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How to Break Into Social Impact

At one time or other in your career, you may have felt the pull toward a more altruistic line of work. Working for a nonprofit may have been a fleeting thought but meant a sacrifice in compensation you could not afford. Many of us reexamined our missions in life during COVID. As social impact,

corporate social responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) become table stakes and not just buzzwords for companies these days, there are more and more opportunities to have an impact on the world through your work.

However, as with any industry, it’s not always easy to jump in if you’ve never worked in the nonprofit world or at the intersection of the public and private sectors. After working most of my career in public relations and integrated marketing, I pivoted to working in the world of social impact and philanthropy ten years ago and never looked back. If you’re looking to parlay your penchant for purpose into a paying gig, check out these tips to get started.

Learn and Network

Plug yourself into the social impact world through conferences like Engage for Good, Sustainable Brands, Agents of Change, Social Innovation Summit, Association of Corporate Citizenship Professionals, and Cause Marketing Summit,

to name a few. If attendance is not in your budget, many offer ways to volunteer at their conferences. Look for early-bird rates and memberships that offer access to year round educational opportunities and online content, including free webinars. I recently attended a webinar on employee engagement and was introduced to a major corporate foundation through the webinar host. Read up on topics that interest you.

Great resources covering issues and changemakers of the day include Triple Pundit, Chronicle of Philanthropy, and Philanthropy News Digest from Candid. Sign up for newsletters, including Joe Waters’ Selfish Giving, which is chock full of great examples of CSR work and learnings for CSR and nonprofit professionals. Many publications, like Forbes, FastCo and Bloomberg cover the space and also host their own events. Lastly, start networking online on LinkedIn if you are not already there, and offline, look for local groups and business organizations that focus on philanthropic work in your community.

Serve on a Board

Board members play an important role for nonprofits by providing strategic guidance oversight, network connections, and fundraising support. I started as a board member of the nonprofit Action For Healthy Kids before consulting for the organization and eventually serving as their head of marketing communications for six years. Before jumping in, make sure you know what causes you are most passionate about and the time you have to commit to a board.

Most boards look for members to make a donation, but bringing a network and commitment to help secure fundraising dollars may be equally valuable. If you’re already involved with a nonprofit, speak with the executive director or director of development about being considered for a board position. BoardnetUSA.org is a good resource, and you can search for board opportunities with VolunteerMatch and Idealist as well.

Raise Your Hand

Resources are often tight at nonprofits, but you never know when volunteering could turn into a paid gig. If you’re interested in a purpose-driven career, then you may already be volunteering with a nonprofit organization. If so, or if there is one in your community or on the national level that you’d like to support, reach out and offer to help them with skills-based volunteering. This could be content creation,

marketing, photography or video production, graphic design, strategy, accounting or other professional areas of expertise that many nonprofits need. One resource for such opportunities around the country is Taproot Foundation. Their volunteer matching platform brings nonprofits and volunteers together for specific projects as well as for brainstorming sessions and workshops. VolunteerMatch and Idealist are also good sites to explore.

Cast a Wide Net

About 64% of nonprofit donations came from individual donors in 2022 and just 6% came from corporate funding, according to Giving USA’s 2023 report. However, corporate dollars often come with marketing campaigns and other elements designed to generate awareness and engagement. Go directly to the businesses community or the public relations and marketing agencies that work with nonprofits on behalf of brands. Ask your current corporate clients if they need help in this space or find a local business looking to develop its community affairs and social responsibility program and see what freelance support they can use. Local hospitals which operate as nonprofits do a lot of community-oriented and public health work and could be a good avenue to explore as well.

There is no shortage of causes and organizations out there that need your help. While it may take some time to generate income as a freelancer focused on changing the world, you can package your transferable skills that are sure to benefit nonprofits in everything from partnership development, fundraising and grant writing to technology, content marketing, strategic planning and much more.

Loren Coleman is the founder of Coleman Collaborative, a consultancy focused on strategic planning, partnerships and communications to drive social impact for nonprofits, brands and foundations, with a specialty in health and well-being.

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