How to launch a career in the social sector

Most people work in the social sector out of a desire to have a career that makes a difference and helps make the world a better place.

With that in mind, it helps to have an area that you’re passionate about and can focus on. You might care about human rights and social justice, or food scarcity, or disaster relief, or environmental causes, or children’s and maternal health, or any manner of other things. However, if you can identify what sorts of things motivate you to want to make a difference, you can be more focused in your pathway to acquiring the skills and experience necessary to really contribute to solutions.

There are a variety of roles and pathways to take when it comes to having a career in the social sector. There are usually lots of volunteer roles, and sometimes those require an advanced, specialized skillset. Others may come with an honorarium or paid travel to offset the costs of volunteering. However, it’s also possible to have a paid career in the social sector, and jobs range from entry-level to very senior leadership, on par with a corporate C-Suite position such as CEO.

Organizations within the social sector are like companies in their own right, just in a specialized industry with its own rules and expectations. You can sometimes work your way up from the bottom, but because many of these organizations work across national boundaries and receive public funds, they often need to keep a very transparent public accounting of their internal workings, and having an official degree can help you get more opportunities and be accepted for things such as work and travel visas and promotions.

Professional training in the broadest sense could start with an associate’s degree in human and social services. This gives you a solid, specialist foundation. You should also think about what your goals are and how you can make the most difference, and target appropriate education for your goals. You might want a science or medical degree if you’re concerned with food scarcity or environmentalism, or maternal health initiatives. Or you might gravitate toward management and leadership roles and want to go on to an MBA in social work and non-profit administration.

There are many in-demand skills, such as volunteer coordination or public relations, marketing and social media management. You might want to hone your skills as an educator or a marketer or a storyteller to help the causes that you care about reach more people. In that case, you might combine formal education with transferrable skills from working in a different sector. You could certainly use small business social media marketing skills in a social enterprise.

It’s usually helpful to have some hands-on experience in the area in which you want to start a career before you actually apply for a position, so building up volunteer experience while you complete your education or gain transferable skills in a different sector is always a good investment of your time, and can open doors for you. This has the added bonus of exposing you to more different roles and helping you truly understand what you’re moving toward to make sure that it’s the best career choice and the most effective way that you can make a difference. It’s possible to do online education to free up more of your time for gaining hands-on experience and traveling to areas of higher need or opportunity.

While some social sector jobs may offer lower compensation than their industry counterparts, careers are usually rewarded in line with their educational and experience requirements and level of seniority or responsibility – so, an assistant would make less than a volunteer coordinator, who would make less than a director, etc. These organizations often operate based on a combination of public donations and funding, and tend to have limited budgets and a high demand on their resources. At the same time, this is a massive and growing sector, and there is an increasing recognition that quality talent need to be rewarded for their contribution, so a career in the social sector does tend to be rewarding in more than just the satisfaction of making a difference.

It helps to show a sincere interest in the social sector area in which you want to start a career, so volunteer experience and dedicated education can really help you convince potential employers of your commitment and value. At the same time, you get a chance to narrow your focus and find the perfect career path for you.