According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonprofits accounted for 11.4 million jobs and 10.3 percent of all private sector employment in 2014. Not included in this statistic are the growing numbers of social enterprises and mission-driven for-profits that all contribute to what we call “the social sector.” It’s a growing field, and brings with it the promise of paid employment that simultaneously benefits and addresses social and environmental problems in the world.

If you want to know how you could make your work more fulfilling by working for a mission-driven organization, here’s a few tips to help get you started:

1. Figure out WHY you want to be in the sector. 

EVERY organization in the social sector exists for the main purpose of fulfilling a particular mission, and those who fail do so because they don’t effectively align their business model or structure with their impact goals. You need to do the same, by figuring out what exactly the driving motivation is that brings you to the social sector in the first place. Is it the desire to “give back” or fulfill a moral obligation to use your privilege to help others? Are you in pursuit of a sense of meaning or purpose that you feel closest to when pursuing mission-driven work? Is there a particular issue area or social/environmental problem that you can’t live with, or feel particularly well-suited to help fix? Before you start your job search, work to identify your motivations, and consider how you might be able to communicate them to a potential employer in a compelling way. The sector is filled with passionate people who care A LOT about their work, and they will expect a similarly enthusiastic commitment from their employees.

 2. Get the lay of the land.

As with any industry or sector, the social sector can be confusing and hard to navigate. Mission-driven organizations span a variety of tax statuses and organizational structures, and so knowing nonprofits from hybrids from B-Corps from Corporate Governance departments is important. Each type of structure has its own patterns of compensation, formality, and operations, and they each vary on their level of direct connection or interaction with the mission or intended purpose of the organization. For example, some jobs at a nonprofit might require you to interact directly with the beneficiaries they serve (i.e. teaching kids to read in the Bronx), but that same nonprofit will have entire departments of staff that may never interact with a single beneficiary.

They all still require administrative professionals, legal work, operations strategy, and program management, but the specific responsibilities and titles vary WIDELY from organization to organization. The joke in the sector is, “If you know a single nonprofit, you know a single nonprofit.” (Sub in foundation/social enterprise/impact investor, and you catch the drift.)  LOTS of different kinds of organizations with a single shared mission exist within the sector. A for-profit selling brownies might have the same mission of reducing recidivism as a nonprofit teaching formerly incarcerated people. Do your diligence, and use the abundance of resources, articles, websites, and professionals in your network to create a “sector landscape” for yourself that helps you understand how the sector is similar or different from the background you’re coming from. 

3. Learn the lingo. As with other sectors, the social sector is filled with acronyms, from ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) to CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) to SRI (Socially Responsible Investment). Beyond acronyms, some concepts that seem obvious or simple get much more complicated the closer you get. For example, I can’t tell you how often private-sector professionals of all levels ask me, “How would nonprofits be able to earn revenue when they’re not-for-profit?” Earned income means an organizational model where a non-profit identifies ways to leverage its assets to generate income (and yes, profit!) in order to create additional funding. This doesn’t mean the non-profit has to hybridize its model, it just means that the profit generated through earned income subsidizes the funding they earn through donations, which all goes back to be re-invested in program-related expenses, like overhead from staffing and business costs. Knowing what you’re talking about will help instill an employer’s trust and confidence in you, and will avoid you making an incorrect assumption about the organization’s structure.

4. Get specific. Once you have a good idea of what type of organization/issue area/role might be a good fit for you, start referring to it, and be deliberate about the language you use. The sector is nascent and rapidly evolving, so the professionals you talk to may only be super-familiar with the particular sector area they’re involved in. Specificity will keep you from “job-creep”, where you start to diverge from the path that is the best fit for you in response to the offers and existing positions you see posted. Be firm about the specific skills you have to offer, and which kinds of organizations or roles you would make the biggest impact in. The sector is hungry for terrific people, but they’ll need your help in understanding exactly how you could make their job easier and their organizational mission more effective. 

5. Get connected. One of the BEST characteristics of this relatively young sector is that it is ultra-collaborative. Even direct competitors or similar players collaborate regularly to address trends and crowdsource solutions to common obstacles. While organizations tend to be defensive about their particular approach to addressing a mission, they also often know the other organizations who work in a particular space, and so you can find pockets of organizations with similar structure, mission, or even other commonalities like funding sources. Creating a network of like-minded organizations, professionals, and channels is vital.

Have other strategies or tips for professionals seeking meaningful work in the social sector? Let me know! You can reach me at [email protected], or learn more about our Women’s Re-Inspiration Program which trains women re-entering the workforce how to apply their previous skills to fulfilling work in the social impact sector.

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