Career Community: Social Impact Careers

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Overview

Use your skills to make a positive impact in the world. Further a mission or cause of importance to you. Do work for the common good.

Social impact careers can take many forms and cut across nearly all industries. Regardless of your preferred job function, skill set, or area of interest, you can find organizations working to make significant positive changes that address any number of pressing social issues.

The most common social impact organizations include nonprofits, foundations and philanthropy, think tanks, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and social enterprise. They also encompass social and direct service agencies, health and international development, environment and sustainability, education, advocacy, activism and more.

Nonprofits

Nonprofits are mission-based organizations that exist for the purpose of doing good in the world, and generally are trying to solve a particular social problem. Nonprofits are also commonly referred to as charities or NGOs (non-government organizations, which often have an international focus). These organizations are not, as is often thought, forbidden or discouraged from making a profit. However, they have no shareholders and are not allowed to distribute any of their earnings; rather, any profit goes back toward supporting their mission. There are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States alone, and nonprofits account for over 5% of the GDP.

These organizations typically work on complex social problems, whether on a community, national, or global scale. Nonprofits are commonly divided into approximately six sectors: arts, education, environment and animals, health, human/social services, and religious organizations. Nonprofits range from small neighborhood afterschool art and reading programs, to churches, mosques, and synagogues, to theatre companies, to large hospitals and universities, including MIT. (Judging by net assets, MIT is actually one of the largest nonprofits in the country!). If you are interested in using the skills you’ve gained at MIT to make a difference in the world through your career, there are plenty of opportunities to do so at a nonprofit.

Types of Opportunities

There are opportunities for using any number of skillsets within the nonprofit sector. You can get involved as a member of a program team, working directly with the nonprofit’s clients on the ground or managing a program. You can also work on the administrative side: nonprofit administrators do everything from grant writing to managing individual or institutional giving to handling a charity’s overall finances to running social media or an organization’s website. Most nonprofits also have IT and legal needs, and many nonprofits in more specialized fields hire data analysts and programmers as well. The sector as a whole tends to value collaboration, strong communication skills, and passion for the organization’s mission. For higher-level positions, a Master's degree is often preferred, but there are many entry-level positions available for those with a bachelor’s degree. Nonprofits also frequently sponsor internships, although these may or may not be paid.

Finding Opportunities

To learn more about opportunities at different kinds of nonprofits, consider looking up area nonprofits and research the different positions employees hold. Use ICAN, LinkedIn, and the Alumni Advisors Hub to find MIT alumni working in the field who may be willing to conduct an informational interview with you about their position or organization. If there is a nonprofit you have volunteered with in the past, reach out to your contacts about permanent positions they may be able to share with you. Think about the work environment you tend to prefer; some large, established nonprofits have a corporate workplace feel, while many smaller, newer nonprofits operate very much like startups. You may also want to look into pursuing a degree in nonprofit management if this field is of interest to you, or if you are considering starting your own nonprofit one day.

Resources

Most nonprofit job searches are fairly local and sector-specific. If you are interested in exploring a particular type of nonprofit in a particular location, trying googling ‘CITY + SECTOR’ jobs and see what comes up. (For example, googling ‘Boston + arts jobs’ would lead to hireculture.org, a resource for local jobs at arts nonprofits.)

Local Nonprofit Examples

MIT
City Year
Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA-Angell)
Boys and Girls Club of Boston
Isabella Gardener Museum
New England Aquarium

Foundations

One way to get involved in the social sector is to get involved with philanthropic foundations. Foundations are organizations that exist for the purpose of funding nonprofits in various fields, primarily through grants. Most foundations have a few areas of focus for grant making, such as the arts, the environment, etc. There are several different types of foundations, but the main ones are as follows: family foundations, corporate foundations, and community foundations. Family foundations are typically smaller operations that were initially funded by a particular wealthy individual or family, and have very few employees, although some have scaled up over the years. Corporate foundations tend to receive the entirety of their funding from a business practicing corporate social responsibility, and their goals tend to be tied to the goals of the company (such as a healthcare company that funds exercise program for underserved children). Community foundations tend to manage a number of funds given by different members of that community (known as donor-advised funds), and focus on giving within that community.

Types of Opportunities

Many foundations prefer their officers to have experience working at a nonprofit first, and will hire officers with previous knowledge of a particular program area. However, foundations are increasingly interested in measuring the impact of their giving, and often search for employees with data analysis skills and data measurement experience.

