How Do You Transition a Career to Social Impact?

Globe hovering above cupped hands, close-up (B&W)
Globe hovering above cupped hands, close-up (B&W)

Plenty of people talk about wanting to transition into a career that packs more social impact. But, how, exactly do you go about making such a switch?

Some entrepreneurs and non-profit execs have hopped from position to position while paving a roundabout path into this area. Waine Tam, a long-time friend from New York City, started out in financial services before his discontentment with the industry led him to step back and scrutinize what skills he could harness, or people he could speak with, if he wanted to one day move into social impact then launch his own venture. (Turns out there weren't all that many). "I was in finance for eight years," says Tam, who moderated a panel this month on how to transition to a career specifically in social impact. "My network was in finance, but it was hard for me to find folks who were in social impact."

That's where, as is the case for many individuals, a bit of free labor can come in handy. "Volunteer. Immerse yourself in that," Sharon LaDay, business development director of the not-for-profit College Board, said on the panel. "From a volunteer perspective then begin to think 'how can I use my skill sets apply to this particular area?'" The strategy worked for Tam. During some of his years in finance, Tam volunteered and became a board member at iMentor, which aims to empower students in low-income communities and help them graduate from high school and excel in college. He eventually worked his way into the organization's chief operating officer role. Then, last year, he decided to strike out on his own by creating Careerosity, a startup focused on helping disenfranchised employees make dramatic, if not seemingly impossible, job jumps into a different field.

Inder Singh, who also spoke on Tam's panel, began his own career as a consultant. The 36-year-old later moved into an executive position at the Clinton Health Access Initiative, where he worked on his dream job: negotiating with big pharma on how to cut the cost of drugs and vaccines. These days, Singh's the CEO of Kinsa Health, a startup that's building a real-time map of human health by proliferating so-called smart thermometers which feed info about sick children to a database. (Full disclosure: Singh also happens to be my wife's boss).

Despite his impressive resume, Singh says he only really established his personal life about nine months ago. He purchased his first proper piece of furniture even more recently than that. "If you want to have an impact, it's risky," he says. "My net assets went positive two years ago."

Yet, there are ways to reduce this kind of risk and better the odds for financial security. Once you've determined your passion and established (on your resume) a commitment to social impact through volunteering, if not a paid position, then "network, network, network," says Singh. By this, he adds, illustrate to someone senior in a four-line email how you're committed to fostering social impact. Just don't go over your allotted time if they do open up to a conversation. In a follow-up email, thank them for their time then update them every four to six weeks on tangible ways you've built your social impact skills or work experience -- "but do not require them to respond," warns Singh. "They've glanced at it, and you're top of mind."

One of the hardest parts, the panellists acknowledged, is conveying how much passion you have for social impact to a senior exec -- and convincing them that you'd be capable of creating tangible results within their organization. "Make sure you have an elevator pitch of what you want to do and on how you can be helpful," says Paul Rodney, who spent years as the chief of staff at an InterPublic Group media agency and is now executive director of New Jersey Needs You, which mentors first-generation college students. "Everybody who wants to join says they can be helpful, but how do you differentiate yourself? You have to break down what skill sets you have, and then be very strategic about going after people."

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