If they weren’t so important a trend, it would be tempting to pity today’s young, socially involved professionals. Sold a line that says their work can matter, they spend a fortune on school to position themselves for a handful of jobs with “CSR,” “sustainability,” “community” or “cause” in the title. Not surprisingly, most of today’s best roles that combine purpose and profit are already taken by folks with more experience.
Real-world opportunities to mix purpose and profit are hard to find even in the best of times.
The bright side is that a lot of young professionals today want to make a difference and are looking for the tools and resources they need to make it happen. And that’s something we should celebrate.
Net Impact, a San Francisco-based membership organization for young professionals, has been right at the heart of this trend. Last week I was fortunate to attend the organization’s 2011 conference in Portland, Oregon, joining some 2,600 attendees — primarily from undergraduate and graduate degree programs at colleges and universities around the world — in conversations and workshops about sustainability, career development, corporate impact, energy & clean tech, finance, international development, and social innovation.
More Energy Than Opportunity
My big takeaway was that our society is getting better at inspiring young people to care about social change at work, but we need to work harder to give them the opportunity to do so. Although I was struck by the excitement of the audience, I couldn’t help but wonder how many would be successful in their search for the perfect job right out the door.
Let’s face it: most young people won’t immediately become social entrepreneurs or sustainability experts. Instead they’ll find a job and get started learning how to excel in their field, climb the professional ladder, and pay off school loans. Real-world opportunities to mix purpose and profit are hard to find even in the best of times. But in tough times, there aren’t many of those positions going around to begin with, and the more experienced folks who hold them aren’t going anywhere.
A similar supply-demand dynamic works in the volunteering field, too. Whenever we ratchet up programs to raise awareness about volunteering, it’s imperative to have enough nonprofits ready and waiting to welcome those volunteers. In the CSR space, we’re creating a glut supply of inspired professionals. But there’s nowhere near the demand at U.S. firms… yet.
The Student Debt Problem is Bad for Social Change
I had lunch one day in Portland with a group of new MBA students. To a one, they each described debt loads that would have put me in the grave when I was in school. When I suggested that it would take years to pay back $125,000 or more, they agreed that their first priority was finding a position that would generate the money they needed – not looking to make social change.
It was a passionate panel and a great intro for the handful of attendees who were there.
The folks at Net Impact seem to get this. This year’s event theme focused on the many “unexpected places people find” good work, like through creative problem solving, identifying surprise champions, and building unlikely partnerships. I think this is all good, if somewhat abstract.
To me it’s clear that going outside of the job to find purpose will be the main initial path for many of these young professionals. Fortunately, here there are lots of options. Pro bono service, skilled volunteering, even doing part-time consulting on the side for a nonprofit are not only great ways to bring purpose to one’s work life, it’s often possible to get support from your employer in order to do more of this.
Volunteering As a Solution to Professional Purpose
There’s room for companies to be part of this, too. At VolunteerMatch, we work with hundreds of companies that provide incentives, rewards, support and paid time off for employees with a passion. And it’s not just innovative firms, either. Many brands and companies that are focused on remaining fresh and relevant are using employee volunteer engagement as a key strategy for new growth. And many are creating new programs based on the ideas and passions of young professionals.
I would have liked to have seen more of this message at the conference. While I was fortunate to attend a session on Net Impact’s Service Corps program, which connects teams of members in local chapters with skills-based service at local nonprofits, it was the only session over the three days that explicitly helped attendees think through how to make a difference with their skills at local nonprofits. Though the room for the session was only about half-filled, it was a passionate panel and a great intro for the handful of attendees who were there.
That was too bad: although giving back through professional service to a nonprofit isn’t the sexiest of career moves, it’s something every socially involved young professional can do, today, to make a difference.
As for next year, I definitely plan to come back to Net Impact to share this message. Hopefully, I won’t be alone.