March 3, 2020

How to start your career in the social sector

A guide to the different ways that young people can explore the nonprofit sector. And important points for them to bear in mind.

4 min read

It’s hard being a young person in India looking to join the social impact space. You think about it for a long time, and after much thought, you decide this is really what you want to do. Your peers, your parents, even your neighbour’s uncle, try to dissuade you. You argue, reason, and finally just ignore them all. The greater challenge though, is when you start looking for that first job in the sector.

Over the past five years, we have spoken to more than 200 young people who’ve wanted to do something impactful, but were confused about how to go ahead with it. We have had similar experiences, taking the corporate route at McKinsey for a few years, before joining the nonprofit space by working at SEWA and Pratham. In this article, we have tried to draw on our experiences to put together a guide for young people looking to work in the social sector.

If you are between zero and three years out of undergraduate college and looking to explore the nonprofit space for at least a few years, some of the information below might be helpful.

Related article: Finding your social purpose

The different types of organisations that are part of the social impact space

There are four main types of organisations in the space. You might move among these during your career.

1. On the ground practitioners
  • Nonprofits, such as Pratham and SEWA
  • Government bodies such as NITI Aayog, state governments, ministers’ offices
2. Funding organisations
3. Intermediaries and ecosystem focused organisations
4. Think tanks and academia

You can also classify organisations by their focus areas. Many will likely focus on one main theme, for instance education, healthcare, environmental sustainability, or women’s rights—which informs their theory of change—while others might have overlapping themes. However in the early stages of your career, if you are working close to the ground, the focus area that you are working on matters less than the approach of your organisation.

geese in a line_social sector careers_flickr

At the beginning stage of your career, no mistakes are permanent. | Picture courtesy: Flickr

Defining the kind of role you want

The types of roles available to you will vary based on the type of organisation, but here is a (non-exhaustive) list of roles generally available for young people:

  1. Execution focused, which includes managing a programme or team
  2. Fundraising/donor management/partnerships
  3. Research and analysis

Social sector organisations are usually talent-crunched, and your role could easily evolve.

In our opinion, the role should not be of primary importance at the initial stages of your career. Social sector organisations are usually talent-crunched, and your role could easily evolve or may even be finalised six months after you join, by which time you might know what you’re passionate about, and the organisation will understand where your skills lie.

At the point of joining, instead of focusing on the role, we suggest you consider the following factors:

  • Seek opportunities that take you close to the field and provide first-hand insights. This is the period when you will start developing your point of view, and an understanding of the challenges of working in this sector and those of the communities you intend to serve.
  • The person you directly report to will impact both your learning and the impact you will be able to make. If you’re lucky, a manager who will give you flexibility and trust you to take the lead on initiatives, will help greatly with your growth. In the case of smaller organisations, seek opportunities to engage with the founder/s; meet them if you can during your exploration phase.
  • The organisation’s values must align with your own. This could mean ensuring that the goal of the organisation is impact, not fundraising, or prominence in the sector.
  • Think about where you see yourself at the end of your time at the organisation. Ideally, you should have acquired the skills, confidence, and networks to have a clearer understanding of what drives change, the tools to question and test it, and the ability to articulate it. Here, execution roles have an advantage in that they can help prepare you more holistically to start or lead organisations, in both the social impact and corporate space.

Related article: 6 steps to attract good talent

Additional points to bear in mind

Is money important?

Beyond a minimum floor, not at this stage of your career (as long as there are no financial obligations or commitments you have to fulfil). Differences between salaries offered by organisations at the entry level end up being almost negligible in the long-term, especially if you are planning to pursue a master’s degree in the future. While you should negotiate to help you meet your expenses, experience and learning should be priority. In our understanding, INR 25,000 to 30,000 a month should suffice as a minimum, based on your city.

What timelines should I follow?

Commit to any organisation for a minimum of two years. It takes six months to get used to the work and to build enough trust to get assigned work that you would like to do. You will then need at least a year to contribute meaningfully to the organisation, and at least another six months to create processes or build projects that sustain after you leave.

How do I differentiate myself in my master’s application?

Think about how unique your exposure and impact were. Did many people in the sector do the same thing you did, or were you able to do something distinct?

As a final piece of advice: don’t panic! At the initial stages of your career, no mistakes are permanent. Take it one day at a time, try not to get frustrated when things don’t go according to plan, and savour the days when you go home feeling like you really made a difference through your work.

This article has been updated to reflect the following changes: two organisations have been moved to the correct categories, and one organisation has been added as a ‘consulting firm’.

Know more:

  • Learn about the different fellowships available for young people in the social sector.
  • Read this article on why the social sector is an exciting space to build your career.

Do more:

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Azeez Gupta-Image
Azeez Gupta

Azeez Gupta is Head of Strategic Initiatives at Pratham. Before his current role, he led Pratham's award-winning skills development programme, providing livelihoods to 25,000 youth annually. He has also worked as a management consultant at McKinsey and Company. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and IIT Delhi.

Namya Mahajan-Image
Namya Mahajan

Namya is currently at the Harvard Business School, after serving as the managing director of SEWA's (Self-Employed Women's Association) Cooperative Federation, which supports over a hundred women's cooperatives in the informal economy. Prior to that, she worked in McKinsey and Company as a management consultant. She graduated from Harvard College, studying applied mathematics with economics.