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Skills, Balance, Salaries, Landing the Job, the Gig Economy, Advice & Wisdom on Building a Career of Change from the PCDN Career Advisory Board

Craig Zelizer

October 31, 2017

On August 1, 2017, PCDN launched the Social Change Career Helping Line, the world’s first crowd and expert sourced resource for careers in change.  We've we’ve grown to almost 800 members from 60 countries ranging from the US, Nigeria, India, Switzerland, Mexico, Thailand, Croatia and more. There have been over 1,000 posts, comments and reactions.

There have been amazing honest discussions about the many challenges and opportunities in starting or advancing a career of change. The purpose of the Helping Line is to provide a space to share struggles, questions, wisdom and more as we collectively seek to combine careers of purpose, impact and sustainability (it isn’t always easy).

The questions have brought in many peer responses from members of the group, from the PCDN Team and some of our amazing advisory board members (we are very grateful for their participation) who are thought leaders in their respective fields. Each month we also select several key questions from the Helping Line and ask a few of the advisory board members to provide responses.  This is our first second career advisory board post and offers an overview of some key responses that we hope will help guide others on their career paths. Our first career advisory board (focused on Impact investing. Getting a job without experience & Salaries) post can be seen here.

The questions the career advisory board addressed for September below include:

  1. What are the most essential skills for someone looking to build a career in social change? 
  2. When getting started in a career in social change how can you balance following your passion and finding new opportunities with providing for a family? Particularly, when the particular field seems small, without many entry-level opportunities?
  3. Does one have to have a low salary when working for social change?
  4. How many job applications are enough when applying for a job in social change?
  5. If one wants to work for a particular organization or foundation where one doesn’t have contacts (such as the Obama foundation) what is the best strategy for landing a contact or job?
  6. How can I land a job in international development in E. Africa (or any area).
  7. What does the gig economy mean for the future of social change careers? How can one survive and thrive in this changing environment?
  8. How do you deal with the rejection factor in the job search?
  9. What are the key strategies for having a successful salary negotiation?


The Respondents for this Month include:

Jonathan C. Lewis, author of The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur




Hyeon-Ju Rho, Leadership Coach




Annika Erickson-Pearson, Director of Search StartingBloc




Frank Blechman Consultant




Dr. Catalina Rojas , Director of Innovation, PCDNetwork




Devin Thorpe, Journalist, author and speaker, devinthorpe.com




Dr. Craig Zelizer, Founder/CEO, PCDNetwork

The Answers from our Career Advisory Group from the key question in the Helping Line in September are below. Please keep the questions coming and let others know about the Helping Line.

What are the most essential skills for someone looking to build a career in social change? 

Jonathan: Compassion and conviction are not the same as competency. Social entrepreneurs need all three. Equip yourself with expertise, skills and ethics in equal measure. Acquire moral grounding to weather the tough days ahead. Learn process skills to make yourself powerfully effective. Gather solid domain knowledge to confront whatever injustice pisses you off.

To change the world, we need to know something. Then, we need to know how to do something with what we know.

The one and the other are super-glued together: to study feminism, and then fight for it. To study rhetoric, and then raise our voice for justice. To study finance, and then balance the budget of a social venture. To study journalism, and then expose the world’s corruption and moral cowardice. To study environmental law, and then sue the shit out of some polluter.

If you’ve lived up-close-and-personal with hardship, discrimination or violence—your life résumé is more relevant than the candidate who plays chess, cooks or windsurfs. One: with any luck, you might empathetically relate to the tribulations of others. Two: with a bit more luck, your life trials might have produced a person of character, conviction and compassion. Three: with even more luck, you will fill in a perspective or sensitivity deficit in your future team of colleagues.” (from my book The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur)

Hyeon: For me, this question brings to mind capacities rather than skills. In terms of skills, the list of skills that add essential value to the social change sector are virtually limitless -- writing ability, financial acumen, tech skills, storytellling, grass-roots organizing, political lobbying -- the list goes on. In terms of skills, I would say focus on the things you love to do, and are good at. You will be able to find a place for those skills in the social change sector. And we need the full range of skill-sets!
There are, however, core capacities that I do believe are essential for a long-term and effective career in social change work. These are not job or issue-specific.
1) Capacity to engage with complexity
The process of social change is messy, multi-layered, and usually not linear. You will need to develop a comfort level with situations and problem-solving processes that don't lend themselves to neat models.
2) Capacity to learn and evolve
Related to 1 above, the landscape around any given issue is changing all the time. In the context of social change work, expect your career to be one where you are constantly learning, and evolving along with the world around you.
3) Resilience
Social change work is not for the faint of heart. We are seeking to change culture, the way institutions and systems operate, and ultimately to change hearts and minds. There will be set-backs. Change sometimes happens slowly, over the course of generations. You will need to cultivate your inner resources for renewing hope, courage and energy. 
4) Independent thinking
Social change work, by definition is pushing against culture, and catalyzing transformation. Doing this effectively requires the capacity to think beyond received wisdom, and to challenge orthodoxy (even within the social change sector).
Frank: The skills for success in anything are honesty, patience, humor, and the ability to count backwards.

