The UK Guide to Graduate Careers with Social Impact

We've outlined some key paths available to graduates looking to have a career with impact in the UK.

von Olwen Smith, January 9, 2018
UK Graduate Impact Routes

The perception that working in social impact simply means working for charities or development organisations (often at the expense of more rigorous learning and higher earning opportunities in the private sector) is now thoroughly outdated. Yes, the problem remains that many impact paths are under-funded, but this isn’t the whole picture. As graduates’ desire to effect positive change has dissipated through the labour market, the UK’s social-impact ecosystem has grown, and impact career paths have expanded considerably. Prestigious, challenging, creative and impactful new pathways have emerged. Below we’ve outlined some pathways available to graduates looking to have a career with impact.

  1. Charities and NGOs
  2. Social Entrepreneurship (or ‘Intrapreneurship’)
  3. Graduate Schemes
  4. Further Education
  5. Research
  6. Earning to give
  7. Side projects

Charities and NGOs

One of the more traditional career paths for mission-driven grads, but the most difficult to summarise, given the bewildering array of charities and non-profit organisations in the UK.

Faced with this array, a sensible starting point is to look at the social issue being tackled. Is there an issue you are particularly committed to? After this, size is arguably the most useful metric when deciding upon an organisation. Working in a small charity will likely bring fantastic opportunities to shape that organisation’s work and take on a multi-faceted role. However, it may also limit advancement and training opportunities. Working for a larger charity, on the other hand, will likely invert this equation.

Social Entrepreneurship (or ‘Intrapreneurship’)

We see social entrepreneurs as anybody who takes it upon themselves to design solutions to social problems. This solution might take the form of a commercial business that employs profit in pursuit of a social mission. Equally, though, it might be a non-profit, grant-funded organisation, or even a relatively minor innovation that doesn’t require its own organisation (perhaps a form of intrapreneurship - see below!). The common factor here is the capacity to identify and build solutions to help tackle social issues. And there is a growing range of organisations and pathways offering support to graduates who want to build this capacity.

University offers a great place to start growing your social entrepreneurial spirit. Student Hubs, for instance, do lots of excellent work in supporting students to launch projects and connecting them with the wider social-entrepreneurship ecosystem. More broadly, all universities have a range of societies and students working on innovative projects. Even if you’ve already left university, or are about to leave, it isn’t too late to get in touch with such people and organisations to ask questions, build contacts and develop ideas.

Beyond university, training in social entrepreneurship comes in many forms. Universities and innovative grad schemes are increasingly offering training programmes (you’ll find some listed below). School for Social Entrepreneurs offers a nationwide range of training programmes. MOOCs like Y Combinator’s Startup School represent the growing online education space. Moreover, in cities all over the UK there are lots of local and online meet-ups, courses and communities to join to learn the principles of social entrepreneurship. But don’t forget: the best way to learn is often to do.

If you have an idea but need extra support to make it a reality, there are a growing number of UK accelerator programmes and funders. Nesta has published a useful UK accelerator and incubator directory, most of which come with funding and/or investment opportunities. And organisations like UnLtd, Comic Relief, and Big Lottery Fund are some of the biggest, nationwide players of the growing social-investment ecosystem, offering both financial and non-financial support to social entrepreneurs.

The practice of entrepreneurial behaviour from within an organisation. Particularly, but not only, when working in small startups, there will almost certainly be the opportunity to instigate projects and solutions of your own. If it helps your organisation, your colleagues will most likely be very happy for you to proceed, so keep a critical eye out!

Student Hubs offer support to students around the country enabling them to tackle social challenges, learn about issues and connect with each other.

Graduate Schemes

One of the most exciting recent innovations in the UK’s social-impact landscape has been the rise of new graduate schemes, designed to compete with more traditional, corporate schemes and equip graduates to tackle social problems. We can roughly group these into three clusters.

The first are public-service graduate schemes. The most famous is probably Teach First, which has fast-tracked over 5,000 graduates to work as teachers in some of the UK’s most deprived schools since 2002. However, organisations have since applied similar models to mental health (Think Ahead), rehabilitation (Unlocked Grads) and children’s services (Frontline). Moreover, the government runs its own prestigious graduate scheme, the Civil Service Fast Stream, offering to fast-track graduates’ leadership capacity within the civil service and beyond.

A second type of programme are those designed to help graduates maximise their effectiveness working in the charity, NGO and social enterprise sectors. Charity Works, On Purpose, and Worthwhile all offer some combination of work placements, training and mentorship as a means of accelerating graduates’ leadership capacities in the sector.

Finally, some graduate programmes offer the chance for graduates to launch their own social enterprises. Year Here, for example, is a year-long programme for graduates and young professionals which, after almost a year of placements, projects and training, culminates in an incubator whereby participants seek to launch their own companies. Graduates of the Year Here incubator include Cracked It, The Hard Yard, Chatterbox, Birdsong and Settle.

These graduate schemes offer prestigious and rigorous routes into the social-impact world. What’s more, they almost all place participants in a cohort of peers, massively boosting their social and educational value. We urge all graduates interested in social impact to check them out.

Graduate Schemes like 'Unlocked' can equip you with the skills necessary to tackle some of the toughest social problems

Further Education

Master’s degrees of many descriptions can provide critical thinking and research skills (see below) as a basis for impact-oriented careers. However, universities are increasingly offering programmes specifically designed as routes into the social-impact world. LSE, Northampton University, Goldsmiths and Hull University, for instance, all run master’s programmes in social innovation and/or social entrepreneurship. These typically feature a combination of theory work and practical connections to social organisations. Especially given £10,000 master’s loans are now available through Student Finance, it’s worth looking around.


Research is an essential dimension of all social-impact efforts, underpinning and guiding the work of impact organisations around the world. Research comes in many forms. Think-tanks like Nesta and Demos use research as a basis for advocacy, policy recommendations and innovation testing. Academics across the disciplinary spectrum build the foundation of knowledge upon which innovations and solutions are effectively built. Journalists research to inform and expose. Design agencies research to ensure products and services are optimally suited to users. If you are good at finding and synthesising information, think about the contexts in which your skills might be applied to social issues.

Research plays an extremely important role in guiding the work of many impact organisations.

Earning to Give

Entering a highly paid career path to then donate a percentage of your salary to charity might undermine of what many of us typically perceive as social-impact work. However, it may in fact be the most effective way you can help the most people. This is one of the arguments made by 80,000 Hours, an Oxford-based organisation researching how graduates can have the greatest impact, and deserves serious consideration by those with high earning potential.

Side Projects

Finally, striving for social impact doesn’t have to be a full-time job. Whatever career path you decide to take, it will (hopefully) leave room for all manner of side projects. Perhaps you could spend one evening a week volunteering? Maybe you could help crowdsource valuable information whilst in your time off? Could you help a friend chat through a difficult situation? No matter how small, we should never close our eyes to opportunities to make a positive difference.


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Originally published September 27, 2017