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Breaking into the social sector: All you need to know

About the guest: Bindi Dharia, Deputy Director, Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP).

Before joining CSIP, Bindi previously worked with the Tata Trusts for Grant Relationships Management. Before that, she was at the Piramal Foundation for Education Leadership as their program director for Technology. She holds a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Her earlier experience is in the space of engineering and operations with ArcelorMittal.


Highlights of the conversation, edited for length and clarity, follow.

What are the kind of skills that really matter in the social impact space?

“Skills are transferable, irrespective of the sector.”

This is something they teach you in business school. For instance, if you work for Teach For India, you learn how to manage a classroom of 40+ odd kids. As a consequence, you learn to manage teams of people, and no matter where you go, you could easily transfer the same to, say, farmers or other communities on the ground. It's a matter of management and capacity building, if I might say so.

“For some absurd reason, people put themselves in boxes.”

In this space, the problems are very vast. They're interconnected and interlinked, that I don't think it makes sense for me to just pick one issue area.

This is really a personal choice. Let’s take my example. My passion for solving complex problems was never just siloed to the education sector. Alongside education, I also felt strongly about the issue areas of livelihoods and healthcare, among others. I looked at the whole breadth of challenges. The transferability of skills is what enabled me to keep moving between different roles.

Try building new skills to your already existing skillset as you move ahead in your career trajectory. It is a good way of contributing and learning simultaneously. A lateral movement can be limiting.

“People might assume that if your heart is in the right place you might get a job in the nonprofit space, but hard skill sets are equally important to work and thrive in this sector.”

The core skill required, however, is unlearning what you already know. At some level, it is crucial to know the ground reality and develop an empathetic mindset.

Generalist vs specialist:

What are you super passionate about? Is it gender issues? Is it education?

If you have an answer to this question, I would say be a specialist in your chosen field and pick up the skill sets required to be an expert in it. This way, you will get a chance to understand the nuances of the chosen issue and work dedicatedly toward solving problems related to it.

But if you're not married to a cause, and you're just passionate about the idea of creating impact, then a generalist role would make more sense.

At the end of the day, your actions should cause change on the ground.

Working as a generalist means working across thematic areas in the ecosystem without being tied to anything in particular.

For me, I'm not tied to anything in particular, because I'm not super passionate about any specific cause. It’s an individual choice for each person — whether they want to be a generalist or specialist.

Being a generalist is a suitable option when you’re starting out. In the beginning, you might be unsure of what you want to do or you may have a romantic vision of working for a specific issue. If you are serious about it, start right away. But if you are hesitant and unsure, take some time initially to figure out what the problems are actually, and then, what you're super excited about. Finally, pick that specialization as you go ahead. It's sort of like doing a master’s and a Ph.D. For example, you can earn your master’s degree in engineering and then pursue a Ph.D. in robotics.

As a generalist, you can go on to specialize, but once you become a specialist, you can't move into a generalist role very easily. People try but it becomes very difficult because you just don't have the skill sets.

“You can use the process of elimination to navigate this as well.”

I used the process of elimination when I was trying to figure things out. I wasn't sure about livelihoods and health — but I knew I did not have the relevant skills to be a healthcare specialist. So I started with eliminating healthcare and nutrition, and asking myself, “Okay, what can I do?”

Working on the field:

Picture credit: Bindi Dharia (Piramal School of Leadership; Rajasthan, India)

“Do your research: Prior to jumping ships, I did a lot of due diligence.”

There are largely four ways in which you can get grassroots experience:

1. Begin by volunteering. A volunteer opportunity will give you a chance to get a feel of the work on the ground while you pursue other things. I recommend this to most people over jumping in with a romantic notion of saving the world, which doesn’t always work out. You may realize that you want to give back in a different way, and that might be through a corporate job. I think that's a choice you make and whatever you choose is okay.

2. Consult alongside. If you have enough expertise in a certain function, you can even consider pro-bono consulting with an NGO.

3. Get the right education. One can join organisations like ISDM, APU, or TISS to get a better understanding of the space through formal education. The course at ILSS is also suited to senior managers transitioning from corporate to the social sector.

4. Pursue a fellowship. There are quite a few fellowships that exist on the ground like Teach for India or the Gandhi fellowship; a bunch of city-level fellowships like the Chief Ministers Good Governance (CMGGA) fellowship in Haryana. You can begin your career with these fellowships, and if you choose it, you should be ready to make this commitment.

Additionally, what helped me decide was an internship at the beginning of my career and advice from my mentors. I studied organizations in the U.S., in India, and took courses accordingly. You should know that once you make the switch, going back becomes very difficult because there are concerns of salary concessions, losing out on time, and building new skill sets.

“You might come in for 2-3 years and you think that this is cool work and later realize that you hate it; the transition becomes difficult then. It is hard to go back and forth.”

People, Mentors, and Networks:

More than reading about this stuff and getting theoretical knowledge, just find classmates and leaders working in the sector. Meet for coffee — or on a Zoom call, now — to understand what they do, what motivates them, and why they enjoy it. I did a lot of that.

Before I came to India, I spoke to a large number of people. I maintained a regular Excel spreadsheet, noting down what I was learning from them, how to follow up and constantly have this dialogue in some sense.

There is no centralized space to find a job, and thus growing and leveraging your network is critical before you need to look for your next opportunity.

It will also be a plus if you find people who can guide you and mentor you. In my journey, I keep going back to people who have guided me in the past. My mentors include professors from HBS like Srikant Datar, John Kim, industry seniors such as Amit Chandra- the Managing Director of Bain Capital and a philanthropist, Neera Nundy- Partner and Co-Founder of Dasra, and my peers like Pranav Kothari- Vice-President of large-scale education programs at Educational Initiatives, among others.

So that's the kind of research I would suggest you do—talk to the people in your network.

10 Social Sector Employers and Career Opportunities:

  1. Nonprofit organizations

  2. Consulting firms

  3. Academia/Research

  4. Foundations

  5. CSR positions

  6. Media (e.g., PARI, The Logical Indian, IDR)

  7. Impact investing

  8. Social entrepreneurship

  9. Incubators and accelerators

  10. Venture Capitalists and Private Equities who fund in social impact start-ups

Payoffs in the social sector:

“You need to make a mindset switch: you will make a little less, but will gain a lot more in the process.”

The advice I received was to calculate a break-even number in my head, based on all important factors and the kind of lifestyle one is expecting. Once you have this in mind, one can pick an organization accordingly. Several nonprofits have started to pay as much as the conventional for-profit organization. Of course, your package right out of college will not match with those of your friends in the tech and consulting industry but It is a concession one would have to consider as you enter the nonprofit world. Ultimately, the cost of this depends on the balance between your break-even threshold and the excitement your work brings.

Bindi’s advice if you are entering the space:

“Go with an open mind and an intention to learn; this sector has a lot to offer. It is not an easy sector to work in; it is chaotic, difficult, and is still getting used to a younger generation. However, it is a very meaningful sector. Rest assured, you will have a steep learning curve. "

Before making this decision, ask yourself the fundamental questions. Reflect on who you are as a person and what you value. No matter what you do in this space and where you go from here, you will carry the learnings into your future roles and be a more empathetic leader.”

Recommended Resources

Podcasts: by Bill Gates, Phil Buchanan

Talks and reports by organizations like Sattva Consulting, Dasra and The Bridgespan Group. [The Impact Connect team would strongly recommend CSIP’s reports, too!]


This is the second part of the conversation with Bindi. Read the first part here.

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