Craig: There are many skills needed to successfully advance a career in change. One core thing I want to emphasize in today's economy is it increasingly necessary to take a life long approach to learning new skills and ideas. It isn't sufficient to get training as young person or in college and then assume one's life career path is set. There is no single set of skills that will cover all areas, as some things are sector or organizational specific. But I will say from my extensive research on the topic some of the most important ones I've identified include:

1) Writing (not academic writing but knowing how to write clearly, make an argument, frame and be concise)

2) Process skills - knowing how to effectively work with diverse groups and institutions (how to run and design meetings, deal with conflicts, how to bring in diverse stakeholders and voices)

3) Communication - There are two components here. One is how to work to influence others to listen and ideally support one's social change goal. This can be done in multiple formats. The second part is being able to use communication tools such as social media, video and related formats to develop compelling items such as infographics, campaigns and more.

4) Empathy - Being able to understand and work with others

5) Adaptability - Being able to adapt to rapidly challenging contexts

6) Humility - Being humble that no one person or group has all the answers.

7) $ - how to get money to sustain work (whether from foundations, grants, services, and other means) and then how to administer/track funding, develop a business plan, etc. (many people are lacking in this area).

8) Tech - Tech doesn't solve problems but can be used to help as a tool. Thus understanding how one can use tech to advance change. In particular social change professionals who speak tech (can code, build an app, work with drones and related items) have a very bright future.

9) Language skills - the more languages one can speak the better. I can go on and one but these are some of the skills. Look forward to hearing what others comment.

Devin: Empathy. Few of the other skills helpful in social change are unique to it. Empathy is.

When getting started in a career in social change how can you balance following your passion and finding new opportunities with providing for a family? Particularly, when the particular field seems small, without many entry-level opportunities?

Annika: I like to draw on the wisdom of Elizabeth Gilbert here. In her book Big Magic, she argues that we must reframe our relationship to creativity. Instead of asking how our creative outlets can pay the bills and keep our lives afloat, we instead should venture to provide for our creativity. I think we can apply that same thinking at the beginning of our careers in impact. Lost you yet? Think about it this way:

Instead of creating a way for your social impact to make you money, think about how you can make money so that you have time and space for creating impact.

Maybe this means taking a less intellectually stimulating job that pays the bills so that your free time can be filled with impact. I know, some of you are reading this and rolling your eyes... what free time? That part is up to you.

Frank:When getting started, it is easy to get pigeon-holed into doing one thing. Social change involves many things. Even if your job is about only one, pay attention to and learn all you can about all parts: Strategic goals, tactics, research, analysis, evaluation, resource development, communications, resource management. Take the time to understand why those who support your cause do so, why those who oppose your cause do so, and what defines the difference between the two. Your ability to be useful, successful, and happy will depend on this broad view, and the support of your family. They have to accept the career you have chosen, because they have to live with the trials too.

Jonathan: Activism leads to job offers. It’s a form of networking. Starting a social justice journey is like starting one of those aggravating jigsaw puzzles without a picture on the box. If you and I want to make any progress at all, we have to start somewhere, taking a leap of faith that, with perseverance, we will find what we need when we need it.

The pluck and passion of a social justice career are in showing up.

When you and I double down on our beliefs, commit to social innovation, take action against injustice, volunteer, campaign, fundraise, march, picket or petition—we are trusting ourselves to figure out what comes next and to handle it when it does.” (from my book The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur)

Does one have to have a low salary to undertake change work?

Jonathan: No, but realism about entry level salaries is needed. Signing bonuses, perks and high salaries don’t exist because your labor is not being exploited to enrich your employer. Instead, you are keeping power and control over the one thing that makes you who you are: your conscience. It’s choice. (At various times in my life, I’ve chosen both paths.)

Frank: No. But if you want to have a big salary, you are going to have to figure out how to help a lot of people.

How many job applications are enough when applying for a job in social change?

Frank: You should submit as many as you can (this will vary), but remember that applications are only a small part of getting a job. Networking, volunteering, researching, creating, and showing up are all equally (if not more) important.


