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8 Ways to Kick-start Your Social Impact Career

Aliyah shares tips on how to tackle your social impact job search.

July 14, 2015

Aliyah Kurji, 2014 Acumen Global Fellow and now Innovation Manager at Acumen driving Acumen’s alumni engagement, made the transition from private sector consulting to the social impact sector two years ago. 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. However, navigating the ambiguity is part of the challenge and creates an opportunity to add depth to your knowledge about the sector.

Here are Aliyah’s tips for how to tackle your social impact job search, without losing your head and motivation.


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“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."

In contrast, the social impact sector has a plethora of intriguing paths you could take, spanning different geographies, sectors, and functions. “At first, it looks a lot like a piece of modern art you might have created as a four-year old,” says Aliyah.


1. Don’t be put off by the ambiguity

If you’re looking for a structured path, you’re in the wrong spot, the search differs for everyone and you need to create a path that works for you. At first, the lack of structure meant that Aliyah found herself pursuing aimless roles throughout the sector as she was attracted to so many different organizations and innovative ideas. This was exhausting and not fruitful. But instead of being put off she embraced the journey and by meeting interesting people doing fascinating work it revealed the aspects that were important and motivating for her.

2. Don’t expect the first job to be the ‘perfect job’

When switching careers, in any sector, you are likely not qualified for your ‘dream position’ right off the bat. You might need to take a position that serves as a stepping stone toward your end goal. “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 says.  “The job is not a destination but a journey, 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.”

3. Don’t worry about what your peers are doing

When Aliyah started her MBA she knew she wanted to transition to a more socially focused job, 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 I was applying to jobs that were most easily accessible to me at that time.”  It wasn’t until she stopped worrying about her peers that her social impact job search could begin.

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

4. Don’t give yourself a hard time

Most importantly, give yourself a break.  This journey can be confusing, and some of your friends and family may not understand why you want to make this transition. If you fail the first time, second, or third don’t beat yourself up over it, it requires a bit of trial by error. Finding meaningful work that aligns with your passions and skills is a difficult task but by no means impossible. Patience is an annoying but necessary virtue to have during your social impact job search.

5. Have a meaningful conversation with yourself

Before embarking on your search you must have a conversation with yourself to understand what’s truly important to you, recognize it and then make that your focus, stresses Aliyah. For example, if paying off your student loans is really important to you then you should factor that into your job search and set your expectations accordingly. If you then land your ‘dream job’ but it doesn’t enable you to pay off your loans, you’re just going be stressed and possibly resentful in the longer term. It doesn’t mean your priorities won’t change over time, you just need to keep checking in with yourself – and be honest about it. 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. Truly understanding what’s important to you about the type of organization, cause, geography and how the work is done will help you narrow down the organizations that are the best match for you.”

"Focus on what you can offer rather than what you want to start with and remember passion alone is not enough."

6. Get on Twitter!

Aliyah first signed up to Twitter when she started her job search. She used her account purely for her search and only followed organizations she was interested in potentially working with. “Twitter is a great place to look for a job because it’s the first place organizations post openings,” she says. “Also, organizations’ Twitter feeds provide 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 a time so you can keep up with and stay very focused on the areas, causes, and positions you’re most passionate about.

7. Talk to people you wouldn’t usually talk to

Aliyah’s network was all in the private sector so she found herself needing to push herself beyond her existing connections. When meeting someone new, 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?”  Most of the time they knew something or someone they could introduce me to.

“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.” It might sound silly but these are concrete steps you can take to quickly expand your network. “I found it really hard at first but it got easier with practice.”

"Respond to every call that excites your spirit." - Rumi

 8. Own your journey

Last but not least, own your own journey and remain curious. If you hear anything that slightly interests you at least have a conversation about it, you never know where that could lead. “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.

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Do you have additional ideas on how to navigate the social impact sector job hunt? Share them with us over Twitter or on our Facebook page.

Let Acumen Academy courses be your guide in identifying what shapes and colors can help you create your master piece. Start with our introduction to social entrepreneurship class or check out our full suite of free online courses in leadership, business and design here.

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