Launching a Career in the Social Sector: Three Tips to Consider
It’s become a minor genre of online commentary: the inspiring stories of successful professionals leaving lucrative (but unsatisfying) careers for something more impactful. And the writing reflects a trend: In some cases, this career evolution involves young people looking for ways to imbue social value and responsibility in their work from the start of their careers. In others, it involves established professionals deciding to make 180-degree career changes to seek greater fulfillment.
This has led to growing interest in careers in the social impact space. But given the inherent difficulties of establishing a new career, and the challenging nature of social sector work, in particular, reality can fall short of expectations and result in disillusionment if you’re not careful. Whatever the motivation behind your decision to shift paths, without proper planning, preparation and long-term thinking, career changers can unwittingly wind up stuck in an unsuitable new career – or adrift in a series of jobs that don’t measure up to expectations. Having a well-researched and articulated strategy for making a career change will minimize the chances of aimless meandering in an unfamiliar industry.
I work at TribesforGOOD, a mission-led organization focused on developing the potential of individuals as changemakers through culturally immersive, educational and impactful experiences in India. We’ve supported many people contemplating or pursuing jobs in the social sector. Based on our experiences with these individuals, we’ve compiled the following three tips for people seeking a career in social impact.
Acquire sectoral knowledge from real-world experience
Perhaps the most obvious point to make is that for someone looking to switch over to a new profession, the need to acquire some knowledge of the industry is an inevitability. And considering the imperatives of work life, this knowledge must often be acquired in a short period of time. At TribesforGOOD, we’ve found that the best way to acquire this degree of knowledge in the short term is through experiential learning, an approach that relies on cultivating a state of deep engagement in participants in order to generate increased retention of foreign concepts.
It is telling that 70 percent of job knowledge is acquired through experience – and experience can be especially productive in the realm of social impact, which is built on interactive and visceral understandings of the world. In social sector work, people often come with preconceived notions about what it means to be a changemaker. But once they do the work, they see and feel what sustainability, empowerment and social innovation really mean in their actual contexts.
Take Anira, one of our program participants: She was a senior analyst at a consulting firm who wanted to work at an organization that served women and children, as these causes were really close to her heart. But though she may have come in with preconceived ideas of the transformative nature of her work, she came to a clearer understanding of her potential impact once she actually worked with these individuals. “It is crucial to see firsthand, as a lot of communities are much more advanced than we perceive them to be,” she said.
Find your strengths by shaking up old habits
Stepping outside your comfort zone (as frightening as it may be) is a catalyst for growth. Breaking from old traditions is a necessary condition when looking down the barrel of new career paths. Indeed, the career change process can even reorient your sense of personal identity. It’s an immensely emotionally tumultuous period in life.
To navigate this process, it helps to look for experiences or programs that help you to focus on the problems you want to solve through your work and to identify the personal contributions you can make to solving these problems. In short, you need to figure out what you’re good at, and how you can leverage those abilities to contribute to social change.
To that end, placing yourself in a different environment can help. A major change of setting naturally challenges previously-held perceptions – and in the social impact field, doing so can be a portal out of a myopic perception of the world. As experiential learning expert Richard Anderson put it: “Because we’re in an unfamiliar environment, we will often have our eyes wider open and simply be more open to learning.” As a result, many people discover useful skills and vital character traits they never knew they had.
Seek mentoring – and inspiration – from seasoned experts and organizations
Interacting with seasoned veterans in a new industry is not only a means of building connections, it is also an opportunity to acquire nuggets of knowledge from their experiences starting off in the field. That’s why it’s useful to identify these individuals and organizations and let them serve as inspirational models for the development of your own path.
This is something we’ve taken into account when designing the social impact journeys at TribesforGOOD, which are led by subject matter experts and “mentors-in-residence” who are seasoned professionals and thought leaders in their respective fields. We’ve found that working with mentors like these provides an invaluable grounding in both global and local issues and organizational processes, which can make newly minted changemakers more confident about their roles in the social sectors.
Changing your career might be frightening, but it can also be an incredibly enriching experience. Whether you do so by weighing your options within the relative comfort of your current routine, or by embarking on an experiential learning journey that can provoke new insights into your career transition, there is no time like the present to start the journey.
Photo by Daniel Fuentes