Finding Opportunities

Foundations, as with many social impact careers, don’t have a typical recruiting cycle. In fact, there are any number of pathways you could take, and numerous positions are filled through referrals. Therefore, networking is key. Look on ICAN, LinkedIn, and the Alumni Advisors Hub to find MIT alumni working in the field, with whom you could conduct an informational interview to learn more about careers in foundations and philanthropy. Become as informed as possible about your field or subject of interest, and seek a broad range of opportunities for experience to build a diverse set of transferable skills.

Resources

Local Foundation Examples

The Boston Foundation
Barr Foundation
The New Balance Foundation
Genzyme Charitable Foundation, Inc.

Think Tanks (Research Institutes & Policy Institutes)

Policy institutes or research institutes are commonly referred to as “Think Tanks.”  These organizations work to solve complex problems by identifying policy issues, researching and evaluating ideas, and making recommendations that influence global, national, and regional public policy. Think Tanks can be partisan or non-partisan, though it’s important to note that most have an ideological orientation and are advocacy oriented.  Think tank researchers can influence public opinion and public policy, which is a different focus from traditional academic research at a university.

Some of the very first think tanks in the United States include the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, The Brookings Institution, and the Council on Foreign Relations. You are encouraged to do a search for those in your particular area of interest. With over 1,800 think tanks in the US (177 in Massachusetts alone!) and more than 6,500 worldwide you are likely to find a number working in topic areas of importance to you.

Types of Opportunities

Think Tanks are looking for individuals who are skilled at producing, synthesizing, and communicating research. Strong research, written and verbal communication, and team work skills are important as well as an aptitude for influencing and a personal interest in the subject area being studied. Though a Master’s degree is often desired, there can be opportunities for junior analysts and researchers.  Higher level positions within an organization will require a PhD or experience as an academic in the field. 

Finding Opportunities

As with any industry, networking should be a priority in your job or internship search.  Attend conferences or events hosted by think tanks. Consider working as a research assistant or interning with a research institute or policy institute. Most think tanks post internship and job opportunities directly on their website, so be sure to check there for postings and deadlines. Consider looking at profiles on various think tank websites to see how current employees have reached their particular positions. Look on ICAN, LinkedIn, and the Alumni Advisors Hub to find MIT alumni working in the field, with whom you could conduct an informational interview to learn more about careers in policy research.

Resources

Below are a few resources to get you started in your search. However, you are encouraged to do a general web search for think tanks within your area of interest.

Sample Local Think Tanks

MIT CEEPR (Center for Energy & Environmental Policy Research)
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
National Bureau of Economic Research
MASSinc

Graduate and Professional Programs

Listing of Graduate Programs with Public Affairs Specialties from U.S. News & World Report

Listing of MBA Programs with a Nonprofit Specialty from U.S. News & World Report

Alumni in the Field (see Alumni Directory)

Undergraduate

  • Environmental Analyst at Massachusetts Department of Public Health (Materials Science and Engineering graduate)
  • Science Program Officer at the Kavli Foundation (Biology graduate)
  • Environmental Scientist at the US Environmental Protection Agency (Environmental Engineering Science graduate)
  • Management/Administration at Hear Now (Civil and Environmental Engineering graduate)
  • Employee at Institute for Healthcare Improvement (Biology/Life Science graduate)
  • Employee at American Cancer Society (Literature graduate)

Masters

  • Innovation Lead and Design Thinker at World Economic Forum (Engineering and Management graduate)
  • Advisor, Future of Urban Development and Services Initiative at World Economic Forum (Computer Aided Design graduate)
  • Senior Environmental Specialist at the World Bank Group (City Planning graduate)
  • Foreign Service Officer—Crisis, Stabilization and Governance (International Development and City Planning graduate)
  • Water and Sanitation Engineer at US Environmental Protection Agency (Water Quality and Environmental Engineering graduate)
  • Director, Federal and State Division, Office of Sustainable Communities (City Planning graduate)

PhD

  • Consultant/Member of the Board at Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation (Political Science graduate)
  • CEO/Co-Founder at Innovators in Health (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science graduate)
  • Deputy Director at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Biochemical Engineering graduate)
  • Senior Program Officer at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Biological Engineering graduate)
  • Deputy Division Director at National Science Foundation (Physics graduate)
  • Young Global Leader at World Economic Forum (Operations Research graduate)
  • Assistant Director of Development Communications and Marketing at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Linguistics graduate)