A Career In Social Impact: You Can Have it All, It Just Might Not Be How You ImaginedFeatured

My first “real job” out of college was managing a popular vegan restaurant in Toronto. At the time, I viewed activism as something separate from business and was thrilled to have a job that paid me while openly advocating for animal rights and food security. This, I thought, is the chance of a lifetime. Even if the paychecks were small, the hours long, and the customers prickly, I had the honour of spending my days supporting something I believed in.My unwavering idealism later carried me on to a job as a plant-based pastry chef, where I would spend my nights baking alone in a tiny commercial kitchen in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto and my days volunteering at the front desk for an organization that provided fresh food to at-risk communities and campaigned for policy change in food systems. I was fulfilled morally, but completely broke, overworked, and sleep deprived. I, like many others before me, had assumed that my mental and financial well-being was the price to pay for the privilege of working for social change. Sounds pretentious, right? It was. I was.With my pretension realized, and my shiny optimism crushed, I packed up my morals and headed for the steely reality of the corporate world in pursuit of a savings account and health benefits. I began working reception and admin for a real estate consulting firm. Although the work had no connection whatsoever to food security or animal rights (my two previous loves), I (unwittingly) always found a social angle to play, oftentimes to the dismay of the leadership team. I organized company wide volunteering days. I provided financial literacy courses to the other admin staff. I coached agents in ways to incorporate social giving into their marketing efforts. I did this all without being able to see how well I was being prepared for the next iteration of my career that would fully integrate advocacy and traditional business, a role that would forever change my life and how I perceived the divide between social good and just plain living good.That role would come a few months after leaving the real estate firm when my appetite for more meaningful work (that didn’t make executives roll their eyes) became too great. When I first met Phillip Haid, the CEO of Public, I thought,this man is either insane or a genius, as he explained to me that Public was a social purpose marketing agency, not a charity, that believed that money drove impact and impact drove money. The concept that the two worlds could not only co-exist, but actually support each other had never occurred to me, yet seemed blatantly obvious in the moment. The more capital you invest in purpose (social impact, social good, social change… whatever you choose to call it), the more impact you will have, and the more impact you have, the more profit you make through socially conscious consumers and stakeholders. A simple equation, yet a revolutionary concept. This is what I would come to recognize as the conversation that changed the trajectory of my career, and life.I spent five of my most formative years with Public Inc., building their internal operations, certifying them for Benefit Corporation status (twice!) and growing our team to three cities across North America. During those five years, I uncovered some surprising truths about the reality of working in social impact that would have saved me some confusion, disappointment and tears. Here’s what I learned:Everyone’s just doing their bestWhen you first start in social impact, you think CEOs and COOs of B Corps and socially conscious companies are gods. You’ll assume they never say offensive things, always separate their recycling and probably write their baristas holiday cards too. And while this might apply to some leaders, in all my years of experience, I certainly have never met a single one that fits that criteria. All leaders, no matter the righteousness of their work, are imperfect. They will say or do something insensitive (sometimes downright horrible) and you will start to feed the familiar sensation of disappointment creeping up as you watch your socially conscious heroes topple from their pedestals.A word of advice: don’t build the damn pedestal to begin with. Setting up leaders with the same idealism that left me overworked and broke in my 20’s hurts no one but yourself. Remember that we’re rewriting the playbook togetherAs I mentioned earlier, the concept of profit and purpose coexisting is truly revolutionary, and the thing about revolutions is,… they’re pretty rocky. Filled with destruction, chaos, uncertainty, and disaster, the revolution of socially conscious business is littered with good intentions and half baked execution. The world of social impact is constantly building, and rebuilding itself. There is no playbook, there is no exact formula. We’re all on the ride of creating a more conscious world together, bit by bit.No one will ever get it rightOn the note of building bit by bit, we’ll never be finished building. If studying socially conscious business has taught me anything it’s that everything (system, process, structure) lives in an ever evolving ecosystem. The moment we ‘get it right’ (because ‘right’ is subjective), there will be a new peak to climb, a new wrong to right and a new battle to fight. Our world will never be perfect, and our work will never be done. It’s important to accept that the goal is a moving target if you choose a career in social impactThese three lessons are reminders that I keep close to me as I grow into an imperfect, sometimes uncertain and constantly evolving leader continuing to work in social impact. I now dedicate my time to teaching other leaders these lessons and more through the Founders Fund, a digital accelerator for womenwoman entrepreneurs and independent consulting.
