Why the social sector is an exciting space to build your life and career


The social sector holds exciting, promising opportunities that even a corporate job cannot afford - dealing with and tackling complex issues, travel across the country and the world and pay packages that are not shabby either.

One of the most joyous parts of my current role at the Indian School of Development Management (ISDM) is the opportunity to interact with and learn from bright, smart, confident, strong-willed young individuals – college-going students, fellows from different fellowships, young professionals working in different sectors, etc. Interesting conversations around what they want from their lives and careers typically end up with the following frequently quoted responses – I want to add value to people’s lives, I want to do something innovative, something complex, I want to be known as someone who is known as an expert in their field, I want variety, I want to travel, I want to live a comfortable life, etc. Very rarely do people say that I really want to be a banker or a coder or a marketer. This excites me no end as each of these desires or aspirations can be more than fulfilled through careers in the social development sector. Yes, this sector offers exciting careers and not just volunteering.

Let’s look at careers in the social sector from the lens of complexity, variety and financial well-being:

Complexity, adding value to people’s lives, innovation, variety – what kind of work does the social sector really do?

While the social sector has changed dramatically in multiple ways over the last 7-8 years, there is still very little external understanding or acknowledgement of this change. A majority of people still associate social sector work with a really limited set of activities like blood donation camps, feeding the underserved, raising scholarships, donating clothes, etc. (All of which are still great things to do) The breadth and depth of work done in the sector is quite mind-boggling, some of which is illustrated below:

  1. Strengthening government infrastructure on areas like education, health, essential service (Aadhaar, pensions, scholarships, subsidies, etc.): e.g. initiatives related to improving access to and quality of education -- only 48 percent of Class V students can read Class II text, improving basic health indicators -- almost half of women in India suffer from anaemia, we are 114/132 countries on stunting, and our infant mortality rate is 32 per 1,000 births (global average is 12 per 1,000 births).
  2. Human Rights: Work against child labour - there are 33 million child labourers between the ages of five and 18 years in India as per Census 2011 data, and 10.13 million between the ages of five and 14 years), child & women trafficking and sexual abuse – from actually saving children, women to conducting campaigns for societal awareness and sensitisation to focusing on juvenile justice, to influencing and guiding policy formulations.
  3. Social change: Changing societal beliefs on issues like patriarchy, honour killing, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution (two to 10 million commercial sex workers, one million underage), LGBTQ rights, and domestic abuse.
  4. Economic security: Skilling the youth thereby improving employability, building entrepreneurship abilities, developing farm and non-farm based livelihood options to increase income and reduce risks related to the volatility of income, and ensure access to affordable financing options. About 22 percent of India lives below the poverty line (extreme poverty), and we are 103/119 countries on the Global Hunger Index, having about a third of malnourished children in the world.
  5. Environment: Issues like deforestation, climate change, ozone depletion, soil conservation, waste management, and green sources of energy. The Earth Overshoot Day has moved from November 3 in 1980 to September 23 in 2000 to August 1 in 2018. It marks the date when we (all of humanity) have used more from nature than our planet can renew in the entire year.

The overall nature of work in all these areas range from research to influencing policy, to increase awareness and sensitivity through behaviour change campaigns, to on-ground implementation of change projects, building organisations and partnerships for sustainable, scalable change. There is no other sector (corporate or otherwise) that can offer this range and complexity of work with the additional opportunity to help improve the lives of the underserved in society.

Expertise, variety, need for travel - nature of roles in the sector, kind of organisations

Depending on one’s knowledge, skillset, expertise, and aspiration one can find a niche for oneself today in this sector in terms of both the nature of work one wants to do and the kind of organisation one wants to do it in. Roles can range from research and knowledge generation, on-ground social work (e.g. understanding local issues, evolving community based and community-driven solutions and implementing at a local level), policy formulation, implementation and evaluation, to development management and leadership (e.g. strategy and planning, data-based decision making, collaborations and partnerships, government advocacy, communications and engagement, managing M&E, programme operations and management).

Organisations differ based on geographic focus (local, national, international), strategic orientation (implementation, funders, funding conduits, support - social sector consulting, investment banking, research etc.), view of profit (for-profit social enterprises, not-for-profit social enterprises, trusts, Section 8 companies, and societies).

From a travel perspective, work in this sector gives you the opportunity to see the country like you have never done before, travelling to pristine, untouched parts where you would normally not go while also giving you the option of international travel depending on where you work. The nature of work and the kind of role one can do would differ across these kinds of organisations along with the quantum of compensation one can expect.

Financial comfort – pay levels

While the stereotypical view of a social sector professional limits itself to one who gets paid really poorly and literally has to ‘sacrifice’ his life by working in this space, (“You are working for a noble cause, why do you want to be paid? Why should you be paid?”) has thankfully changed significantly. While if luxury is what you are primarily looking for (and that’s fine a well!) then this may not be the sector for you, but the sector no longer requires you to ‘sacrifice’ your life. It now pays enough and more to lead highly meaningful, financially sustainable lives.

As per Mettl’s Salary and Employment Report (2018), an average engineering graduate earns Rs 4.7 lakh per annum (with mechanical and civil earning much less compared to computer science and electronics) which is not very different from what we would expect a fresh graduate from a good college preparing students to work in the social development sector. The average fresher salary would range from Rs 2.5 lakh to 6 lakh with students from the better colleges falling on the higher end of this spectrum.

Salaries for average architects, lawyers (barring those from top schools), accountants would probably not be very different and could even be lower than this. A fresher from the Post Graduate Program in Development Leadership at ISDM last year got a salary in the range of Rs 4 lakh to 6 lakh per annum depending on role and organisation. The average salary across all students was in the range of Rs 7 lakh per annum with the maximum ranging around Rs 12 lakh to 13 lakh per annum.

Career choices should be looked at from multiple lenses - satisfaction, impact, complexity, variety, and travel, along with money (financial stability and comfort). It is this composite index that will help define enriching, satisfying careers for people, lives where you can look back with pride at the choices you have made, the difference you have created and the legacy you have left. Uni-dimensional, society-driven choices based on the narrow idea of financial success have a high chance of leaving you lost, hollow and with a sense of inadequacy and dissatisfaction. Choose wisely.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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