7 Options in the Social Impact Space: Where Do You Fit in?

So you’ve decided that for your career you want to make a difference in the world and have a positive impact on some aspect of society. For most people, though, the harder part is figuring out what exactly they want to do in the high impact space. There are so many different types of companies and organizations, as well as positions within those companies and organizations. What, then, are your options?

Traditional Non-Profit or NGO

While many of the organizations that will be discussed in other sections are classified as non-profits or non-governmental organizations, this section pertains to those organizations that immediately come to mind and are more synonymous with the word charity. Organizations that fall into this category are the United Way, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), World Wildlife Fund, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and the American Red Cross, among others. These organizations look to have a direct outcome or impact and are typically charitable, educational, scientific, or religious.

jp gibbons

JP Gibbons, a 2003 graduate of Notre Dame, currently works in the Strategic Transactions Group at USAID after two years of service in Guatemala with the Peace Corps

International Development

Working in the international development space is for those who want to be involved in helping the public sector tackle issues like poverty, disease, and economic development. Dozens of countries have their own international development agencies, while there are a handful that are multilateral and international. In the United States, this would mean working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Inter-American Foundation, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, or the African Development Foundation. USAID is by far the largest of the organizations, with opportunities both stateside and abroad in a foreign service role. (Note: While USAID typically is engaged in hands-on projects, it does have a group focused on development finance.) For those right out of school, however, it might be difficult to get in with any of these organizations as they prefer more experienced international development workers and/or those with advanced degrees. A good alternative is to do the Peace Corps and hopefully latch on with one of these organizations afterwards. As far as high impact careers internationally go, the most prominent and impactful organizations are the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and the United Nations. Like those in the United States, these opportunities are hard to come by for those without more experience.


tara kenney

Tara Kenney, a 1982 graduate of Notre Dame, has been involved with microfinance for much of her career and is on the board of Accion International.

The pioneering of modern microfinance is often credited to Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank in the 1970’s to lend to the poor in Bangladesh. Now a few decades later, the microfinance sector is characterized by financial services to low-income individuals who do not have access to typical banking services. These loans are typically smaller than an average bank loan and hope to combat payday lending and predatory lending by charging lower interest rates. Some organizations that operate in this space in the United States are Grameen America, Accion USA, and Kiva Zip, which provides smaller loans to budding entrepreneurs looking to infuse short-term capital into their businesses.

Impact Investing and Venture Philanthropy

Impact investing is perhaps the broadest of all the different industries discussed so far. Impact investments are described by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) as “investments made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.” While some companies have been making impact investments for decades, the industry has become more cohesive over the last 10 years or so. If you’re still confused, think of impact investing as venture capital with a social impact. There are dozens of firms that operate in the space, from Acumen to Omidyar to City Light Capital. Some impact investing firms specialize in an industry, like Root Capital focused on agribusiness, while others focus on either the developed or the developing world. Either way, most of the impact investing firms in the United States have small teams that require people to have a good bit of experience before they are considered.

brendan maher

Brendan Maher is Director, Capital Markets, for with F.B. Heron Foundation, as well as founder of the social impact incubator FISH (Fellow Irish Social Hub) in South Bend.

Similar to impact investing, venture philanthropy takes concepts from venture capital and finance but applies them to achieving philanthropic goals. Instead of looking for a return on the money invested, venture philanthropy firms are interested in the outcome of the projects that they finance. These firms are non-profit foundations that try to distribute their endowment in the most meaningful way possible, usually with some involvement from the grantees as well as performance measurement. Examples include some of the largest foundations in the world like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as other organizations like the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund and LGT Venture Philanthropy.


Social Enterprise

If none of these areas interest you, maybe you’re meant for a more boots-on-the-ground role, making a direct impact rather than investing in the companies and organizations that do so. Social enterprises are companies that hope to achieve social and environmental outcomes, among others, but also want to earn revenue in the process. Social enterprises can be classified as non-profit or for-profit, or even exist as a hybrid between the two. These social enterprises almost always have a theory of change and show how they are a force for good, from Embrace’s commitment to advance maternal and child health to d.light, hoping to transform how people use and pay for solar energy. Just like any other business, social enterprises need people to handle marketing, sales, finance, and technology, among others and are always looking for new team members. Like most sectors listed above, however, many are cash-strapped and have a limited number of employees. Still, many social enterprises offer internships to provide individuals with more sector-specific experience.

better world books

Better World Books is a social enterprise started by two Notre Dame graduates that collects and sells books in order to donate books and fund literacy initiatives worldwide.


Other Areas to Make an Impact

For some people, either working in the developing world or for/with social enterprises is not necessarily how they want to make an impact. Luckily, there are countless other ways.

There are dozens of programs that offer fellowships to work in the high impact space, including many of the ones listed above. In addition, social impact is inherently connected to both the education and government sectors.

As far as the private sector goes, there are now hundreds of B Corps–for profit companies that meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency–like Etsy and the New Belgium Brewing Company. Even companies that aren’t certified B Corps can have a big impact through different Corporate Social Responsibility practices. If you work for a private sector company, check out what your employer is doing to have a positive impact.

Lastly, working in the realm of entrepreneurship can have a big impact on communities since most economic growth comes from small businesses rather than large corporations. Consider programs like Venture for America or the Orr Fellowship, which are particularly impactful in this area.

Whatever impact you choose to have, make sure it is a cause you are truly passionate about. After that, everything will work itself out.

bplamBrian Plamondon, a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame with majors in History and Business Economics, wrote this post as he was conducting his own exhaustive search for a job in the social impact space. Brian held internships in finance before becoming involved in the high impact space through work with Notre Dame’s Unleashed and Irish Impact. He will join New Sector Alliance as a fellow in Boston in the fall, working for an organization in the social sector.

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