3 Questions to Ask Yourself About a Social Impact Career

“How do I want to make an impact in the world?” I think many people ask themselves this question. As development professionals, this is the question that fuels our careers.

I can no longer run around this question. It is one that has been budding in my mind since I was an undergraduate, with my feet rooted in the world of business economics and my nose buried in philosophy books. At a Jesuit university like mine, we were encouraged to consider how our talents best intersect with the what the world needs. At 19, I wasn’t particularly certain I had many talents to begin with, so I cast a wide net. I worked in corporations and in grassroots nonprofits. I learned data analysis and I kept up my affinity for writing. I liked community-based work but also uninterrupted sessions in front of my computer, furiously creating spreadsheets. I am still figuring out where I fit in the web of industries, job functions, work cultures, and work-life balance.

I am far from having the blueprint of how to do this figured out. But along this self-reflective journey, I’ve met a few folks who gifted me important nuggets of wisdom. I’ve molded these into three questions for anyone considering a career in the vague and vast field that is social impact.

What kind of organization structure appeals to me?

The wonderful part about having a cohort during this Fellowship was the ability to learn from the experiences of the other Fellows who worked in very different places than where I did. My co-fellow Anjali and I had a fruitful conversation evaluating the pros and cons of the different organizational structures and frameworks in the development space:

  • Non-profits: organizations that do not make a profit from their work
  • Government intervention: publicly funded programs to effect social change
  • Philanthropy: funding organizations that support other nonprofit work and may also run their own programs
  • Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): the social impact arm of profit-making corporations, often in the form of charitable donations to nonprofits
  • Social Enterprises: hybrid businesses which embed a social or environmental mission into its profit-seeking model

One framework is intervention using market forces. Social enterprises participate in the market, driving product and services that meet a profitable bottom line while pulling up vulnerable communities—by providing meaningful work to those without it, by making products or services available to those not addressed in the current market, or a combination of these. Organizations like the Gates Foundation, which focuses heavily on public health and eradicating global infectious disease, also wield the powers of the market to make distribution of vaccines efficient. There greatest benefits of this framework is making social impact work financially self-sustaining, thus allowing for greater scale and sustainable growth.

The alternative—the charity model—is what traditional NGOs or non-profit organizations work under. I would broadly put CSR under this umbrella as well, though some CSR investment can certainly go to for-profit or hybrid model investments. The situation in India is also a unique one. In 2014, India passed a legal mandate for most companies to spend 2%  of their average net profit on CSR initiatives [1]. Many companies meet this requirement via charitable contributions, rather than their own programming, which has intertwined CSR with traditional NGOs, as well government oversight. Moreover, many NGOs, despite being called non-governmental organizations, work in conjunction with the Indian government on community awareness and welfare programs.

Am I better motivated by solving urgent problems or finding long-term solutions?

One thought leader who influenced me was Mr. Shankar Venkateswaran, former Chief of Tata Sustainability Group. During a session at our January Midpoint conference, he outlined these three broad models of the purpose behind social impact. Organizations exist across all of these mission categories, and all three are needed to truly transform society:

  1. Welfare, or the “give a woman a fish” model, directly puts money or resources in the hands of those suffering from poverty or oppression.
  2. Empowerment, or the “teach a woman to fish” model, equips people with tools to uplift themselves from poverty and oppression.
  3. Rights-based approaches teach a community about their right to information or benefits afforded to them.

Welfare addresses urgent and immediate needs; without overcoming money and resource obstacle, individuals cannot fully access empowerment and rights-based programs. Organizations that prioritize giving aid or government welfare programs operate under this purpose. As an employee of a welfare driven organization, the fruits of labor are more immediately recognized, and the gratification one might get from this work is clear.

Empowerment programs drive sustainable and scalable efforts to break cycles of poverty and drive long-lasting change. Schools and programs that provide educational resources are classic examples of empowerment-based organizations. Empowerment organizations operate one-step removed from immediate effect, and can have more mid to long term return on investment. These programs plant seeds that help individuals and communities flourish.

