Zeitgeist: Tips for Generation Z-ers who hear the call of the Social Impact Sector

Mar 26, 2018 · 6 min read

Generation Z, your time is now. You’re growing up, old enough to start working and contemplating what sort of career you’d like to have.

This article was written by featured writer Amber Smith.

Iregularly have conversations with young professionals hoping to gain insights into how to break into the world of social impact, whether that takes the form of starting a nonprofit, working for a nonprofit, or understanding how social enterprise works.

These conversations are often a highlight of my day. I love seeing the energy folks hope to bring to tackle local and global issues. I remember being in their shoes like it was yesterday, and how critical it was to have people I could talk to for advice about my ambitions, hopes, and dreams.

That said, the world is surely a different place than when I got started a little over a decade ago. Media has even kicked off a slew of articles examining differences between my generation and the one that comes next (hi Generation Z). It feels like it wasn’t that long ago that my generation was the shiny new thing people were scrutinizing and picking on.

Thanks for making me feel old, media.

Anyway, while 9/11 marked my generation’s coming of age, Generation Z has always lived in a world where terrorism and war were a threat. This generation is growing up in the aftermath of economic struggle, and will reportedly opt to live more frugally and privately.

What I think this means is that while Generation Z may be more cautious than mine was, they will also have the fire, because adversity and the resulting need to fight for what’s right is all they’ve known.

So, Generation Z: Want to break into the change-the-world scene? Here are my tips to get started:

It’s okay to take the time to do this. It took me awhile to clearly recognize what motivates me beyond what I already knew (that I wanted to make a difference). Even among social change careerists, there are different work styles. I discovered I like to manage myself and be creative, but I also enjoy opportunities to collaborate and brainstorm with others. Other characteristics of mine manifested in my own career path down the road. There’s nothing wrong with trying jobs and taking on projects or volunteer activities across a broad spectrum to see what fits.

This is highly relevant to those within organizations (“begin with the end in mind”) but I think it’s also important to consider this on a personal level. I recently challenged a friend who is pondering his career destiny. I said, “Rather than think about the job you want, why don’t you consider what your mission in life could be?” Identifying your life mission can be done by reflecting on what makes you feel something strongly. I discovered I really enjoy empowering others to improve themselves and the community, and showing them tools to do this. This translated into my current work of ‘activating’ people to volunteer for causes they are passionate about. Once you identify your life’s mission, figuring out what job will help you achieve it is just a step away.

Brave those intimidating networking events. Try to schedule meetings with people you admire, just to learn about them and what they do. And connect the dots — when you meet someone new, reflect on the question: How might we help each other achieve our mutual goals? This is a big piece of advice I give any younger person hoping to make it in the world of nonprofits, social enterprise, or other social change careers, and when done well it can make or break a dream. Think about it: The first step to mobilizing folks to fall in love with your cause is to show them, as up-close-and-personally as you can, who you are and your passion for that cause. It’s hard to do that if you’re not out there meeting people.

Read, read, read. Learn about any issue that even remotely interests you. Then, listen to your heart. Which one makes you the most angry, intrigued, excited? Take notes and keep your thoughts organized, in true nerd fashion. Rank issues you’ve learned about in terms of which ones make you feel the most strongly, in addition to which ones you feel you could use your unique skills to tackle.

The nature of the world is such that many good ideas have probably already been thought of at some point in history. This used to feel sad to me, as it seemed to imply there was nothing new to discover. But what I’ve come to believe is that we can use the good ideas already in existence as platforms that help us tweak, evolve, and test variations until we come up with an improvement on those ideas. And isn’t that at the heart of invention anyway? I’ve frequently encountered college students with ideas (some really great ones) for new nonprofits, new social change initiatives, etc. What I always tell them is to study their landscape to see who else is doing work in the areas they care about before launching their own thing. That way, they’ll go into their venture aware of any competition and obstacles that result, and most importantly, informed enough to innovate in the ways that will count — for themselves, and for the world.

Everyone’s trajectory is different. It will take some folks a decade to hit their stride before they really start seeing results; others, just a few. Success in making an impact is a combination of skill, drive, and a little luck, but mostly patience and persistence. One thing’s for sure: Social change doesn’t happen overnight. This is one piece of advice I wish I’d gotten earlier on. Year after year, I clenched a frustrated fist to the sky, asking, “Why isn’t the world changed yet?!” But think about it: In the Social Impact Sector, we’re trying to end homelessness and poverty around the world, make education more equitable, and cure diseases. None of these things are easy or simple. They are hard nuts to crack because there are large, complex systems at play. They are like a five mile tall ball of knotted up yarn. It’s going to take time (and a lot of help) to unravel them. So, don’t give up if you don’t see results right away. See the path ahead, and know you’ll make strides.

We live in an amazingly diverse and complex world where you can integrate ways to make the world better in most anything you do — from buying shoes, enjoying cheese or ice cream, or signing up for a freelance gig, to working in the nonprofit sector. There isn’t one sole path to make a difference. You can do so through business or social enterprise, nonprofits, or even making loads of money and becoming a rockstar philanthropist. Different change-making methods are needed for different problems, and it’s going to take all methods working together to create massive change. Do your homework, keep an open mind, and explore the path that fits your passion best.

Thanks for reading! How did this help?

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Nonprofits are badass, and so are the people working at them. We're gathering stories covering real and authentic perspectives in the nonprofit sector. Join the revolution at Wethos.co