Career advice for a young professional in the social sector

By Marcus Coetzee, 15 May 2018.

I recently received a thought-provoking email from a young graduate who had some work experience with a non-profit organization.

Because her message was so sincere and endearing, I decided to provide a proper reply.

I also asked some younger colleagues what they thought of her message. Surprisingly, they said that they felt the same way, and would welcome the same advice. Therefore, I decided to write a public response to her question.

Here are three paragraphs from her email:

“I have spent the last two years working for a reputable NGO. I have learnt a great deal about myself and what I value (social justice & the environment).

As I try to create a 5-10 year career “plan”, I am asking myself what I should be doing to grow, as well as, add value to my current knowledge and experience. In a perfect world, I would like to be a leader in a reputable NGO. I am also open to going down the CSI/CSR path. This, however, is challenging as there is clearly no defined career trajectory – companies seem to have varied methods and people managing their CSI portfolios.

Would you be able to give me advice on what steps I should be taking to ensure that I build a career that will lead me to the above mentioned? Is there a particular skill set that I should also be looking to develop? Types of organizations I should be considering working for that will add value?”

This article contains my career advice for her and other young professionals in a similar position. I will share my career philosophy, insights from my own career, and some collective advice from other consultants I work with.

We cannot predict the future

The future is too unpredictable to plot a clear path. A “clear career trajectory” no longer exists as it did for our parents. We can’t predict the way the social sector will move, or how social and technological innovations may change everything.

For example, when I started talking about business thinking in the non-profit sector in 1996, I felt like a lone voice and attracted lots of criticism. I felt like a heretic, but because of my business training and stubbornness, I persisted with what felt right to me. I could never have foreseen the level of convergence between the private and non-profit sectors, where social innovation and entrepreneurship are nowadays taught at business schools.

The same applied to my brand positioning in terms of social enterprise in 2006. I had hoped, but could not have anticipated, how the social enterprise movement has taken off in South Africa.

Neither could I have predicted the impact that Facebook and Twitter would have on public awareness of social issues, or how technology would change the way that non-profit organizations and social enterprises work.

In other words, we cannot predict the future or plot clear paths. The future does not work that way anymore. It is too unstable and sensitive to unforeseen events. Because of this we need to replace specific career goals with a reliable compass for navigating our careers.

Aim to live a meaningful life

We all desire to live a meaningful life. I believe that a meaningful life is a life lived in accordance with our values. The same applies to our career: a meaningful career is a career that we build around our work values. Our values serve as a compass or guidebook which enables us to make better choices about work opportunities and how we want to work.

You might be wondering, “but how do I find out what my work values are?”

I have found that our values are discovered through an iterative process of doing work and trying out new things, and then taking time to reflect on these experiences. You will have moments when you feel that you’re on track, engaged and doing what you “were designed to do”. Write these down and refine the list as you go on. These moments offer glimpses into your values.

The converse is also true. When moments cause you great distress or don’t feel right, reflect on which of your values are being undermined.

Your work will become more fulfilling and meaningful as you learn to live your values each day.

The next right step

Despite having my values as my compass, there have been many stages in my career, where I’ve felt like I’m rowing a leaky boat through a storm or hiking up a slippery mountain in the mist. It turns out that this is a very normal experience that all successful people have experienced.

The secret is to simply do the next right thing and take the next step in front of you. Eventually the mist will clear, and the storm will settle, as you come out on the other side.

The best next step is that which will allow you to move forward while staying true to your values.

The door you want does not always open

At many points in my career I tried to open doors that seemed logical for me. These included becoming a social worker, working as a paramedic and as a therapist, joining a big consulting company, and embarking on a corporate career in corporate social responsibility. But despite my concerted efforts, none of these doors opened for me, as they appeared to open so easily for others.

But when I took a break from my despair, I noticed that other doors were open alongside me. When I moved through these doorways, my career seemed to move forward rapidly in unexpected ways. I found clients that were extremely appreciative of work that seemed so easy for me – work that aligned with my talents and values.

Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists best expressed my sentiment when he said: “lower your expectations but increase your standards”. In other words, do your best work but don’t get fixated on a certain outcome.

Unforeseen events can provide the best opportunities

Many of my career breakthroughs have been totally unexpected.

For example, an illicit swim in a dam on the slopes of Table Mountain one hot afternoon, set off a chain of events that resulted in one of my biggest and longest contracts (12 years so far). I can think of many more examples: a late-night phone call that resulted in me chairing a conference the next day; an informal chat that resulted in an overseas trip; an overheard conversation at a coffee shop which resulted in a business alliance, and so on.