Craig:  For me personally I think the application process is one of quality and not just quantity. Applying for job blindly will likely not land you a job. One needs to make sure you have (at least most) of the relevant skills, knowledge, etc. to do a job. Networking and building connections is essential in most jobs. The estimates in the DC area are up to 80% of jobs are filled by networking. This doesn't mean applying isn't important (although not all opening are posted), but that applying is only one step. When employers are often getting 300-500 applicants per opening, having someone in the organization who knows you and can potentially put in a word to help champion that your application can be reviewed is often very important (of course this varies by sector and type of job). The way I like to guide my alum is they apply for 30 jobs and aren't getting results (and are sure their applications are strong) don't get stressed. But if they have applied for 60 to 100 they should be getting at least an interview or two. If not then this may mean they are not qualified, their resume or application's are strong and need work, they they haven't done enough networking, etc. 

I can say that the job search can be incredibly frustrating, with moments of elation when a possibility comes up, followed by the bizarre feeling of having one constantly judged as worthy or not worthy by others and largely based on a piece of paper. It can also be very lonely. What I do suggest if possible have a peer support group of friends who are also maybe job searching (or have jobs but really open to helping) and where you can give feedback, support each other, share tips, openings, etc. Also some university career centers can be amazing and if you're lucky to have a good career center and alum network, make sure to check in and take advantage of their resources.


Jonathan:A thousand job applications is not enough! Job applications are a form of advertising. The more, the merrier. Apply for every job, even if you an unqualified (unless you are applying to be my heart surgeon, in which case please don’t). You telling the world, “here I am.” Besides there be other jobs at a particular organization about to open up, so your resume might get passed around the office.

If one wants to work for a particular organization or foundation where one doesn’t have contacts (such as the Obama foundation) what is the best strategy for landing a contact or job?

Annika: Maybe you don't know someone, but I bet you know someone who knows someone who knows someone. Enter, power mapping. Make a bullseye and put yourself in the center. Map out who you know in the first ring. Then, in the next, think about who those people know. And then, add another ring, and chances are... you are at the Obama Foundation. Don't be shy about asking the people in your first ring to ask the people in their own networks. Be able to articulate your ask and your vision well and succinctly -- the less complication, the less likely your request will end up manipulated through a game of telephone. Another option is to consciously seek out groups that expand your network. StartingBloc and Hive do this well.

Frank: First, you have to answer

“Why would you want to work at an organization with which you have no contacts?”

Is the organization so unique? What attracts you? The glamor? The name? The mission? The approach? In most cases you will do better starting work with an organization doing work in the same field that wants you and appreciates you. The people in that other organization probably have the contacts you don’t.

Jonathan: Tell everyone you meet. Really. Your Lyft driver may regularly take an Obama staffer to the airport. Your high school drug dealer may know someone useful. It’s weak advice, but the spirit of it is true. Besides, what other options do you have?

How can I land a job in international development in E. Africa (or any area)?

Craig: A few thoughts on this question. First the question on how to advance a or start a career in international development is not that much different from other sectors.

As with any sector one needs a combination of relevant skills, knowledge, hustle, connections, experience and of course some luck. There are certain things that are in one's control or area of influence and other things that aren't. Things one can influence is your skills (through formal and informal training), attitude (having the right combination of humility, curiosity and seeking to be a team member), connections (be an authentic networker, seeking to help not just give), and more. One cannot control the job market, the competition (there are often hundreds of people applying for the same position, etc. In terms of what you can control, one of the most essential things it getting relevant skills. This includes technical skills (a particular sector of development), program management & delivery, language skills, but also really important ones like raising and managing funds, communication (written, oral and social media), and more. These skills can be gained through academic training (please see our career series, particularly september where we focused on to grad or not to grad for tips on picking the right academic program https://pcdnetwork.org/careerseries/) through great training offered through institutions such as TechChange (note I am on the TC advisory board and they do advertise with PCDN sometimes) which I think offers some of the best courses in the world, United States Institute of Peace and their academy which has great offerings specific to the peacebuilding field, the Humanitarian Leadership Academy which has open source courses. Then there are also more intensive programs like The Amani Institute (also on their advisory board and sometimes they recruit via PCDN),and many, many others. Make sure to also look at fellowship programs such as Atlas Corps Rotary Peace Centers and many others that often can serve as a bridge and provide professional opportunities/fundings. Organizations like MovingWorlds (they do advertise on PCDN) also do provide great high quality vetted opportunities and also training opps.Apart from these look at open source #MOOC providers such as edX Coursera & edX Anothe valuable approach is join professional networks and attend events such as Alliance for Peacebuilding

Frank: If you can’t make the case why you are the right person to work on a particular problem or in a particular place, why should anyone else hire you? You have to make the case for yourself.


