Save the World Careers

Career boot camp for those who want to make a difference, and make a living.

How embracing flexibility and change will strengthen your social impact career

Recently, the CFO of my organization asked us to read “Who Moved my Cheese?” The book—worth a read to anyone undergoing a career change—creates a metaphor to discuss how people deal with change. Though slightly simplistic (and perhaps cheesy, hi-o!), the book makes a profound statement: When change happens, successful people adapt and move forward.

Changemakers need to be prepared for…change

Working in social impact means that change is constant. Roles and responsibilities shift often. Funding changes, organizations grow or redirect, new contracts and grants are taken on, and duties are shifted to provide more efficient programming. While change isn’t easy, I can say with confidence that this line of work is never boring!

We know our organizations must evolve and change in order to survive and the same can be said for good employees. Consider the example of social media. Ten years ago, fundraising was predominately done by annual mailers and newsletters. Now, any reputable organization must have an established following on Twitter, Facebook, and Instragram. Likewise, the roles of “communications” or “marketing” have been expanded to include managing social media presence.

Traditionally we think of careers as becoming more and more specific as they evolve. If your career was a shape, you might consider it to be a pyramid, with your work and role becoming more and more narrow as you move towards the top.

However, in the world of nonprofits and social impact, a desirable candidate will approach their career in a different way, with an eye towards having multiple skills and interests. You will often take on a variety of responsibilities throughout your career, or even in one position. Small organizations and start-ups oftenrequire staff to wear many hats. In my own career, I have simultaneously worked in fundraising AND communications AND recruiting AND whatever-else-is-needed-this-week.

This is not a bad thing! In fact, the more breadth of experience you have, the deeper your understanding of what it takes to get things done. Flexibility is something I actively seek in a good hire.

Let me offer a few tips on how to broaden your capabilities and increase your hire-ability:

Be willing to take on additional responsibilities

If you go to work everyday, fulfill your minimum requirements and go home, you are not getting enough out of your position. When you are done with your tasks for the day, ask how you can help. Be willing to take on additional responsibilities outside of your job description or what your predecessor did. Ask yourself how you can make your role or project even more helpful and beneficial to your organization. Even if you are working as an intern or the receptionist, taking on new tasks opens doors for you in the future.

Volunteer to assist in an area you’d like to learn

When I was working in Guatemala, I was interested in learning about impact assessment and evaluation of programs. I offered to supervise and translate for our staff facilitating the project.  While I would not consider myself a monitoring and evaluation expert, the experience increased my understanding of impact evaluations and broadened my capabilities. Start by identifying a department or program you find interesting and ask how you can help; you’ll be surprised what you can learn.

Maximize your network

As you expand your career and your capabilities, don’t just think about increasing the number of bullet points under the “skills” section of your resume. The people you meet at your job are the people who may help you find your next job. Talk to your coworkers and classmates. Stay in touch and keep them updated about what you would like to do in the long run. Your network is often the most powerful tool you have.

When many of us start our social impact careers, we sometimes have a narrow view of our work: an issue that excites us, a story that moved us to action, or simply a calling to make a difference. As we move along in our career, we expand our understanding and capabilities. Therefore, each position we hold provides us a new set of knowledge and a wider professional network.

So, maybe we should rethink that career pyramid. Rather than starting at the bottom, getting more and more specialized, a good recruit should position themselves as starting specific and getting wider.

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but this I know: the only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.

Albert Schweitzer, humanitarian

Is this how you feel about your job?  Do what you love.

Is this how you feel about your job?  Do what you love.

Get Squiggly!

Ctrl Alt Delete" is a reassuring book for millennials, who have been criticized for their inability to commit to a steady job, and also for older workers, many of who have watched as their industry has imploded in the IT revolution. Not everyone is going to be the next Steve Jobs, but an openness to change is a useful attitude change.

Job search got you down?  Feel like you’ve applied to hundred of jobs?  Hang in there!

Job search got you down?  Feel like you’ve applied to hundred of jobs?  Hang in there!

Pro-Tip: Ask the interviewer about himself

Everyone likes to talk about themselves.  No really, it’s scientifically proven.  Talking about yourself, wether you are a teacher, a preacher or a RECRUITER gives you a brain buzz.  And yes, I am speaking from experience.

One thing many job applicants forget is that interviews are a two-way street.  While they may seem intimidating, like standing before a jury waiting to be judged, interviews are actually conversations.  If you can connect with the person interviewing you, he or she is much more likely to view you in a favorable light.  

The ability to make conversation and be personable signals a lot of things about an applicant:

  • He/she will get along well with co-workers
  • He/she will be able to handle management
  • He/she will bring a positive attitude, sense of humor, or general likeableness to the work environment
  • He/she will be able to make small talk with tough clients or potentially form business relationships

This doesn’t mean you should chit-chat all the way through your interview.  Allow the interviewer to lead and seriously consider the questions asked.