If you look back at your career so far, you may notice how synchronicity and the unexpected has already played a large hand in your current path.

An attitude of openness is essential

I’ve always strived to operate with an attitude of openness, where I accept the positive intentions behind people’s behaviour and give them the benefit of the doubt.

This is not a new habit that I invented. I recently listened to a history podcast where I discovered that the Jesuits (a movement within the Catholic Church) had adopted this principle as one of their tenets in the 16th century already, and this was one of the reasons for their successes.

This simple habit has enabled me to empathise and appreciate people around me. I genuinely like almost everyone I have a decent conversation with, and I have many of these each day. This attitude has made it easier for people I encounter to respond positively to me. (However, nowadays I do need to set strict boundaries of my time and level of accessibility.)

Related to openness is a spirit of generosity, which I’ve also been working hard to cultivate within myself. Michael Hyatt always says, “there is more where that came from”. This belief enables me to share information openly. I’ve even helped my “competitors”, some of whom later ended up partnering with me on contracts.

This attitude has helped me create content (e.g. articles, presentations, tools) which I’ve always freely shared, although some people have advised me to charge for access.

Cultivating an attitude of openness and generosity, and learning how to see the positive intention in others, will greatly assist your career.

Doing your job is the minimal requirement

My mentors taught me early on in my career to treat any company I work for as if it were my own. In 99% of the cases, this policy has significantly advanced my career. There have been occasional backfires, but these were organizations that weren’t right for me.

I now feel that doing only your job is a form of protest action, akin to what is called “work to rule”. This is the minimal job requirement that won’t help you to succeed. I get very frustrated when I see people only doing their job or giving up when they feel that their initiative was blocked.

Yes, admittedly this approach does involve some risk. It can threaten some managers and colleagues, but then are these the people and organizations that you want to work for? Rather choose organizations where your initiative is valued and learn how to implement your ideas in way that allows everyone to embrace them.

Some specific skills to develop

Let’s move on from discussing my philosophy of career progress to some specific skills that will help you to succeed. I asked several colleagues what skills would most enable a young person to thrive in our field. The answers were quite surprising as they were more soft-skills than hard-skills. Eight key themes that emerged from these conversations:

  1. Get practical experience in your field of expertise. Get your “hands dirty” doing the difficult stuff. Find mentors wherever possible. Read and learn everything there is about your technical skill-set. Become the person your colleagues will approach for assistance.
  2. Learn how to see the big picture and identify all the parts and how they work together. This method of systems analysis can be applied at an industry, organizational, project or community level. Only then will you have the insights needed to diagnose what is going wrong and how to fix it.
  3. Master the methodology of project management as per international standards. This involves learning the methodological tools (e.g. project scoping, work breakdown structure, resource allocation) and the technology tools. It is worthwhile doing some formal project management courses and possibly seeking an accreditation. Everything nowadays gets done via projects.
  4. Learn how to empathise with people around you – colleagues, beneficiaries, people from all classes and cultures. Cultivate a genuine fondness for people. I promise that this will help you in so many ways.
  5. Develop your facilitation and conflict resolution skills. As you progress in your career, you’ll be called upon to chair meetings, facilitate workshops, and resolve conflicts in your projects or team.
  6. Learn how to critically evaluate whether a project or business idea is likely to work. You’ll need an understanding of cost-benefit analysis, financial and business models. There will be occasions when you have less than 10 minutes to reach a conclusion – enough time to make some assumptions and do some quick calculations.
  7. Learn how to communicate well through writing and presenting. This requires ongoing deliberate practice and feedback from people that are more skilled than you. (I’ve have had several writing coaches and write for one hour each day. I also have designers that review every presentation I develop.)
  8. Be willing to take calculated risks to advance your career and improve your social impact. Learn how to tolerate a level of adversity. You can’t accelerate your career by playing it safe.


There is no longer a clear path into the future. There are simply too many unknowns to plot a straight 5-10 year timeline or set specific goals. The same wisdom applies to organizations that are busy designing their strategies.

Rather cultivate a good attitude and toolkit of skills. These will enable you to thrive no matter what the future throws at you. Foremost among these are an awareness of your work values, and your ability to nurture a healthy working environment that serves you and enables you to thrive.

Your values will be your compass, and your attitude and skills are your travelling companions. You will need to cultivate faith that the future will turn out ok for you.

May fortune bless your journey.


Here are two books worth reading on the subject we’ve discussed:

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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