This article originally appeared on HBR.org.
Social enterprises and nonprofits increasingly recognize the need to adopt management disciplines used successfully in the for-profit world. And a great potential source of talent with the right skills are professionals who change career lanes — people with experience and training in accounting, finance, human resources and strategy who leave corporate jobs to follow their passion to have a social impact. The Social Business Trust, The Gates Foundation, Endeavor, Technoserve, Absolute Return for Kids, and others already draw heavily on talent from for-profit firms as a source of these skills.
But what many social enterprises often fail to recognize is that private-sector recruits often come to them looking to build new skills, not just provide the ones they already have. For ambitious young professionals, the abilities they develop fairly quickly at a social enterprise are the sorts of listening, communications, problem-solving, and relationship skills that take years to acquire by climbing the corporate ladder.
That's what makes the jobs that social enterprises offer more of a lane change than a permanent detour. Combine the acquisition of useful management skills with an inspiring job, hands-on work, and an ability to follow their passion without waiting until retirement, and social enterprise has a compelling proposition to offer recruits from the for-profit world — both for those who see it as a long-term career choice and those who want to be able to shift back into a corporate environment.
In our own work, we see an increasing number of professionals who start out in the corporate world, work for a time in social enterprise, and then return to a for-profit company. In an internal survey of these people at Bain & Company, more than 90% said their experiences in social enterprise or not-for-profits had helped develop their persuasion, listening, empathy, and collaboration skills. Significantly, 85% said these skills were highly or somewhat relevant to their for-profit jobs.
Many professional services firms make this experience a standard part of their people proposition. Accounting firms often offer outplacements to charities or social enterprises for as much as a year or longer. Lawyers and consultants do significant amounts of pro bono work, or place their people on externships with third sector organizations. Long seen primarily as a way of increasing job satisfaction, such programs are now increasingly recognized as professional development opportunities.
There's even a social enterprise devoted to helping lane changers make the switch. UK-based On Purpose offers a full-time program involving two six-month work placements at social enterprises — which fund the placement — along with training and mentoring. Participants must have at least two years of work experience, though some have had as much as 15. About 75% come from the private sector. The goal, says CEO Tom Rippin, is "to develop people who can operate equally well in commercial and social enterprise environments."
For several years now, the lines between those environments have been blurring. Sector agnosticism — a desire to contribute to the world regardless of one's job sector — puts an increasing premium on the corporate need for employees who understand the disciplines of sustainability and social responsibility that are common at social enterprises. Here too is a marketable skill that social enterprises can offer to employees who expect to someday return to the for-profit world.
And social enterprise can also point to a growing number of lane changer examples. Take, for example, Janet Voûte, who started out in consulting before spending eight years as CEO of the World Heart Federation. Today, as global head of public affairs at Nestlé, Voûte manages the company's Creating Shared Value Initiative, which focuses on the ways Nestlé contributes to international rural development by investing in factories and strengthening links between farmers and markets.
Or Paul Steele, once a senior executive at PepsiCo International who subsequently served as chief operating officer of the World Wildlife Federation. Steele now straddles the for-profit and non-profit worlds as director of aviation environment for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents some 240 airlines, with the goal of finding ways to reduce the industry's carbon footprint.
Of course, social enterprises that cite such examples as a means of wooing corporate talent must also be committed to their own efforts to achieve scale. Dropping one or two people with accounting or analytical skills into a 1,000-person social enterprise isn't going to have a positive impact unless it's the start of a serious effort to build that organization's professional capabilities. But as more social enterprises do gain scale, it will open up more paths for lane changers, with tremendous potential benefits for both enterprises and employees.