Why MBAs should consider social impact and sustainability in their career planning

Jessica Wingert

By Jessica Wingert
Sector Director for Social Impact & Sustainability Careers
Career Management Center, Fuqua School of Business

Today’s MBA students are often looking for jobs that connect the dots between their professional skills and their personal passions. As the Sector Director for Social Impact & Sustainability Careers at Fuqua (and an MBA alumna myself), I often talk with students about how they can marry their skills and interests, and whether they should pursue an “impact career”–that is, one in which they can use their position to directly make a positive social or environmental impact on the world. 

Opportunities exist in organizations beyond traditional “non-profits”

Many students perceive that impact jobs only exist in non-profits or non-government organizations (NGOs).  While non-profits play a vital role in social and environmental change, there are an increasing number of opportunities to have an impact job in other types of organizationsBy broadening the scope of organizational types to consider, a student will have more short-term and long-term career opportunities.

Understanding the theory of change that each of these organizations models can help students find a cultural and impactful fit that is best suited for them.  Students can choose an impact area and then identify organizations of many different types to find opportunities to find their best fit.    

A useful categorization from Net Impact defines impact jobs as the following:

  • Non-profit or foundation jobs
  • Government jobs
  • Jobs within B-Corporations or similar for-profit, social enterprises
  • Dedicated CSR/corporate philanthropy/sustainability roles in companies
  • Mainstream jobs in companies where at least one of the following is true:
    • The company’s primary product or service is socially or environmentally responsible, and leadership prioritizes a social and/or environmental mission, or shared value;
    • 5% or more of employee time can be on voluntary impact activities (e.g. green teams, pro bono work, or side projects);
    • Sustainability factors are regularly integrated into decision-making and performance evaluation

The field needs varied skillsets

There can be a perception that impact jobs are hard to come by, and also – for many MBA students – require “starting over” at an entry level.  Neither assumption is correct, especially when you consider the varied skillsets that are needed in impact organizations.

Many of the core skills that you develop as an MBA are urgently needed in organizations across the impact space, such as: robust communication skills, a strong EQ, the ability to drive change, the ability to manage through ambiguity, and the ability to understand and address complex problems. Functional expertise, such as finance, marketing, strategy and operations are also critically important for impact organizations to run.  Finance experts can help organizations develop internal financial mechanisms to fund sustainability efforts. Marketers can find ways to connect with new donors.  Strategists can set corporate goals. Operations experts can find ways to remove waste from the manufacturing process.

An important thing to remember is not to judge a job by its title.  Students sometimes get hung up on getting their dream job title at an organization, which may be part of a small team with few openings.  Many impact jobs, especially those that lie within a functional role in an organization, don’t have the most obvious titles, so be sure to closely look into job responsibilities to truly assess a role for impact potential. By bringing a unique skillset and functional expertise to an organization a student may be able to find an easier path into a competitive organization and also find fulfillment through their work.

Responsible organizations have a competitive advantage

Everyone wants to work at a financial sound, high performing, and growing organization.  In his 2019 Letter to CEOs, Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock, asserted, “Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose – in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.  Profits are essential if a company is to effectively serve all of its stakeholders over time – not only shareholders, but also employees, customers, and communities.”

Investors are choosing to fund sustainable, responsible, and impact assets, and seeing higher returns on their investments as a result.  As of 2018, one in four dollars under professional management was allocated to impact assets, a 38% increase over 2016 (source: US SIF Foundation’s 2018 Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends).  These impact investments are also yielding higher returns: Harvard Business School did a study and demonstrated that $1 invested in 1993 in a portfolio of organizations who prioritized growing their business would yield $14.46 twenty years later, but that same dollar invested in a portfolio of company focused on growing their business and social or environmental issues would have grown to $28.36. A 2014 report from CDP found that, “corporations that are actively managing and planning for climate change secure an 18% higher return on investment (ROI) than companies that aren’t – and 67% higher than companies who refuse to disclose their emissions.” 

Intrapreneurship opportunities

Regardless of the path a student chooses post-MBA, there are ways to have positive impacts through social or environmental intrapreneurship at their organization. Many organizations are shifting towards socially and environmentally responsible practices across the organization, from fair labor practices, to operations, product innovation, and supply chain management.  As an example, in KMPG’s 2019 Global CEO Outlook, 76% of CEO’s say that their organization’s growth will depend on their ability to navigate the shift to a low-carbon, clean technology economy. In order to achieve this, and other social or environmental impact goals, organizations will need socially-and-environmentally trained employees in traditional functions and at different leadership levels to identify opportunities to improve and execute.  MBAs entering into organizations have the opportunity to bring impact ideas to senior leaders, and to ultimately become those decision makers to create positive change.

Innovation in sustainable product development, developing new marketing strategies to connect with socially conscious consumers, partnering with suppliers to ensure ethical and sustainable practices, or creating a new business model to work with underrepresented populations are just some ways that intrapreneurship can have far-reaching social and environmental impacts.