Connect, Listen, Reframe, Engage: How to Build Your Career in the Impact Sector

Have you ever asked yourself “What is needed to build a career that does more than providing status and income?” or “What is the biggest impact I can make?”

by Abby Ter Haar, December 11, 2019
Jerry White (centre), Nobel Peace Prize Co-Recipient, with Jon O' Sullivan (right) and another Amani Institute's Fellow in Nairobi, 2015.


Header: Jerry White (centre), Nobel Peace Prize Co-Recipient, with Jon O' Sullivan (right) and another Amani Institute's Fellow in Nairobi, 2015.

Around the world, so many of us strive to create positive change, but don’t know where to start. Still, this is a rapidly growing sector, filled with opportunities ranging from impact investing to grassroots movements to social entrepreneurship, from traditional non-governmental organizations, to corporate social responsibility and the public sector. But what are the skills needed to enter and build a career in this field?

We recently asked these questions to 4 global professionals who are successfully working in social impact, during a webinar. Here their most important takeaways.

Your network is your most important capital

Let’s start with the obvious: networks are important when you want to build any kind of career. But how do you meaningfully engage with people in this field? Jon O’Sullivan from Ottawa, Canada, was exploring where he fits into the social impact sector when he joined Amani Institute’s Social Innovation Management Program in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2015. Now, serving as the Director of Business Development at Agrotech Food Security, he believes that the most important ability is to network authentically, for which you need “soft skills”. Empathy, of course, to be a good listener, and a lot of discipline to follow up.

Jon is still strongly relying on the network he created through the program in order to continue growing professionally and personally. “Your network is your capital: just last week, I spent three hours going over my business plan with Jerry White, a Nobel Peace Prize Co-Recipient who taught us about strategy during the Social Innovation Management Program. He helped me hone in on the skills I needed and agreed to introduce me to key players in my field” says Jon, highlighting how important it is not to only have access to potential mentors, but learn how to build a meaningful relationship with them.


Interpersonal skills and collaboration are key to creating social impact

Irene Wu, another Amani Institute Fellow from Beijing, China who studied in Bengaluru, India added: “The world today is changing so quickly. It’s key to be adaptable and have a willingness to try new things. It’s no longer enough to just show up as a professional with technical expertise, you have to focus on your interpersonal skills. It was super helpful for me to learn about myself, and why I am doing this work, during the Social Innovation Management Program”.

She emphasizes that one of the most important aspects of social innovation is getting everyone to work together instead of working in silos. As an Amani Fellow, Irene had the opportunity to be placed in apprenticeship at Ashoka India, and landed a managerial role at Ashoka in Washington, DC, USA, where she now works on a pioneering project helping corporate organizations and nonprofits work together for collective impact.

Reframing is a powerful tool for social change

Sharing learnings across boundaries is key in the context of social innovation. Perhaps, one of the most important added values of training outside your own region, or out of your comfort zone, is how much you can bring back to your own contexts afterwards.

After spending a substantial amount of time living and working in Kenya as African Operation Director at CARE for Aids, Ryan Arnold felt the need to return to his roots in order to create change within the U.S. Through Amani Institute’s Social Innovation Framework, he learned the importance of reframing, or looking at the same problem with new lens, in order to understand the issue better.

As an Economic Development Specialist, he is now able to offer new perspectives on community development and to consider his own position as a white male when co-creating solutions with diverse people. In addition to reframing as a key innovation skill, Ryan mentioned two other important skills to work in the impact sector: “the willingness to put in hard work and resilience, coupled with self-care.”

Listen before trying to incorporate new ideas

Change can be slow and often frustrating. Communities, institutions and even small organizations are often resisting much needed changes, even if the outcomes promise to benefit them directly. So what if you learn how to find better solutions but nobody has time for that?

Nolonda Jones had six years of experience working in charter schools as an educator. However, she wanted to combine her education experience with art in order to help people who face barriers to entry to the traditional job market. Now working in Houston, Texas, USA as a Program Manager with CCSC, she works as a direct service provider to people in a crisis state and is able to see her impact daily.

As an Amani Fellow in Nairobi, she worked in art education and credits this experience with helping her shift her career. “I’ve realized the importance of finding the balance of being a good listener and having a learner’s mindset in order to understand why organizations do certain things in a certain way, and how innovation can be incorporated.” It is invaluable to have a community of peers willing to give you candid feedback and help you see your blind spots - next to your strengths.

So, how can you build these skills and the network?

We believe that the world urgently needs more professionals who can connect the dots beyond geographical boundaries and traditional sectors. You can do it becoming part of a community of people passionate - as you are - about social change, from all over the world and with a very diverse professional background, while spending 4 months in a hub of social innovation, learning from global master practitioners and immediately applying on the job what you learn.

This is what provided 490 Fellows from 63 countries the skills and the network to create social impact. Like Anjali Das, who believes “The philosophy of learning by doing at Amani Institute is perhaps one of the best ways to help professionals apply concepts to real life”. Or like Debora Souza who - immediately after finishing the program in Brazil - was able to join and win Map the System, a global competition launched by the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, in Oxford, UK.

If you want to join them, you can apply by January 6th , 2020 to the Post-Graduate Certificate in Social Innovation Management: a blended 6-month program with 4-month immersion in São Paulo (Brazil), Bengaluru (India) or Nairobi (Kenya). Join 490 Fellows from 63 countries who have already taken their career to the next level. Learn more here: