How to successfully transition into the social sector

There is little place for top-down, unilateral decision making in the social sector—here's a checklist of what you need to know before making the career switch

Updated: Aug 16, 2019 12:15:39 PM UTC

Anu Prasad is Founder-Director of India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS).

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Over the past year-and-a-half, I have had the opportunity to witness a fascinating journey, of senior corporate executives moving to the social sector. To me, this is a very powerful signal of the commitment that individuals make towards being a part of the change they wish to see for India.

As the founder of an organisation that taps into this commitment and runs a leadership programme to enable and equip corporate leaders to play an active role in India’s social development, I have watched with joy as alumni take up roles at NGOs and foundations or start their own social enterprises. And I have noticed a few common traits and strategies that are helping these individuals make a success of this transition to the social sector—I offer them here as a checklist for those contemplating a similar move.

A learning attitude
After succeeding in the corporate world, one can be fairly hard-wired. However, you may not have all the answers and know that there is value in listening and learning from everyone along the way. Read, have conversations, meet as many people as you can. Spend time in the community or with the stakeholders involved. Social sector leaders have an understanding of issues from the place of experience and proximity. Learn from them and respect the perspective that comes from working closely with the communities.

Patience
There are no silver bullets to most social problems and it takes time for interventions to show results. Be patient and prepare to be self-driven and motivated to persist with your work.

A DIY attitude
Unlike the corporate sector, there is no army of support staff in most organisations. You have to write your own proposal, create your own presentation, prepare your own budgets, and so on. Get ready to be more hands on.

Inclusive decision making
There is little place for top-down, unilateral decision making in the social sector. There is no hierarchy from where you can derive your power. Everyone is working for a cause larger than themselves. They will respect you for the work you do. Listen deeply and actively, take everyone along.

Ditch the rescue complex
Don’t delude yourself into believing you are the saviour that the sector needs. Always know that you are doing this work first and foremost for yourself—because you derive happiness from it.

Stay close to your values
Spend some time reflecting upon your values, aspirations and motivations, and how they can align with your work. It helps orient you to the work you are about to embark upon; whenever you feel low or frustrated, your values will remind you why you have chosen to do this work. Self-reflection helps you identify your internal drivers.

In addition to imbibing certain attitudes and behaviours, there are some practical steps that can help you go about the task of planning your transition to the social sector:

Volunteer
Some of the most successful transitions I have seen are where the candidate has spent time volunteering with an organisation for a few months before deciding upon a fulltime role. Identify a cause you feel strongly about and then seek out opportunities to take up either pro-bono assignments or short paid assignments with organisations that resonate with your interest area.

Do your homework
Do extensive research on your area of interest. For example, if your interest lies in the health care, it would be great to understand the landscape in terms of the different NGO players, government policy, foundations and funders in that space, the level of funding available, etc. This will help you identify the exact area you wish to concentrate your efforts on.

Wait for the right opportunity
Take your time, do not rush into the first opportunity that comes your way: get to know the organisation and the people, have a good understanding of yourself and what makes you tick. Check if there is a cultural fit. Check if your skills can be transferred to the new role, and what are the new skills you need to pick up to be able to give it your best shot.

While it will take a lot of hard work and a great deal of unlearning and relearning to make a success of your move to the social sector, the joy you gain through your work will more than compensate for all that. This could be the best career move you will ever make—one that comes with a whole lot of job satisfaction.

The author is Founder-Director of India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS). 

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