Find The Compassionate Career That Fuels You

Work that Makes a Difference: Getting Started in a Compassionate Career

Looking for a job that makes a difference in the world? Alexandra Mitchell, co-author of the book Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making A Difference (out March, 23, 2015), wants to help you make it happen.  Like A Boss Girls spoke with her about how to find what motivates you and connect with organizations that share your passion.

Why are compassionate careers are so important?
Desmond Tutu said, “If we don’t refresh the face of civil society, we won’t have a civil society.” I think that is very important. It’s one of the underpinnings of everything that our lives revolve around. For-profits do their work, and government does their job, but we really need the third sector. We really need people who are doing things because it’s the right thing to do and out of the goodness of our hearts, to focus on the common good, and do all of those jobs that we absolutely depend on for humanity’s sake.

Some young people in particular don’t know about this field, don’t know about these jobs. A dismal percentage of people—like three percent—who are working in the field have ever had a counselor or teacher tell them about these types of careers. Young people will go do their service learning or their community service work, and check the box on their college application and that’s it. Nobody ever talks to them about that there really are legitimate jobs—10 percent of our workforce—and there are lots of opportunities.

Lots of people are retiring now out of these jobs. It’s a great time, especially with all the energy around social enterprise and social entrepreneurship, and lots of blended new forms of organization that are partly for-profit, partly non-profit.  Just lots and lots of opportunities that we really want people to know about. It shouldn’t be a nicety, it should be seen as a necessity. We really need people to pay attention to joining that workforce.

If you’re not already in a compassionate career, how do you find one that’s right for you?
I think you first need to think about what truly inspires you. ‘What was your first motivating moment?’ is often what we ask people to think about. Was there a  person, was there something that happened, was there a tragic incident that sparked an inner passion? Did somebody have an accident or cancer, or was it that you saw something that you just couldn’t abide by? Just thinking about what your first inspirational event, or someone that you knew who was doing something amazing, and you’ll often find what it is that drives your own personal passion, so that’s a good place to start.

Then I think you need to explore what’s out there. In the book, we have a very large, robust resource section. There’s 40 pages of resources, all kinds, everything from Commongood Careers to There are also a lot of other lesser-known organizations with which you can start finding job posts and service opportunities in order see what’s out there. The other thing I would say is that most of these organizations need all the same kinds of jobs that a small, medium or large sized business would, depending on the size of the organization. The International Red Cross employs hundreds of thousands of people, and then there’s the small mom and pop shop down the street. They need graphic designers, they need website work, they need program managers, they need financial analysts—all the types of jobs that you would need anyplace else, these organizations need as well.

Think about what type of work you’re leaning toward, and what kinds of opportunities you could blend that with. Think about what you’d like to do skill wise, with your personal passion and about something larger than yourself, that needs to be changed or improved and has a social benefit. Then think about the skills, knowledge, experience, education needed to work right into that type of position.

I think if you’re smart about where you’re going with it and sort of map out a plan with some clear goals around where you want to get to, it’s a matter of just stepping forward and putting in your time in order to achieve those goals.

You can’t just go volunteer and think you’re going to be hired as the executive director—it doesn’t work that way. You do need the skills, the education, the background to do really well in non-profit work, but if you’re also committed to the work, you can do just as well in that field as you can in many others. You’re not going to get the pay grade of a pro football player, but not a lot of us do in any field.

What about for young entrepreneurs? How can they create compassionate companies?
You need to really think about that in the same way that you would in building any company. You need to do your SWOT analysis by asking yourself: what are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? You also need to consider a lot of the same questions you might ponder when starting any business: what are the market, competition and financial requirements needed? Who are people that can back you?

Something that I think is really important for people to think about, also, are mentors. I don’t think we really put enough emphasis on mentorship and how important that is. No matter what the field, often people who are really successful will talk about having a mentor—someone who was sort of already there, had lots of experience, and could help steer them in the right direction. I just think that’s tremendously important.

Pick a couple of people and really think what kind of relationship you want to build with them in the next year. Don’t just think about what they can do for you. Think about how the relationship can be mutually beneficial. Ask yourself: what can you do for them? What kinds of common interests do you share to spark discussions? How can that person introduce you to other people, groups or associations? Can that person allow you to shadow them or take you along to a meeting? There’s some really proactive and deliberate things that you can do with a mentor, rather than having a cup of coffee with someone and saying “oh, yeah, I kind of like this person.”

Networking is also helpful. Consider groups or associations that are related to your field, then go to a couple conferences and pass out some cards. Give people your name and ask if you can follow up with them. Ask if you can take them out to lunch, and start picking people’s brains about stuff.

What are small steps that anyone can take to get started toward a compassionate career?
First of all, check in with your own core, really think about what is most interesting to you, and then find the organizations with which you can get involved. Even when I go on vacation, I’m excited to see what nonprofit I can find, or what person I can find in a non-governmental organization that’s doing something cool.

I always find the coolest people doing the coolest stuff, in any given place. It’s just a way to make that a part of your routine, so that you’re not just going to Cancun—you’re going and finding somebody who’s doing something really cool there. So that’s a fun exploration, but you can obviously do the same thing in your own town and start getting involved. You can interview the people that work there. Have your five questions or ten questions and ask them: What do they like most about the job? What do they not like? What’s the organizational culture like? What did they do to get there? What does it take to get ahead in that particular field? Pretend you’re a researcher and just do some scouting around those types of things.

What else will people will get out of your book, Compassionate Careers?
It’s mostly based on stories and interviews with people (about a hundred people made it into the book). There are about forty or so vignettes, which are shorter stories, and other people who are quoted throughout. The book is  based on real-life experiences from everyone from Desmond Tutu, who wrote the foreword, to Michael Fontaine, and Dave Matthews to Brett Dennen.

We got to work with a lot of entertainers which was fun, but the book also includes people who do some really great work on the side. Some Nobel Prize laureates, Óscar Arias, Desmond Tutu, and some other folks that people might be familiar with, and then lots of everyday people who are working in these organizations, such as the heads of Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International and the American Red Cross. Lots of younger people who are working in the field and doing some really cool and interesting things are featured as well.

Then there’s a practical section in the back of the book, which leads people through a lot of the exercises that I mentioned. How do you develop a plan to work with a mentor? How do you think about what inspires you? What are the most comparable salary scales? That information is included. There’s also a really robust research section in which people can spend endless amount of days looking up organizations’ websites and finding out what’s out there. So it’s part inspirational and part practical guidebook; it’s pretty strong on both of those ends.

For more information about Alexandra Mitchell and Compassionate Careers, visit