Finding work in Corporate Social Responsibility – my take

Every so often, a fresh graduate or student or friend or acquaintance will ask me for advice in finding work in CSR.  Below, I have put together what I have learned in my own journey in being a student, finding work in CSR, switching from one industry to another, working in various sustainability roles, and moving overseas to find work.

How did you become interested in CSR?

People often ask me how I came to work in the field.  It was something that I was interested in since I was in my undergraduate degree, but at the time it was either you work for a big corporation or barely squeak by at an NGO.   I went into an area I was interested in, marketing.   It wasn’t until several years later, when I was working closely with Walmart as a vendor, and they made a presentation on their new sustainability goals.  This  sent chills down my spine, that such a large company was looking to change the world.  I left my job a few months later to pursue a Masters degree, and after I graduated, got a job in sustainability consulting.

What skills do you need to work in CSR?

In no particular order, here are some key skills that I think you need to work in CSR.  

  • Curiosity/lover of learning – are you always keeping up to date on the newest global developments and trends?  This will help immensely!
  • Communication skills – can you write well and speak well?  Can you get your point across succinctly?   Do you embrace new forms of media?  Are you good at telling stories persuasively?
  • Interpersonal skills/empathy – do you have the ability to work with people in all sorts of backgrounds?  Do you listen well?  Working across stakeholder groups is important.
  • Selling/influencing skills – are you able to influence change?  Are you credible?
  • Analytical/research skills – can you analyze large reams of data and qualitative information and come up with clear, compelling conclusions?
  • Resourcefulness – are you able to get things done on a shoestring?  Are you able to orientate yourself easily in new situations?  Are you a master of Google?
  • Project management skills – can you make sure projects are delivered on time and on budget?  Do you know your Gantt charts from your critical paths?
  • Quick learner – can you get up to speed on disparate topics quickly?
  • An interest and knowledge of CSR topics – do you know the basics in CSR?

Many people will say that they are passionate about CSR or sustainability – but at the end of the day, passion will not get you the job.  How have you channelled your passion into practical experience?  It’s all about how you differentiate yourself from other people who are just as passionate.

I’ve just started looking for work in CSR.  Where do I even begin?

Because CSR is a less developed field than say, marketing or finance, turning up the hustle in your job hunt is vitally important.  In Canada, there are no specific headhunters/recruiters, although admittedly bmeaningful.com is pretty great!  In the UK, there are a few of them (i.e. Acre Resources, Wilbury Stratton) but mostly they will only contact you if they have something of relevance, which may not happen often particularly if you are new to the field.  As a result, you need to get out there and meet people.  Check with your own friends and former coworkers if they know anyone working in the field, and take the opportunity to pick their brain.  Most people will help you out if they can, but make sure you have something compelling to offer!  I also suggest joining mailing lists/following RSS feeds of different sustainability companies (most of them have a newsletter, by the way) and head out to their events.  Use social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn and write articles to build profile. Attend a Green Drinks in your part of the world to get started – typically if you can’t find prospective employers here (sometimes you can, but most of the time it is other students), you can definitely find some people here who can give you some good advice or at least a sympathetic ear.

I’m an undergraduate student looking for entry level roles in CSR.  Where could I get experience?

Again – there are no job fairs for CSR.  You need to talk to as many people as possible and narrow down your interests so that you can build a compelling offer.  Something else I have noticed is that many of my colleagues who work in sustainability, tend to have Masters degrees.  In some ways, this has become a pre-requisite.  However, that’s not to say that you can’t immediately get a job in sustainability – you may also try your hand at being an entrepreneur.  It’s happened before!

I’m working in ____ industry and I’m not confident that I could switch into CSR.  How did you switch careers from one industry to another?

For me, switching careers was a 2 year process and it’s not something that can be done overnight – it requires a constant process of identification of skill deficits, continuously improving, and chatting with people that you admire and seeing what they did to get where they did through a bit of backcasting.  I had always been interested in CSR since my undergraduate degree, and prodded companies that I worked with on their CSR, but hadn’t really considered it a possible career path until I began working with Wal-Mart as a vendor and realizing that they were really committed to the cause of sustainability.  This was back in 2006, and I began working in CSR in 2008.