Rights-based approaches prioritize the dignity and liberation of the oppressed by giving them a platform to drive their own change. Many of missions inspired by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights belong at least in part to this category of work. Contemporary social movements such as Black Lives Matter in the United States or the 2017 I Will Go Out marches in India also fit under this umbrella. In my opinion, rights-based approaches to development are where must be headed in order to really center the oppressed in their own liberation. However, I can better understand now why sufficient safety nets and proper education are the stepping stones to prioritizing rights. As a practitioner, working in a rights-based organization comes with the possibility that you may never in your lifetime see the fruits of your labor. The motivation must come from belief in the long-term vision, especially if the short-term is fraught.

What am I willing to compromise on and what am I not willing to sacrifice?

This last question has revealed itself to me, a former moral hardliner, as the one I must confront. The reality is, no job or industry is as rosy as I imagined. Though we all are working toward a socially conscious mission, the teams we work are not perfect. Jobs in the social sector are subject same fatal flaws as any other workplace, from demanding work environments and disagreements with leadership to full-blown discrimination. Moreover, the work itself is not automatically ethical, or even objectively good. In my opinion, our work should be subject to the same critical lens we place on other industries, and perhaps even more so because our directive is to improve the lives of communities and the world.

Ethical issues in social sector work is abundant. Social enterprises, while excellent for scale and sustainability, are confronted with challenges in marketing ethics and run the risk of manipulating the under-informed whom they seek to uplift. For non-profits, funding is a perpetual concern. Even if they acquire funding, it can come with strings. Leadership has to make tough choices between rejecting life-sustaining capital or allowing it to shift strategic priorities of the organization. Of course, many philanthropists are wonderfully hands-off, or only invest in areas where they have strategic knowledge, which makes funder-partner organizations a prosperous union. But the struggle remains of having to prioritize maintaining stable relationships with deep pockets, sometimes perhaps at the detriment to vital programs.

Government intervention is complicated by politics. I’ll borrow from Mr. Venkateswaran’s wisdom again here. Development work, he said, is about equalizing power. Politics is the interaction of power. Thus, development work is inherently political, though it doesn’t have to be in the same way as party politics. On the subject of power, I’ll mention another great wonderful from another speaker our cohort heard from, Mr. Anand Sinha, Country Advisor for India for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. On the delicate subject of white or non-native foreigners working in development abroad, Mr. Sinha pointed out that the issue isn’t as simple as white versus non-white, local Indian versus foreigner. What it comes down, fundamentally, is power dynamics. There are urban Indians who hold prejudices against rural Indians that are equally as harmful as foreigners who are ignorant of their internalized bias and judge an unfamiliar country and culture. There are folks in the communities we are trying to uplift who are threatened by change, especially when it comes from the mouths of people who are wealthier, more educated, or otherwise more powerful than them.

Discerning what power and values we each hold, how these influence our interactions with the people we work with and for, and how we want to carry these going forward, is an arduous and fundamentally individualist journey. I, for one, am a permanent resident at the crossroad of what I owe the world and what I want for myself. I am unsure if these will ever be fully reconciled. However, I have accepted that career choices are inherently selfish. And I think perhaps that is not such a wrong thing. I think the best jobs are the one that fits into our practical lives and our philosophical lives, aligning how I want to spend my time with how I can make a meaningful difference.

In-Text Citations:

[1] “CSR in India is Now a Law: A Look Into How Things Have Changed One Year On.” B The Change, 17 June 2016. https://bthechange.com/csr-in-india-is-now-a-law-2502aa6d0daa

Srisruthi "Sri" Ramesh is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Satya Special School in Karuvadikuppam, Puducherry. For her Fellowship project, she is creating a training manual on menstrual hygiene management and sexual reproduction to educate adolescent girls with disabilities, their parents, and their care givers. Sri is a San Francisco Bay Area native with family roots in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. She is passionate about ethics, gender, and development in South Asia. While in college, Sri founded a student organization for careers in social impact and was awarded a university fellowship to work at Equal Community Foundation, a Pune-based non-profit focused on gender equality. After graduating, Sri worked at Ernst & Young and later spent a month reading and writing on an island in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys cooking and baking, reading historical fiction, and doing armchair philosophy with friends who will indulge her. She is very excited to be a part of the AIF Clinton Fellowship community, explore new places in India, and improve her Tamil. She hopes to pursue research on development in South Asia after her Fellowship year.

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