Common Challenges when Pursuing Social Impact Careers (and what to do about them)

People who want to make an difference in the world have often been underserved by career guidance. Our values and our idealism have been scorned as naive while anxious family members have pushed us towards financial security rather than meaning and fulfillment. If we decided to pursue work with a purpose, we focused on the non-profit world and their correspondingly low paychecks.

And when we got our non-profit job, we then discovered that the actual work focused more on tasks like report-writing than change-making. We believed in the cause, so we went against our personality and natural strengths to do the work that needed to be done. After a while, this took a toll, resulting in burnout and bitterness.

For example, much of my career guidance comprised of career assessments like the Myers-Briggs with a list of seemingly random job titles, few of which seemed relevant and none that were exciting to me. My passion and sense of purpose didn’t fit neatly into the Department of Labor’s job categories. So I looked at job descriptions to find out what kind of skills were in demand and just ended up applying for random positions. I took what was first offered to me, then spend years fighting against myself because I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I didn’t live up to my potential at my job because I was ambivilant about the company I worked for and was constantly trying to find an organization that better fit my values.

I finally got into the social impact world after going back to school to get my Masters of Social Work. From there, I worked for multiple non-profits and international development organizations and I saw that what I went through was played out in different ways, over and over, patterns like:

  • Not owning what I really wanted to do in order to stay “open” to all possibilities.
  • Focusing on jobs that I could do rather than work that I wanted to do.
  • Getting my foot in the door and then getting stuck there.
  • Thinking solely about the work I wanted to do without considering the life that I wanted to live.
  • Making assumptions about the work rather than doing the research to understand the reality.
  • Trying to figure out my direction by myself (the good, old pulling-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps approach).

What about you? Are you wanting to make a difference in the world? Are you disappointed in where you are today? If so, try a strategy of career design that puts you in control and that leads to a creative, interesting, and meaningful job search. Here are some alternative strategies to the obstacles above:

  • Own who you are and what you want to do. Be completely unashamed of your passion, values, interests, and goals. Your best way to get a job is through your network. The best way to get a job you love is when your network knows exactly what you want. And the best way to grow your network is to develop real relationships with like-minded people.
  • Get clear about the type of work you love to do, whether that’s working with people, analyzing data, building things with fancy tools, conducting research, coding, graphic design…Think about what brings you joy and find what kind of work allows you to do that type of thing.
  • Focus on getting on a job that allows you to do what you want rather than taking any job that gives you entry level access at an organization where you want to work. This may entail getting an entry level job, but only one that grows your skills and experience to where you want to go next.
  • Make sure that your work supports the kind of life that you want to live. That means thinking through salary, hours, location, work/life balance. Figure out what’s most important to you and what will most directly fill your life with meaning and joy.
  • Dive deep into your dream job and see if the reality matches up with your assumptions. When I saw first hand the detail-oriented type of work executive directors had to do, I knew that my career happiness would lead me in a different direction.
  • Find and create social support. Talk to people who are doing the type of work you want to do. Join a community, either real or virtual, and be active in that community. Invest in a coach who can support your in your dreams. Making a difference in the world takes a community. Plus, it makes the work more fun! Build that community.

Changing the world takes patience and persistence. Find ways to keep yourself motivated and resilient. If you want to experience career design for yourself, you can sign up here.

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