So you want to start a career in Impact Investing?
Whether you’re on LinkedIn, Twitter, or really anywhere on our physical plane, almost every conversation about “impact investing” includes the question of “how do I do it?”
At Spectrum Impact, we spend a lot of time advising organizations on how to build these approaches. But there are different ways to ways to think about “doing it.” As an investor, consumer, or changemaker, the opportunities to put a dollar to work - in alignment with your values - is one highly meaningful path and the work we do at Spectrum Impact, to advise others based on our experiences, is another.
But there’s also a growing group of individuals looking to build a career in impact, and admittedly, these steps are less clear. Whether connecting with strangers on LinkedIn, former colleagues, or soon-to-be graduates, I’m constantly bowled over by how much time my colleagues spend sharing their own journeys in building impact investing careers. Happily, there’s plenty of positive signs that the way we answer the question of “how” is evolving:
- Through open and candid discourse around what training the next generation of impact practitioner should look like
- Casting a wider net beyond finance-only trainees
- Ensuring we don’t forget that this is still an investment discipline
For those of you who are ready to map out your own impact career journey, here are 3 key questions to ask yourself before getting started:
1. What kind of job do I want to do?
This may seem obvious, but the conversation around what you should do needs to start with what you want to do. While there are some non-trivial training restrictions in any investment discipline, many of these functional competencies can be self-taught and perfected in your new role. Yes, you’re unlikely to get an investment gig if you have limited investment experience (nor should you, because many of these roles include an actual fiduciary duty that shouldn’t be treated casually). But many proliferate impact investors I know have honed those investment skills on the job. They self-trained to develop new skills, using a range of tools like online learning, MOOCs, and certifications that are even more accessible today.
Instead of starting the conversation with what you “can’t do,” start by thinking about what you want your day-to-day to look like.
For example, do you like to solve big, complex problems alongside the people designing the solutions? Are you interested in changing a system, shared norms, or updating “how” we think about things? Then a strategy/program role might be right for you. This can include jobs like program officers, think tank fellows/researchers, consultants, individual advisors and educators, and more.
If you desire an investment role, ask yourself whether you want to work directly with entrepreneurs, the funds who find and support them, or the individual investors who help scale them (either directly or indirectly)? Do you have time to fill in the skill gaps you currently have? How about the aptitude interest - and ultimately - commitment to obtain these new investment skills? If the answer to all of the above is yes, you might join a startup, an investment fund (which can range from deploying concessionary capital to scaling growth stage companies), an endowment or investment office, a community-based lending fund/institution, or help shape a portfolio directly from within a family office. (Jargon pause - “The Seven Kind of Asset Owner Institutions.”)
2. Where do I (physically) want to work?
Conversations around job prospects in the impact field are very different between emerging and developed markets. For example, The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) devotes a good chunk of their annual survey examining how impact investing evolves differently across geographies. Through my work with Georgetown University’s Global Human Development program, I’ve seen firsthand how student experiences - and job prospects - change based on their personal exposure to the communities they are working with.
This analysis is important because not all of these impact ecosystems are growing in the same way, and certainly not at the same rate. While you’re trying to figure out what your day-to-day looks like in an impact job, think also about where you want to do this work. Are you focused on the community where you grew up, live now, or one you’ve recently connected with? What’s the current investment landscape? Is there established infrastructure around policy, philanthropy, and ease of doing business (all critical in creating the right levers to deploy capital effectively)? Let this information help point you to the job opportunities you may now have that you didn’t in a different location (i.e. building one of the above-mentioned pieces of infrastructure) or simply conduct your own assessment of whether these ecosystems are ready for the kind of work you want to do. If you’re committed to working in a particular place, adjust your search accordingly.
Any consideration of a career in impact without geography could set you up for disappointment and unmet expectations around the problems you’re trying to solve. It can also create some confusion between the change you want to see and what your employer needs. Be honest with yourself about these geographic opportunities and limitations.
3. Do I see myself as a generalist or a specialist?
Much has been written - across sectors - about whether our society should be moving toward one of generalist knowledge workers or specialists. In the impact space, I believe there’s room for both, but like many fields, building a specialist knowledge-base takes time and exploration.
If you’re deeply passionate about being a specialist, identify that focus early and hone your job search accordingly. Even these narrowed thematic pathways are big and broad enough for you to design an exciting and variable career. Specialization doesn’t mean being pigeonholed. Similarly, generalization doesn’t mean you lack expertise. Use your birdseye view to focus on identifying and connecting the patterns you’re seeing across many applications of your work, distilling those lessons-learned across various audiences.
Whatever path you choose, one thing is clear - there is no shortcut to building proficiency in this space. Anyone who guides you to take a bunch of trap doors or superspeed escalators to go higher, faster, is forgetting how easily this can create bad actors and advisors.
Take the latest scandal around TPG Rise Fund’s key leader, Bill McGlashan. Many folks argue that had we maintained that high bar for who can call themselves an impact practitioner (by way of hard-earned training, experience, and actual practice,) we may not have had one bad actor cast a shadow on a whole industry. This is true of generalists and specialists. Both are practitioners.
Beware of simply winning that “ideal-sounding” job and commit instead to building a career - one peppered with many learning experiences. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do a job but listen up when they tell you the best way to do it and acknowledge where you need to buff up your own skills and abilities to do it best. As you follow the journey of impact leaders who inspire you, look beyond the one job they are in now and look back on the steps they took to get there.
My hope is that as this field continues to sophisticate, we create clearer pathways for each of you to take impact investing to the next level. While we’re on our way to creating ways to do this more easily, you can start - today - to push the needle further in how impact investing is designed and practiced.
Rehana Nathoo leads Spectrum Impact, an impact investing strategy firm which helps organizations expand their impact investing footprint. She teaches at Georgetown University within the Global Human Development Program and serves on various boards and investment committees related to impact investing and philanthropy.