What does the gig economy mean for the future of social change careers? How can one survive and thrive in this changing environment?

Jonathan: It means shit. You can now for work for low wages 24 hours per day. Sometimes at a real job and sometimes driving people with real jobs.

Do what you have to do, but move towards one social sector job where you can commit your heart and soul, and show up at work rested and focused.

Craig: The gig economy is neither good or bad – The gig economy is emerging and coming whether we like it or not. The good news is that now each person can be a steward of their own economic future. The idea that everyone can be an entrepreneur, can keep developing skills and have a flexible approach to work is growing. The bad news is that this means (if not done right) that many people will not have.a secure future, that the whole idea of benefits and stability may change for many is disappearing.  Also to thrive in the gig economy often requires a certain level of digital skills or access and thus there is a risk of creating a small elite of successful gig economy workers, many who are surviving and many more who are excluded.

Frank: If you have the skills listed in the first question for this month, you can be useful anywhere. You have to be able to see how those skills apply, and you have to be aware of the changing environment. Learning and adapting are always required and always valuable.

How do you deal with the rejection factor in the job search?

Catalina: Did you get some feedback and lessons in the process? I mean, were you able to improve and refine your application materials as you went along? Were you ultimately hired or did you changed fields? I would say, after so many applications (which I am not even sure I could do) you must have some valuable lessons and I hope you were able to really get some sort of feedback as to why you were not getting hired. Not knowing where you are or your CV it could also be sky high unemployment rates, or other things outside of your control. But in this process, whatever aspects you can control (by that I mean, improve, change edit) would make a resume/CV fantastic.

Frank: Ask for and accept positive feedback. Rejection may not mean that you were bad, but that someone else was better, or you didn’t emphasize a critical skill. Learn. Don’t mourn.


“Social entrepreneurs grow thick skins, steel spines and bionic hearts. When your inner voices and insecurities are in an uproar, tell them to shut the fuck up.”(from my book The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur)

Keep in mind that there are a zillion reasons you might have been rejected that have nothing at all to do with you. Maybe the decision-maker heard his or her dog died, or is in a terrible relationship, or had a bad experience working with someone born in your hometown, or any other stupid factor outside your control. Life is random.


What are the key strategies for having a successful salary negotiation?

Craig: This is one of the topics that too many people often avoid in building careers of impact. For almost everyone I know in the social impact or social change sector, salary or money isn't the primary factor motivating their work or desire to be useful in the world. However, this doesn't mean one should avoid thinking about money. As at least in the current global economy it is important to sustain one's work, hopefully save for a rainy day and much more. For our Career series i did write a very long post on strategies (and lessons) for negotiating a salary and encourage others to read this at https://pcdnetwork.org/blogs/125824/ The short version if one doesn't at least think about money (how much do you need to live, to save, cover maybe put away for retirement, to cover student debt or start a family) then once you have a job offer it can be too late. Putting time into thinking about what you need, what is the market rate for your skills (obviously if there is more demand for your skills than there are people this is a positive thing but often the supply side is greater than the demand), who is hiring. In short do your homework on a regular basis as what you may need in your early 20s can differ from what you need in your 30s or 40s. It may also be possible that all you need is to have a stipend, housing and food money and health insurance. But it is important to be realistic. Obviously there are many things equally or more important than money such as creative impact, good work environment, benefits, vacation, professional training, etc. Also I've hired many people and I've seen people make mistakes in the hiring process (and I've made quite a few when I've been hired as well). This article from Fast Company also has some great suggestions, when you don't have a leverage point. A key point if you don't negotiation (but it isn't possible with all jobs) often you will get a lower salary which means over the course of your career this can lead a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars (this is particularly true for women, who unfortunately are still often paid less than men for the same job).

One of my failures (which I learned from thankfully). In one job interview process I went through three interviews. I had a salary range in my mind but didn't really prepare myself and think through thoroughly. Thus somehow in the final interview process out of my mouth came a lower salary level (I think I was nervous) and the organization offered me a very low salary level. I was able to negotiate them back up but not even to the lower end of the range I wanted (and thought needed to live in the DC Area). I did take the job as talking with mentors it was a position that would give me a lot of experience that I needed and was a good org. I did eventually get a raise (although even then was still below my initial range level) after about a year and then moved on a bit later to do other things. But I learned a lot about how one negotiates (or doesn't) and the need to think and prepare beforehand.

Frank: Be clear about why you are negotiating about salary (or anything else: job description, benefits, flexibility, supportive management, advancement opportunities). Are you unhappy with the current situation? Do you need some change to stay? Is this about prestige or status? Is this about productivity? Do you have a better offer elsewhere?

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