I think the key is to look for adjacencies between jobs, particularly in skill sets that are widely transferable (such as the ones mentioned above in the “What skills do you need to work in CSR?” part of this post.

How did you make the best of your school experience to land a job in CSR?

Other than the obvious taking of courses that are relevant to the field, there are a number of other things that I highly recommend that you do.

  • Get to know the faculty and support staff. Very often, academics in the CSR field (and in general) have some good connections to industry, government, media, etc., and are often consulted upon to give their opinions.  They can be a very helpful resource to connecting you with the right people.  Similarly, any support staff, as tends to be the case in many cases, can be a useful conduit to getting some face time with the right people.  
  • Do an independent study. By far this was the most important part of my degree and where I learned the most.  If you pick a topic that is not just a vanity project and is something that is relevant to the industry of your choice, and you can also interview actual practitioners, this opens the door to a job.  And it’s also a great token to have with you when job hunting, and if you can publish your work, all the better.
  • If your career centre is good, make use of it.  The career centre during my Masters degree was PHENOMENAL in helping me redo my resume from a consumer packaged goods audience to a sustainability audience.  I immediately had more responses.  Better yet, if you can get someone from the field to give you some feedback, this may provide some more timely suggestions.
  • Join Net Impact. When you’re a student most try to scrimp and save every penny.  When it comes to memberships to organizations, you will have to look no further than Net Impact for CSR.  It is phenomenal in terms of resources, learning events and conferences.  Their annual conference is a fantastically organized event with lots of great people to meet and I cannot emphasize this enough! 
  • Attend conferences and other events. Usually schools will set up CSR conferences and guest speakers.  Go, and get to know the people attending, including the guest speakers.
  • Tap into alumni networks and mentorship programs. You’d be surprised to find out who went to your school, and how much this helps you find a job.

I don’t know how to speak to complete strangers for an informational interview.  What do you suggest I do?  Where do I get their contact information?

LinkedIn is a great tool for looking up people at different companies – and you can usually figure out their email address patterns, e.g. firstname.lastname@company.com, firstinitial.lastname@company.com, etc.  In your email, state who you are, why you are interested in speaking to that person (do your research in advance), and suggest that you take them out for coffee or lunch.  Be clear about the time you want from them too.  If possible, try to give that person a few weeks of leeway in your meeting time as it is often difficult to meet at the drop of a hat.  Thank them for their time and leave your contact details.  Also feel free to send them your CV as an attachment so they have some further context on who you are.  You can also try a phone call as well – but catching them by surprise may not be desirable.  As well – be careful not to be too aggressive, as that can lead to a complete non-response.  After two tries, move on!  There are certainly other folks out there that you can speak to.

I want to move to (insert city here) to find a job in sustainability.  What should I do?

I would strongly recommend saving up some money, and spending a bit of time in the city and meeting as many folks as you can during your reconnaissance trip. You might get lucky!  Move there afterwards, after sorting out visa issues (if applicable) and saving up a bit of a reserve fund.  Strong hubs for sustainability are usually the big cities, but in particular:

  • New York
  • Washington DC
  • San Francisco
  • Toronto
  • Vancouver (less so, these days…)
  • London
  • Amsterdam
  • Berlin
  • Copenhagen
  • Paris
  • Sao Paulo
  • Nairobi
  • Mumbai
  • Kuala Lumpur
  • Beijing
  • Shanghai
  • Hong Kong
  • Guangzhou

Finally, in terms of other helpful links in finding jobs in sustainability, check out:

  • Net Impact has excellent resources for students.
  • Toby Webb’s Smarter Business Blog – his post from May 2014, is very helpful, and generally the rest of his posts are pretty interesting too.
  • BSR has some job postings at their website, as does CBSR.
  • Acre often has compelling job postings for UK/Europe.

 

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