At the end of your interview you will inevitably be asked: “Do you have any questions for me?” Now, it is your turn!  This is your moment to make a connection with the person who has been grilling you with questions.  This is your moment to hear his story.

Several questions that will turn the tables on your recruiter (again, we love talking about ourselves):

  • How did you start at this company?  How did you get to your current position?
  • Why do you work here?  What is it that keeps you at this organization?
  • What is it that you enjoy most about this job?  What do you find to be your greatest challenge?
  • I’d love to hear more about you.  Where did you work before you started here?  What brought you here?

Don’t just listen when your recruiter answers, listen actively. That means interact with the person who is interviewing you.  Show interest.  Nod or agree at points in his/her story that you find interesting.  Seek possible areas of connection: you also worked internationally for a period of time, you both have an interest in the arts, etc.  Point out those commonalities after the person has finished speaking.  Active listening demonstrates sincere interest, as well as the ability to form connections with a new person. 

So take a tip from a recruiter, if you aren’t sure what to say when the Q&A section of your interview rolls around, ask your interviewer about himself.  It works every time.

Don’t wait your whole life to do something you care about. Make your work your passion.

Don’t wait your whole life to do something you care about. Make your work your passion.

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

—Saint Francis of Assisi

Beyond Passion: build experience you can contribute to your cause

Featured on idealist.org

Passion. It’s the one word I see the most on applications and cover letters. “My passion alone makes me uniquely qualified for this position.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but passion alone isn’t going to get you hired.

Don’t get me wrong, passion is also one of the most essential things in a good employee. If you work in a nonprofit or a socially-minded organization, passion is what gets you through boring meetings, frustrating days, and the inevitable challenges of this type of work. Passion is what helps you hang in there when the pay is low and the project seems impossible. You need passion to survive, and thrive, in a socially-driven company.

Unfortunately, you also need useful skills and work experience. Nonprofits have basic needs: design, marketing, accounting, fundraising, and program management. These needs cannot be met by passion alone. Hiring managers look at your resume to see what you have done before and what experience you have that can help their organization.

This is the inevitable catch-22 many young professionals face: how can I get experience if I need experience first? In the nonprofit world, this can be a difficult conundrum. Many entry-level jobs ask for 2-3 years of prior experience. If you are struggling to find a job that allows you to pursue your passion AND make a living, focus on building skills that translate into nonprofit work.

Here are a few tips on how to start gaining experience.

Don’t focus too much on cause (at least at first)

Many people are drawn to the sector because of a cause they are passionate about. While there’s nothing wrong with this, when you’re just starting, you don’t have to limit yourself to organizations that address that issue. Instead, try looking around at similar organizations that could help you start your career. The director of development at the non-profit I worked for in Guatemala built her skill set while working in fundraising for a museum. She brought experience in event management, individual giving, and corporate sponsorships, as well as her passion for social change.

Be open to “un-fun” work

Keep in mind that non-profits are also businesses. While they love people with passion, they need people who are willing to do the dirty work: crunch numbers, enter data, write emails, cold-call donors. If you can build experience in areas such as fundraising, grant writing, marketing or accounting, you’re much more attractive to an NGO or non-profit. The positions most recruited in social change organizations are not usually “fun” jobs.

Consider volunteering or taking an internship

Volunteers are essential in non-profit organizations, and volunteering builds applicable skills even if you are not being paid. The same goes for internships. Besides, what better way to expand your professional network that working with like-minded people to further a cause you care about?

Think outside of the nonprofit sector

You don’t have to work in a nonprofit to gain experience. Consider working in for-profits (personally, I’d much rather hire an employee with 4-5 years experience in budgeting and planning for a private business, than a young person with ‘passion’ as their only qualification) or even starting your own projects. Keep in mind that working outside of the sector doesn’t mean abandoning social change. Not only are new kinds of businesses popping up that combine purpose and profit, but also you can integrate your cause into your career, no matter where you are and do projects on your own that stand out.

If you are passionate about real social change, get practical about your job search and start building skills you can contribute to your cause.

When the person I’m interviewing “like um” says “like um” three times in “like um” every sentence.

When the person I’m interviewing “like um” says “like um” three times in “like um” every sentence.

If you don't have a question to ask, don't do this!

  • CEO: Do you have any questions for me?
  • Interviewee: Um, yes, so like, I know we talked about this in my first two interviews, but what groups of people do you serve?
  • CEO: (explains basic model of company)
  • Interviewee: Great, and like, what do you do with them?
  • CEO: (Blank stare) Did you read the website at all?