Some practical advice
Greetings from Calgary where I’m in quarantine visiting my parents (yep, Mama Woo, as highlighted in last week’s newsletter!) Like last week’s newsletter, this week’s newsletter will continue to explore the theme of balancing impact and income: we explore transitioning from a more corporate role to a more impact-driven role.
As I mentioned last week, there are an infinite number of ways to create a career or role that balances considerations like financial wellbeing, and considerations like social impact. Below I’ve summarized some insights and takeaways from people in my network that have made the fullest shift in their roles, from full-on financial services (aka VERY corporate) to impact-driven roles. Even if you aren’t considering making a wholesale transformative career change like they did, I think their advice is still incredibly valuable.
We’re also going to flip the typical newsletter order a bit: first I’ll share the advice from those conversations, and then I’ll share some of the paths I explored and how their thoughts resonated.
(Also, there is a sad lack of gifs this week ☹ , so if that’s why you subscribe, I apologize 🙂)
And finally, as a quick housekeeping item - I’d love your feedback on when you’d prefer to receive the “To-Woo” List:
Wednesdays - you want food for thought and motivation while in the thick of the workweek, or
Weekends - you want to read slowly and reflect with your weekend morning coffee
This week’s conversations were with two contacts of mine who both transitioned from fairly senior roles in traditional finance to philanthropic roles. One joined a thinktank focused on sustainability, and one leads corporate philanthropy at a large company.
I’d preface their thoughts below by saying both of these two individuals had the career seniority and savings to make a pretty transformational change, and that might not be the most relatable for those readers that are early in their career, or readers that are at a stage in their lives where they need to build savings (starting a family, have dependents, paying off school).
Preface aside, I think that despite their fortunate situations and expanded ability to choose these career paths, much of their advice is pragmatic and valuable for those that want to learn more about the impact/philanthropy space.
Your “why” should be obvious to you and everyone else
There are millions of causes and thousands of organizations to improve outcomes in the world, and there’s no right or wrong answer as to which cause(s) you may want to spend your career solving. When navigating the social impact world, just knowing you broadly want to ‘do good’, while admirable, is difficult to to parlay into an actual role.
Your “why” of pivoting into a more impactful role can be influenced by personal factors:
Your own personal stories, challenges, things to overcome
Your worldview or improvements in your immediate community that you identify and want to solve
But you might also choose your ‘why’ based on other, less personal/emotional reasons:
You observe a giant opportunity that needs a lot of brainpower behind it
There’s no right or wrong motivation for choosing a cause, but spend some time really exploring the problems you want to fix, and then spend time ‘mapping’ your experience (professional and personal) to those problems to explain to others how your passion, and your skills are suited for a specific role.
“When I hire for my team now, I get a lot of applicants that want to leave traditional finance, or law, or other corporate roles. They have great backgrounds, and I know they’re smart and will work hard, but there will be lots of new and unique challenges that come with working in a non-corporate setting. I look for people that are specific and passionate about the cause or the work that we do.”
Build experience outside work
It isn’t always easy to explain/prove your ‘why’ in a new industry when you’ve been doing something different for most of your career. That’s where the ‘bottom third’ of your resume can be helpful - your hobbies and volunteer experience.
It’s daunting to feel like you need to have a huge volunteer commitment when you’re probably already stretched thin at your job, but you can start small by identifying the causes that really resonate with you, and establish some small, gradual practices to build familiarity and then seek out opportunities to eventually build experience:
Write down where you feel like you are living in alignment with the causes you’re passionate about
What are you reading, what are you posting, what are you passionately discussing with your friends?
Mission based extracurriculars can involve learning/education (not only volunteering!)
Identify where the voices and thought leaders in the space you care about are. What are they working on, and who are they working with?
Iterate: As a thought exercise, imagine if you had unlimited budget, how you would solve the social problems that you care deeply about. Then research if certain foundations, organizations or companies are doing elements of this already
Take inventory of what you can “port over” with you
“I worked in the energy industry previously, so the transition to sustainability was obvious. I also first moved within my current company, so that even though I had no formal experience in non-profit or grantmaking, I knew the company’s org structure, and the decision-making process well which was a huge asset early on.”
Many changes accompany the transition from corporate to non-profit, so to the extent you can ‘take’ familiar assets with you, the easier the transition can be.
Seek opportunities within your industry (energy, healthcare, finance all have subsectors with potential to have social impact)
Seek opportunities with familiar people/within your network - do you have friends, ex-colleagues, mentors that work at non-profit organizations that can give you insight, or even create opportunities for you?
Seek opportunities with familiar profiles - identify people (on LinkedIn) that may have previous corporate experience similar to yours, that are now in the roles and organizations you are interested in. Most people are likely to be open to discussing their own career transition, and uniquely understand the tradeoffs you are currently evaluating
Outcomes and proximity to outcomes
“Maybe this is just the perspective of a cynical reformed finance guy… but when evaluating a role in social impact, I think the best ways to have impact are through directly influencing capital, or influencing policy.”
In the social impact ecosystem, there are a myriad of different players and types of organizations. Some have a direct role in deciding where capital is allocated, and some have a direct path to impacting policy or reforming regulation. There are also many organizations that are a hybrid, and even more organizations that are degrees removed from either capital or policy (research, program management etc.)
If you are someone who has spent their career to date in traditional corporate settings and value having more direct, measurable results - being close to capital or policy outcomes will likely be the most rewarding for you.
If you are someone that has been in corporate and dislikes the constraints of budgets and metrics and instead want opportunities to explore big amorphous ideas, the proximity to capital and policy outcomes might not be valuable to you. Opportunities at think tanks or research organizations might be a better fit.
Be prepared for an entirely different culture (and a different sense of urgency)
“When you have spent most of your career in a bank, you take many things for granted. You assume that the solution that generates or saves the most money, or that saves the most time will be agreed upon by everyone.
That’s not necessarily the correct assumption in impact.”
Both contacts I spoke with about the culture change when they made the transition agreed that it was a surprising (and often frustrating) dynamic that the pace, urgency and criteria of decision making they had grown accustomed to in their prior careers was simply not always the case in social impact.
Check your ego at the door: there is much to learn about impact criteria that is equally as valid as financial return or financial impact
Turn the tables and be empathetic: in the same way that we in the corporate world are super accustomed to making decisions based on numbers, people who have spent their careers in impact are accustomed to making decisions based on social impact (which is an exponentially more complex criteria to measure against)
While it’s an adjustment, it can ultimately be a huge asset to understand how both sides work - oftentimes, to drive the scale of social change that really moves the needle, you’ll need to work with all profiles of stakeholders. Certainly you’ll interact with both for-profit corporations and more philanthropic organizations. Understanding the objectives of each and how to balance these is a large part of attaining outcomes, but requires some patience and empathy.
It might be useful for you to know my own journey in finding the right ‘mix’ or ‘balance’ of working in an industry I know and love (finance), while having more impact than I felt I was having at the large banks where I started my career.
Your mix might look totally different, but my exploration path was super broad, so perhaps any one of my searches/ideas might resonate with you.
When I left the investment banking world, I explored a lot of different paths. I tried to look for opportunities that had some element of a social mission, and roles where I could have a more hands-on influence.
Some routes I explored below:
Moving over to the philanthropy group of the bank I was currently working at
Pros: familiarity with the company, recognized brand, large network of partners and causes
Cons: the focus was so broad it seemed overwhelming, I didn’t have a ‘philanthropy’ experience or skill set
Business development at startups with a social mission
Pros: high excitement and energy, culture of ‘anything is possible’
Cons: the mission was admirable in theory, but sometimes could get lost in the race of generating huge growth numbers
Joining a small family office turned impact investing fund
Pros: Impact investing (mix of financial return and social return) across a focused portfolio of causes
Cons: the mandate wasn’t fully built out yet, and it wasn’t clear what the objectives or measures of success would be
What I personally found that ended up being most important to me in the mix of corporate and impact:
Working with finance professionals, or people who share a common framework of finance and investing. I personally value the culture and urgency of more traditional finance roles
Making an impact through capital deployment. The point about impacting capital or policy really resonated with me, and because I don’t personally have a policy background, I thought my impact would be maximized working in a role or company that influenced capital deployment
Focused ‘why’. For me personally, I’ve sought out opportunities that focus on one sector at a time vs opportunities that are have very broad mandates across causes. (For example, my current fund focuses on improving value in the healthcare industry, but focus could be on a specific cause). It makes the problem set/objectives more concrete, and a common framework can be deployed across causes
Would love to hear from you if any of this resonated, and if you’re looking for an impact-driven role, what considerations you’re thinking about!
Tips on switching to a nonprofit role from a career navigation coach (Next Avenue.org)
The Navigating Impact Project, a really interesting overview of how certain social causes manifest in various investment themes, and thoughts on how these can be measured. Good guide to help map more traditional investment criteria with social impact criteria (Global Impact Investing Network)
Cool Ladies Doing Cool Things: I love the Olympics, especially track and field and gymnastics. Heading into her second Olympics run, Simone Biles just continues to completely dominate her sport, setting the bar higher and higher and proving she’s an athlete for the ages. (New York Times)