Many of us who graduated from top universities will recall the dizzying array of choices on offer at final-year careers fairs. Dozens and dozens of organisations, and yet fundamentally, a very simple choice: what sector should I go into?
For many of those reading this blog, a career in a consultancy or professional services firm was uninspiring, even empty, and a career in the civil service, education or healthcare felt worthy but devoid of real leadership or “structural change”.
“….But in recent years a whole ecosystem has emerged.
It felt as though it took the best of both worlds:
radical, new, innovative start-ups and social enterprises where you could challenge yourself every day but be assured you were making a positive difference to the world…..”
The phrase “social impact” is, in many ways, brilliant. It appeals to those of us who want to quantify the work we’re doing and understand how to improve. It is a term used by successful businesses to describe work they do which has a societal benefit: now you can speak professionally to private sector organisations about what it is you do. It keeps us a healthy emotional distance from the work we’re doing: no matter how much we care about the issues we’re tackling, what matters is that we’re effective.
“However, reflecting on the term several years into my career, I believe social impact is too narrowly identified with roles in charities, social enterprises and NGOs, and we need a much wider definition.”
This might be confusing since the third sector is already a very large sector. Don’t organisations in this sector desperately need more bright graduates who would otherwise get funnelled into a standard career at KMPG?
Yes – but what any organisation needs even more than a bright graduate is a bright graduate with solid skills and experience. Early leadership roles at a start-up or small charity are empowering and give you a good opportunity to sample different kinds of work quickly to work out what you’re interested in. But without excellent mentorship, progression is limited. Larger organisations in contrast offer much more room to grow, and in any case many graduate schemes on offer involve job rotation.
Being in a leadership role at a young age felt brilliant at first. But I myself, along with many others, have felt the frustration and creeping unease of not knowing if I was doing anything well, and fighting against the decisions of much larger organisations.
“Realistically, for many people a career in social impact will be a long-term project. It will involve moving slowly up the civil service, or working in a private sector firm to gain skills for several years before making the switch.
This progression might not be glamorous, it might be a little predictable – but we’re in the business here of measuring social impact, and what matters is that this can be an effective option.”
By widening the definition of a social impact career to include these paths, we can offer a career framework for students with different skills or interests to what is necessarily required in the third sector. It’s important to do this because while there are many organisations working with people who have decided mid-career they want to pursue social impact, we might be able to persuade many more people into a social impact career by helping them frame their strategy at the start.
In doing so, we need to be careful not to miss the mark. There are many people for whom “having an impact” is the primary motivating force behind their work – the idea that what they do doesn’t matter too much, as long as it is effective. Current recruitment literature caters to this group well – after all, many final year students do not know what issues interest them and cannot know until they’ve had some work experience.
However, I suspect the majority of people would say, in contrast, that what unifies their work is a desire to make the world a better place, but they have specific interests and causes that motivate their career choices. I include myself in this group. A desire to have “social impact” is not the primary motivating force, but it can still be a useful organising principle in assessing your career choices. I am passionate about affordable housing, but I know that I would rather work on government policy than establish a small housing co-operative, because the former option will have a far bigger impact.
Many people I know are tired of the phrase “social impact” and regard it as tired and overused. I believe, on the contrary, that it is underutilised. There are many people who want the improvement of the world to be at the core of their career path, who want to feel they are “making change”, being “innovative” or having “an impact”. The challenge now is to glamorise the long-term paths to social impact, by explicitly bringing them under the social impact careers banner.