A job that Makes a Difference matters most. Now what

One of the most frequent points people make when they are thinking about making a career change is the pull they feel to do work that makes a difference. 

As a career coach, I am seen as an obvious person to have this conversation with, as one of the founders of Idealist.org, a website known for helping people find jobs with a social impact. 

A job that makes a difference

What I care about when I am advising is that you are taking the actions that are aligned with your priorities. And if you have determined that having a social impact is a priority for you, here are the three questions that we would work through next.

Who or What Do You Want to Impact?

As you consider the jobs or opportunities that merit consideration, I always want to start with: What is the difference you want to make? Are you driven by a particular issue or issues? Do you want to support or engage a specific population? Is there a geographic focus? 

It might be the case that you want to work on college access for foster youth in Iowa, or more broadly, supporting children anywhere on any issue. 

It is often a question of focus. For example, I have spent a fair amount of time advising elementary school teachers who after a few years on the job decided that they did not enjoy classroom work because it felt limited to the small number of students they served. One can enjoy the call to work on an issue, but the role itself might feel misaligned.

Focus matters because it will help you home in on what opportunities are available. I once worked with someone who was supremely interested in working in an organization that had a specific emphasis in improving the quality of life for farm animals. She loved volunteering for a group and thought there might be a way to locate a job. Unfortunately, the number of full-time paid positions in that issue area is very limited. So, there was no easy next step. If you are hyper-focused in a space with relatively few openings, you may need to reconsider opening up the possibilities more broadly, or if that issue is at your very core you may need to consider starting up a new organization, or perhaps even doing some board service, as another way to contribute.   

How Do You Want to Engage?

There is often a tension when it comes to the specific role you might pursue when it comes to making a difference. In the nonprofit sector this may show up as a tension between a direct service role, for example someone tutoring children, handing out meals or leading environmental clean-ups versus someone who leads marketing, fundraising, or accounting functions within the organization. These roles also have very different salaries. Of course, knowing your financial needs will always be a part of any work decision that will intersect with the choice of work you can afford to pursue. 

I have not raised the sector yet as an issue because I am fairly agnostic as it relates to impact. You need to determine how you will define meaningful impact. For example, some people define making a difference as working at Airbnb because it solves a problem of “access to affordable places to stay while letting people make money from their homes.” Others would be open to working in corporate social responsibility in a for-profit company. Whereas the non-profit and public sectors are by their nature, in theory, directed solely at making an impact. Each one has pros and cons to be carefully considered.

How Will You Know You’ve Had an Impact?

Impact can mean very different things depending upon the person. I always ask, “How will you know if you had an impact or enough of an impact?” 

For some people, feeling good suffices, but for others they are driven to know exactly what that impact was. Both are fine but knowing what you think you need is what matters. 

If a feeling will suffice, you might well go and engage people who hold the roles you aspire to with questions about how they feel. But if you want to be able to measure the impact you have had, then it is worth talking to people who can give very specific measures of their impact and figuring out how you can be more like them. Institutions will have their own method of measuring and the data points that they believe are significant. Do you agree with them?

The decision to make a difference is not insignificant, but unless you have given real thought to the questions above you will have a hard time engaging your friends to help you locate jobs, respond to interview questions from prospective employers and ultimately locate a position where you will be fulfilled. 

Good luck as you continue ahead on your journey to make a difference.  

Russ Finkelstein is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor.  A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship, and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and his new book, "Let's Sort Out Your Career Mess, Together..." is forthcoming in 2021. 

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