I really enjoyed reading this post, not only because it was engagingly written, but because the ongoing search for meaning in one’s work and the full utilization of one’s interests and passions often feel like a unicorn — something that sounds lovely and perfect but ultimately impossible to find, idealistic and imaginary. I’m in the midst of a professional pivot from teaching, a career commonly referred to as a ‘calling.’ Over the last five years, many of my students’ parents have praised my work, creative project ideas, and impact on their children, telling me, as though they believe themselves the first to have ever told me, “It is clear you’ve found your calling!”But I know I haven’t. I have so many interests outside of teaching and feel that I’m using about 30% of what I have to give. I am so eager to move into a new role to begin feeling what you describe in this post, Amanda: that you’re getting closer to this thing you love and by which you feel deeply, personally motivated and fulfilled. I know it doesn’t happen all at once, but I am longing to move into a position and feel the kind of satisfaction that — by everyone else’s apparent estimates — I ought to have been feeling these last five years. Thanks for sharing your journey toward finding this combination of business and passion and reminding me of the gradual nature of that process. Hopefully I will be able to make a post like yours a little further down this road!
Katie, it sounds like you're moving in the right direction. Keep taking the next right step!
This is such a great write up, thank you!! I’m preparing to pivot into social impact myself (7 years in corporate tech, trying to pivot to make a positive change) and I can’t tell you how helpful this is right now
Karin, that's so exciting! You're in for a beautiful (and slightly jarring) ride! Good luck!
@karinrobinsantos hi! I am about to embark on the same journey (i.e. pivoting from corporate to social impact). Would you be open for a brief chat? Would love to learn from your experience. Thank you in advance!
This was a wonderful read! I myself currently work at a social good startup -- a national, for-profit employment platform for the 70m Americans with a criminal record -- and had a similar "come to Jesus" moment about the ways in which a for-profit model can actually work alongside a social good mission. Insofar as criminal justice reform, re-entry (from prison) and fair chance hiring advocacy have all been nonprofit or government work up to this point, this arena--as are many others--is in fact ripe for innovation. For new approaches that aren't limited to requirements of donors or taxpayers, and for the possibility of a solution that can scale to the size of the problem at hand. I also think you really beautifully captured a concept I've encountered a lot lately amidst recent events in this country (George Floyd, BLM), as many more people have been asking how they can "do more"... except "they're only a service worker, or a product manager etc. etc." Yet, as you demonstrated, ANYONE can have positive impact, in ANY industry. Whether you're in tech, manufacturing, the service industry, real estate....if you truly believe in something, you can interweave it into any job, any culture and any team. Action and advocacy come in many forms. Thanks again for sharing!
Hey Adrienne! That moment when you realize business and purpose can support each other is magical (and kinda messes with your life plans for a while too!). Glad it resonated :)
Hi Adrienne - do you mind sharing the name of your org? This is the field I'm most interested in exploring for my next turn (15 years of experience in Ops at startups + consultancies, but a ton of volunteer + activism work on the side). Would love to know how you found it and what similar businesses/orgs you'd recommend.
Hi Kelly, sorry for the delay -- my company is called 70 Million Jobs ( I'd be happy to chat further about this if you want to send me an email: [email protected] :)
Beautifully said. Thank you for this!
Thank you for sharing your story! It was really interesting hearing about your experience and I can totally relate to your learning that working in social impact doesn't automatically mean everyone and everything is "right" or virtuous.
Romanticizing social impact mostly to tears, but it's a journey worth taking!
This was so great! I grew up in Toronto :) and am now (after a career in fashion) looking to work with social impact and mission driven brands. I’d love to chat sometime!
Fashion (specifically when it comes to supply chains and natural textiles) is my niche passion within my niche passion of social purpose! Send me an email and we'll set up a time to chat! [email protected]
Will send you an email now :)
Inspiring article - glad someone share about social impact and the experience in the area!
Thanks a lot for sharing! I just got out of the corporation changing to a NGO, because i wanted to have an impact. I was also thinking about founding a company with a social impact, and I have just read also an interesting opinion from a social entrepreneur. I think it also unleashes another side of the story for founders and CEOs, who try to build an impact from scratch but face so many challenges.May be also interesting :)
Oooh, thank you, I can't wait to read it!
Thank you for this timely read! Last year I left my "last" corporate job to move into social entrepreneurship. It's been an interesting journey but sometimes it feels like the purpose isn't as clear to the world as it is to me (we're developing a purpose lending fintech). Your lessons have given me confidence that we're on the right track. We're doing our best to rewrite the digital lending playbook in East Africa and we hope that our contribution will be part of a wave of change to help lives. Thanks again for the encouragement to keep going.
This is an amazing piece. Highlights the highs and lows of the social impact world. I am setting up an impact focused fashion e-markplace and would love to connect to discuss certification and supply chain.
@amandambaker, thanks so much for sharing this. I just posted my ask on Elpha on how to transition from corporate to social impact work. Your post is exactly what I needed to read. What you said about Public and the CEO's vision are so spot on, yet not many companies think this way. Unfortunately, most of the companies that I've worked for translate social impact to volunteering days, CSR programs or their partnership with non-profits, etc. Do you have any advice on how to find other 'Publics' other there? I just started looking into B-corp list but was wondering if you have any other resources. Also, if you're open to having a brief chat on this subject, would love to hear more about your experience. Thanks in advance!