May 27, 2020

Managing your career during COVID-19

Four tips for social sector professionals wondering how the pandemic will affect their work.

6 min read

By now, we’ve all heard the soundbytes of COVID-19’s impact on our work. As organisations, we all need to save cash, invest in future programming, adapt to digital, care for our colleagues’ mental health, and be better communicators. Easy peasy. At the same time, we’ve also all heard that the economic recession will be deep and prolonged, perhaps until the end of 2021, which will dramatically affect jobs and careers in every sector, including the social impact one.

So what is a professional in the sector to do?

Start by considering the macro environment post-crisis. There are people who believe that the international order will be changed profoundly, others who are fever-dreaming about a post-capitalist, climate-friendly, new world order with universal basic income, others still who think that not much will change apart from an acceleration of what was already happening.

You need to operate with the assumption that whatever you believe may happen could be wrong.

But, as any political scientist knows about looking into crystal balls, you’re almost certainly going to be wrong. So even though it’s essential to consider where this is all going, you need to operate with the assumption that whatever you believe may happen could be wrong.


Which brings me to the first of my four trends and tips for fellow social sector professionals who are wondering how the pandemic and subsequent recession will affect their work and careers.

Related article: Managing recruitment and talent during COVID-19

1. Social sector skills will be more widely applicable than ever

Because we’re used to being wrong, right? That’s what our monitoring and evaluation (M&E) data tells us. (Just kidding; any data showing our programme doesn’t work is obviously an outlier.) But for those of us who can’t smugly claim to be data-driven, here are some quintessential social sector skills that might help us thrive in the new world.

  • Problem solving: Each of us has already taken responsibility for making the world a better place. That quixotic sensibility and optimism will be needed in a world where tens of millions have slid back into poverty, are facing increasing domestic violence, or finding out that the government programmes they relied on are now broke. No time like the present to work out your innovation muscles.
  • Replicating what works: At our best, the social sector is usually more open to replicating effective solutions without obsessing about creating a monopoly or claiming market share. Once we’ve innovated solutions, we will need to replicate them quickly at every level of society.
  • System thinking: Most social problems are interconnected. That’s why so many nonprofits that begin by running a low-income school end up also working on healthcare and livelihoods and gender. Our current crisis is an amalgamation of systems change problems, across business and government, and at the most macro scale imaginable. The social sector will need to step up and show that we’ve been ahead of this game already.

For many in the sector, these are skills that we’ve built over time. But if you need a touch-up, you can consider taking an online course, or picking a mentor’s brain, or holding teach-ins at your organisation (for instance, have your fundraising lead run a session on pitching, or your M&E lead teach the whole organisation when to see data as an outlier and when to see it as evidence). This is a great time to broaden your organisation’s collective skill set.

2. The private sector this way comes

(Note: If you click the link, turn your volume WAY up.)

The second trend, already underway, will accelerate: Expect the private sector to play a much greater role in driving impact. The last two seismic global shocks were 9/11 and the 2008 recession. Both led to an increased demand for careers in social impact, with myriad people questioning what they were doing with their lives.

Expect social businesses to rise from the ashes of failed nonprofits, but also expect traditional companies to play a role.

If this crisis sparks the same soul-searching, that increased demand for impact-oriented jobs will meet a reduced supply of social sector jobs (at least for the next 2-3 years). These impact-questers who can’t find room in the traditional social sector will then join the ranks of millennials pushing their companies to be better corporate citizens and demanding their jobs have a larger purpose. As the private sector rebounds, this internal demand will push it to encroach into social sector territory. Expect social businesses to rise from the ashes of failed nonprofits, but also expect traditional companies to play a role (beyond CSR) as well.

question marks painted on the ground-careers

If you want to succeed in this time of crisis, there’s no harm in preparing for change. | Picture courtesy: Flickr

3. Pivot yourself to help your organisation survive

For the next 18 months, we know that our organisations will struggle. Being empathetic, most leaders of social sector organisations will avoid laying-off staff to a much greater extent than the private sector would. If you’re working for a nonprofit, that’s the good news; your cousin who works at that hotel or airline won’t be so lucky. However, most organisations will have to change their strategy and programming while planning for resource scarcity. This is excruciatingly hard as it means balancing many equally important priorities. Chances are, your boss is having trouble sleeping.

So here’s my first tip: This is a moment to ask not what the organisation will do for you, but what you can do for your organisation, regardless of whether this is part of your current role or not. Ask yourself:

  • What new skills can I learn that fills a gap in my organisation’s capacity? For example, perhaps you could take an online course on data visualisation and create better reports for demonstrating impact.
  • How might I leverage my networks to bring in funding? For example, I recently asked my landlord to waive a month’s rent if I promised to donate it to relief for migrant workers. (He said yes!) If I worked for an organisation on the frontlines of COVID-19, this could be immensely valuable.
  • What tasks can I take off my manager’s plate to help them focus more on getting us ready for the future rather than on fire-fighting for right now?

These are all ways in which you can make yourself a highly valued employee. Those who succeed in not being laid off will be the ones who show the willingness and ability to step up and/or pivot themselves in the direction the organisation will need to go.

Related article: How to start your career in the social sector

4. Use your downtime wisely

And what if you’re trying to find a job in the social sector right now? No matter whether you’ve been let go by your organisation or you’re finishing a master’s degree, you are confronting a world where, 92 percent of organisations are either not hiring, or hiring very little.

In this scenario, you might consider a brain hack I call, ‘What Would Your Future Self Say?’ Imagine yourself one year from now and ask what your future self would advise your current self to do. And then simply do that.

To illustrate, assuming I was in this position, what ‘Future Roshan’ would say to ‘Current Roshan’ might go something like this: “See your unemployed time as a gift to yourself and others. Research about creative people shows their periods of unemployment are often correlated with their greatest productivity. Therein lies your template, Current Roshan. You can e-volunteer with an organisation you care about, or support that friend struggling to get her startup off the ground. Or get started on some of those back-burner ideas you have: Writing a blog series interviewing leaders you admire or building a new skill like playing the guitar or finally picking up yoga or starting an Instagram series on a topic close to your heart.”

Yes, it is easier said than done, but it will pay off in ways you can’t imagine yet. Whatever projects you decide on, remember that staying productive helps you build your CV, do things that make you happy, increase your self-confidence, and may also pay some bills. And if you play your cards right, it may also lead you to your next job once hiring re-opens.

As I mentioned above, my crystal ball will likely malfunction, just like everyone else’s. But if you want to succeed in this time of crisis, there’s no harm in preparing for changealong with death and taxes, you can count on it too.

Know more

  • Read more about what one can do when faced with career uncertainties. 
  • Learn about the different fellowships available for young people in the social sector.

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Roshan Paul-Image
Roshan Paul

Roshan is the co-founder and CEO of Amani Institute, a global social enterprise dedicated to developing professionals who create social impact, both through innovative education programs as well as capacity building for organisations. Prior to Amani, he worked with Ashoka Changemakers for a decade around the world. He is the author of two books: ‘Such a Lot of World‘, a novel, and ‘Your Work Begins at No’, a collection of essays on social impact education.