A Year as a Social Impact Professional: Testing the Impact Waters with the On Purpose Associate Programme

What is it really like to transition into a social impact career? We caught up with an Associate with the On Purpose Associate Programme and their placement host to get their honest perspectives at the halfway point of the programme.

by Olwen Smith, October 3, 2018
onpurpose UK


The On Purpose Associate Programme provides the perfect launch-pad for a purpose-driven career. A one year leadership programme, it combines paid work with professional and personal development, and offers the opportunity to become part of an inspiring network of like-minded people.

Graeme English joined the programme for the April 2018 cohort and spent his first 6 month placement working at the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE), a organisation that supports people using entrepreneurial approaches to tackle complex social problems. Alastair Wilson is the Chief Executive of the SSE, partner organisation of On Purpose and placement host with the April 2018 cohort of the Associate Programme. Ali has been Graeme’s line manager for the duration of his placement. We caught up with Graeme and Ali to hear about their experiences of the Programme. 

Graeme, you’re half way through the On Purpose Associate Programme and have been working with the SSE as your first placement for the past 6 months. Can you tell us what you did before starting the Associate Programme and what motivated you to join On Purpose?

Graeme: Before On Purpose I worked as an industrial designer, creating a variety of products from eye testing technology and x-ray machinery to equipment for deep-sea submarines. I studied Mechanical Engineering at Loughborough University and then, because I’ve always had an interest in sustainability and development work, I studied for an MSc in Engineering for International Development at UCL. As well as working in engineering companies I’ve spent time working on projects in India and the Philippines and in 2017 had a research paper published based on field work with Oxfam and Habitat for Humanity, focusing on disaster preparedness for infrastructure in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

I applied for the On Purpose Associate Programme because I’m excited about the potential of social enterprise, and am keen to better understand how innovations in the sector are developed and scaled to tackle social and environmental problems in the world. The Associate Programme is giving me a chance to see what is happening in purpose-driven organisations, meet inspiring people and, importantly, see how I might fit in to this sector. It’s a unique chance to get an insider’s view of how these purpose-led organisations work at a strategic level, while getting equipped with plenty of training.

Ali, you’re one of On Purpose’s partner organisations and have been working with Graeme from the April 2018 cohort for the last six months. Why did you decide to become an Associate Programme placement host?

SSE: On Purpose has a great reputation for bringing talent into the social and impact sector. Who doesn’t want to work with super-smart, strategic people who can hit the ground running? And let’s face it, you bring on-board brilliant brains for a snip. And that’s important, because it’s a two-way learning process.

You gain a fresh pair of eyes on your important projects, and an amazing mind who can push your strategic objectives to the next level. It’s also really rewarding to support someone to understand how impactful, inclusive and fun our sector can be. Sure, the social enterprise sector still has a lot to figure out, but it’s so exciting to be part of a movement that’s changing our economy and society, and I love welcoming people into the fold! Also, our Head of Communications, Sophie, is an On Purpose Fellow, and was flying the flag for Associates!

What do you expect from the Associates who join your team?

SSE: Like everyone who works at SSE, I hope they feel they can bring their full selves to work and feel welcome. I want anyone who works here to feel that they have a voice, that they can make their ideas a reality, and that they have licence to make great things happen.

Graeme’s placement deliverable was to help us accelerate the development of Match Trading grants - created by SSE to incentivise social organisations to increase their income from trading. And he has done a fantastic job!

What were the main tasks that Graeme has been responsible for while working with SSE? Are the responsibilities tailored specifically for each Associate?

SEE: Graeme’s placement has had two focuses: firstly, to support the adoption of Match Trading grants across the social sector, by exploring business development opportunities, informing strategic direction and project-managing the execution of this strategy.

Secondly, to manage and progress a project looking at new business models and revenue streams at SSE, involving lots of internal stakeholder management and research.

Both of these pieces of work have been largely self-led, with Graeme taking direction at the beginning of the placement and then determining a workplan and delivering this over the course of his six months with us.

Graeme, how would you describe your experience working with SSE?

Graeme: Much more varied than I’d expected. I’ve been working directly with the School for Social Entrepreneurs’ Chief Executive, which has given me a unique view into how the organisation works, and its strategic direction. The SSE has a really broad reach from amazing grassroots social purpose organisations through to government, big trusts and foundations as well as corporate supporters.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see a little of how SSE works from all of these perspectives, from interviewing social entrepreneurs about their projects to speaking to funders, investors and researchers about how they are supporting the sector.

It’s been great to get really stuck in to an important initiative being rolled out by SSE called Match Trading, a new way of using grants to incentivise social businesses to diversify their income through trading, with the aim to put them on a road to growth and long term sustainability.

What were the biggest challenges that you have faced during your placement?

Graeme: The biggest challenge was that there were lots of unknowns as I started my placement. I was responsible for a broad range of work, of which quite a lot was completely new for SSE. Although it’s exciting to be working on new and innovative projects, it can also be a challenge to balance keeping your “head in the clouds” while having feet rooted on the ground.

In what way(s) has your work life been different since starting the Associate Programme and your placement with SSE?

Graeme: My previous work in engineering was all about how things worked, looked or were constructed, and the work I’ve been able to do so far during the Associate Programme takes a much wider view of the world. I’ve been able to work with a really broad range of people compared to some of my previous work which keeps things interesting and challenging. I’ve certainly felt out of my comfort zone a few times, but this is all part of the learning process.

It’s been great to speak to a real variety of people across the sector and be regularly reminded that the work we do at SSE has a real impact on both the entrepreneurs we serve and their customers and beneficiaries who come from all walks of life.

In addition to working at SSE, you take part in regular learning and development sessions, and have support from a mentor and executive coach through the Associate Programme - that's a lot of input. What are your three biggest learnings from the year so far?

  1. The social enterprise world is broad and varied in its scope and myriad approaches, but also small enough to start to understand and get to know some of the key players and networks.
  2. While my previous job was superficially very different, there are many skills and approaches that are universal and transferrable: good communication is vital to all of us.
  3. Since we’re trying to tackle huge systemic challenges; inspiration, energy and strategic thinking are at least as important as working hard and being good at getting things done.

What would you say to people who are considering the Associate Programme?

Graeme: Flexibility and adaptability is key – if you’re considering the Associate Programme you are probably pretty open minded, but it’s important to keep putting preconceptions aside to keep on learning and developing.

SSE: Taking on an Associate is a brilliant way to move projects forwards and bring in strategic thinking and fresh perspectives. Make sure you have well-defined projects so an Associate can hit the ground running, but allow flexibility so they can explore their interests too. Do whatever you can to make them feel welcome in your team quickly – six months whizzes by!