the first to admit the transition wasn’t easy. Finding a job in the social impact sector can be a confusing and frustrating journey because there’s no set path.
“This isn’t management consulting or investment banking,” Aliyah says. “There’s no standard online application that leads you to being 1 of 60 in the next analyst program where you’re told exactly what and how you need to achieve to be successful.”

It's up to you to find the shapes and colors you like to paint.

Unique paths are plentiful in the social impact sector, spanning different sectors, geographies, and functions. Navigating the ambiguity is part of the challenge and creates an opportunity to add depth to your knowledge. 
Here are 10 tips to help you make the transition to a social impact career and get more meaning and purpose out of your job.

1. Have a Conversation with Yourself

Before embarking on your search, Aliyah stresses that you must have a conversation with yourself to understand what’s truly important to you. For example, if paying off your student loans is your top priority, then you should factor this into your job search and set your expectations accordingly. If you land your ‘dream job’ but it doesn’t enable you to pay off your loans, the stress may end up impacting your performance.
This doesn’t mean your priorities can’t evolve over time, but checking in with yourself to realign is essential. Every decision comes with trade-offs, having conviction in your priorities will allow you to reconcile those trade-offs when the going gets tough. 

People think you need to be selfless to do this work but in reality you and the world are best served when you act practically, whilst being true to yourself.

Our Master Class instructor Emily Esfahani Smith shares advice on how to live a meaningful life.

2. Demystify your passion

The word “passion” is wildly overused. Too often, candidates use the word to explain just about any emotion, instinct, or desire that drives them to pursue a new position. The key to using passion effectively is getting granular about what really drives you, otherwise you’ll fail to communicate your interests and motivations to employers in a compelling way. 
This isn’t to say this exercise is easy. Finding the words to eloquently add color to your experiences as a recent graduate or someone who’s about to make a 180-career switch can be like trying to nail jello to a tree. 
Keep in mind that the words we use to describe a moment shape how others view our experience of it. Set time aside, free your mind of distractions, find a quiet place, and commit to thinking deeply about how to put your passions to paper. This process may be riddled with frustrations, and you may even be tempted to surrender with an “I just don’t know,” but trying to use more descriptive language will shed light on the nuanced nature of your experiences. 
If you’re still struggling, this guide on the art of storytelling to inspire social change may offer direction.
Global Fellow

Aliyah Kurji

At On Purpose Aliyah drives a Leadership Development and Training Programme in the UK focused on building a community of purpose and professionalising the talent in the SocEnt sector. Prior to this Aliyah was an Innovation Manager at Acumen focused on developing new initiatives to engage and connect various members of the Acumen ecosystem. She first came to Acumen through the Global Fellowship programme where she was based in Nairobi, Kenya with d.light design, a company that makes low-cost solar lights that provides cleaner, safer, and cheaper lighting to off-grid consumers. Aliyah has a background in management consulting and focused on Leadership Development, Training, Change Management and Culture Change at Accenture UK. Aliyah is an operational member of Serve On charity, an International Disaster Response team. She holds a BA from University of Warwick and an MBA from University of Oxford.


3. Lean in without losing sight of your goals

If you’re looking for a structured route, you’re in the wrong spot. The search differs for everyone so it’s important to carve the way that works for you. Aliyah found herself attracted to many organizations and causes, but the lack of structure left her pursuing aimless roles – which was both exhausting and disheartening.
Instead of giving in, Aliyah embraced this beautiful struggle, turning every opportunity into a chance to connect with inspiring individuals who shared their sector-knowledge and acted as a source of motivation. 

This being said, don’t lose sight of the ecosystem. Navigating the social impact sector can seem daunting, with NGOs, non-profits, and private organizations looking for individuals with specialized knowledge in education, health, social entrepreneurship, gender equality, migration, and more. Many professionals working within this field have a highly specific focus, so while it’s alright to accept a stepping stone position, it’s important to identify and orient yourself towards a specific area.

If you’re interested in joining the nonprofit sector, this free course on nonprofit fundraising essentials offers an overview of the challenges faced in the nonprofit sector and a starting point to build skills to overcome them.

If you're looking to hone in on a very specific social issue, check out another free course– Start Your Social Change Journey–which will help you sustain your goals and stay on track. 

4. Get inside the mindset of a social entrepreneur

If you want to work with a certain social enterprise or NGO, learn to think like them. While this can be achieved through a conversation, understanding the principles behind launching a startup, engaging with customers, and crafting a resilient business model, may give you an advantage during the job application process. All entrepreneurs follow certain principles and practices when building new products and services. Acumen Academy has taught thousands of social entrepreneurs not only how to pitch their big ideas, but also how to develop, iterate, and scale their businesses. 
This free course on human-centered design will introduce you to one of the core skill sets: thinking like a social innovator. 

5. The first job may not be the 'perfect job'

When switching careers in any sector, you may need to accept a position that serves as a jumping off point toward your dream position. While passion can propel you forward, your value to an employer lies in the amount of technical knowledge you possess.
“If you don’t have any experience working in Africa and you want a field based job in Africa, you probably need to approach it in a more round-about way. Focus on what you can offer rather than what you want to start with and remember: passion alone is not enough,” Aliyah adds.

The job is not a destination but a journey, and there will always be another step to take. There isn’t one utopian job — if you expect that, you’re just going to be disappointed.

6. Don't compare yourself to your peers

LinkedIn will be your best friend and your worst enemy. While the achievements of peers are surely moments for rapturous celebration, we don't see everything. Keep in mind that your peers likely encountered similar obstacles and struggles on their journey.
When Aliyah started her MBA she knew she wanted to transition to a more socially focused position, but the details were unclear. Part way through her MBA, she found herself in an interview for a wealth management position being asked why she wanted the role. She paused and found herself thinking, "I don’t want this role."
“I was feeling pressure from my peers because they were getting offers with big tech companies and investment banks with fat pay packages. So without realizing it, I was applying to jobs that were most easily accessible to me at that time.” She quickly pivoted, reconfiguring her focus to her own interests and goals, rather than those of her peers. 

Only you know what’s important to you. This journey is your own, you can’t compare it to anyone else.

7. Understand a new era of leadership

Today’s world is demanding a new type of leadership anchored in empathy, adaptability, and proactiveness to the issues facing people and the planet.
The ever evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced leaders to grapple with unpredictability, synthesize imperfect information, and display quick decision-making, while recognizing the multi-faceted effects of the pandemic on our communities. If you're looking to grow and develop your leadership skills, check out our course on The Path of Moral Leadership.

8. Harness the power of Twitter

Today, organizations use Twitter for just about everything. It’s become an essential platform to communicate company values and social stances on crucial issues. Aliyah says, “An organization's Twitter feed provides a curated list of all the things they’re interested in, so you’re essentially preparing yourself for interviews by keeping up with what they care about.”
Aliyah recommends following no more than 20 organizations at once to stay up to date on specific areas of focus, causes, and potential positions you’re most interested in. She adds, “Twitter is a great place to look for a job because it’s the first place organizations post openings.” 

9. Every conversation is an opportunity

Our friend Rumi once said, “Respond to every call that excites your spirit.”
Aliyah’s former network was grounded in the private sector, requiring her to dig beyond her current contacts. In establishing new connections, Aliyah found herself steering the conversation to her job search. “It was easy because people often ask what you do, so that gave me the opening to say, 'I’m actually interested in the social enterprise sector and looking for something in this area. Do you know anything about this?'"
In many cases, Aliyah fondly remembers these conversations opening her eyes to new organizations and connections. "Another thing I did at conferences was to set myself specific objectives to talk with speakers from organizations I was interested in, or not let myself leave until I spoke with at least three new people.”
With many conferences operating virtually, it can be easier to connect with industry experts and thought-leaders — who can now be in 10 different countries — at the same time. Get out there, and don’t get discouraged, Aliyah adds, “I found it really hard at first but it got easier with practice.”
If you’re interested in growing your skills, NPR host Krista Tippett reveals her best practices in Acumen Academy's Master Class on The Art of Conversation.

10. Give yourself a break

Don’t forget to take a break and give yourself credit for having the courage to launch a career in a highly competitive sector. The job process can be confusing, and your friends and family may not understand why you’re making this transition to pursue purpose-driven work in the social sector. 
Finding meaningful work that aligns with your interests and skills is the hard part of the journey, but once you find it, you’ll render the rearview mirror obsolete. If you fail in the process, don’t beat yourself up over it — iteration can help inform what kind of job you’re searching for.

If you give up, it’s your own adventure you’re giving up on. Every action you take is a step further into your journey, and while your search might not get any easier, you will start to build momentum in a certain direction with tangible outcomes.

Personal and professional progress often hinges on perseverance, a mindset grounded in grit, and holding the tension of patience and urgency. Navigating this tension acknowledges that there’s an encyclopedia of urgent causes calling our name and mobilizing the greatest minds from around the world, but achieving the kind of change that sustains requires the stamina to see it through. 
In other words: give yourself a break every once in a while, but don’t give up. 

Have additional ideas on how to navigate the social impact sector search? Share them with us over Twitter or on our Facebook page.

Got a specific social issue or challenge that you want to focus on tackling? Check out Start Your Social Change Journey, a FREE 1-hour course on-demand. Take steps now to sustain your social impact efforts and stay on track.  

Emily Close

Emily Close

Emily is a Content Creator at Acumen Academy, where she works alongside social entrepreneurs tackling the toughest issues of inequality, to bring their stories to the forefront and share their solutions with other individuals aspiring to affect social change. You can find Emily building content with her colleagues, bouldering with friends, or buried in a book in one of London’s oldest bookstores.