How to find a job in CSR / sustainable business

Like many readers of this blog I receive a few requests per month to provide advice to someone about finding a job in CSR/sustainability.

I must admit I find it a challenge to suggest a simple route in. It's a highly competitive space. 

I've only ever had one job for a large company, back in 1996-8 when I worked for BT as a student. That doesn't really count. 

Then I worked for a smaller ex-Maxwell company called Wilmington for less than a year and which had much of the same ethical ethos that he did.

I've spent my career trying to "paddle my own canoe" as one my investors* in my new business, Innovation Forum, calls it. 

I do know a lot of corporate responsibility and sustainability folks, and quite a bit about how their companies work, so perhaps that's why I get asked.

Here's a few thoughts:

Firstly, recognise there are fewer jobs for generalists (like me) than there used to be. That's a good thing in many ways, although it does mean commonalities are harder now to find between industries, which doesn't always assist collaboration. 


Yes, you might want to be a 'trends spotting futurist horizon scanner' role in a big company, but there are not many of those jobs around, and they always go to quite senior people, and rightly so. 

Secondly, in which case, can you develop, or do you have, some specialist skills or knowledge that may give you an advantage with a recruitment firm or company? Can you use those to stand out? 

Thirdly if you do have or can develop, some specialist knowledge, perhaps focus on a particular industry, or area, such as becoming an environment manager or a communications executive. 


(These are vastly different jobs, with entirely different skillsets, which is why trying to answer the question "How do I get into CSR?" feels similar to answering the question: "How do I get an interesting job in business?")

Despite my caveat above, I'll continue, briefly. 

Fourthly, be prepared to move around the world, and if you are the adventurous type, consider trying to find a role in an emerging market or region, where some companies are just getting started in the field. Of course, it's not easy just to turn up in Jakarta, Nairobi or Bangkok and expect to get a sustainability CSR job, but I do know people who have done it, usually those with some personal funds to use whilst they wait, and a fair bit of patience. 

Fifth, if you prefer to stick in London, New York, Amsterdam, Berlin or any other major city that's a bit of a hub for sustainable business (an advantage to a degree), you should try to use the recruitment agencies. Google them to find which are around, there are a few. However, if you don't have any experience that counts, you may be better off waiting until you have something to put on your CV that will attract their attention. You should also always tailor your CV to the role advertised. I don't mean massage it unethically, but clearly highlighting relevant experience counts.

Sixth, get that all important experience. There are lots of different ways of doing this: A stint with an NGO (nothing wrong with a career in the non-profit sector, particularly given how its changing), an internship with a company (competition is tough though) or a smaller firm, like a consultancy, is one route.

What about doing some really hard yards in a community somewhere in Africa or Asia, for example?

I don't mean two weeks badly digging a well or teaching guitar, but something substantive, a project where you can show and develop a broader range of skills such as communication, planning, determination, lateral thinking, problem solving and opportunity recognition. There are NGOs out there that need smart help, you just need to find them.

Seventh, networking and maintaining contacts with people is vitally important. A lot of the people who contact me don't bother to stay in touch. Unless I am having a really bad week I will usually reply to emails or take a phone call.

Staying in touch after picking someone's brain (in my case that's quickly done) is a good way to maintain contact and keep in their mind in case they hear around opportunities or suddenly need a freelancer, contractor or intern. That does happen.

Recommendations are also really important to speaking with or meeting new people who may be able to help. If I get an email saying "xxx from xxx (someone I know), suggested I call you", that helps a lot. It's human nature, there's a connection, however vague.

Eighth, persistence is everything. I have helped a number of my former corporate governance and ethics students and interns (paid!) get 'proper' jobs. Not always directly, but they have told me the CV boost (via internships) or contacts I was able to provide to some of them did pay off in the end, even if it took them a while.

(I did once have a volunteer work for free for me, but felt so bad about it that the feeling was only partially offset by the fact I helped them get a corporate job that I wouldn't do it again)

Ninth, if you don't want to specialise yet, but just want to work for a good company, where you might move sideways/upwards to a role with CSR prospects, focus on versions of your CV that will appeal to the kind of companies you want to work for. The Great Place to Work lists are a starting point, as are the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes for larger companies. The Milkround website is also useful for recent graduates.

Tenth, if you have skills that are more suited for a supply chain role, logistics or say, communications, get a job in a decent firm and ask for CSR related responsibilities, volunteer internally, find a sponsor and push to get your firm to do more. You may end up finding a dual role in any of the above areas, which could be fascinating. I know at least two people who have done / are doing this right now. It can work. It requires serious patience and planning.

Lastly, don't work for free. Internships didn't exist when I did my only job hunting stint in the late 1990's. Either you worked or you didn't. (Update: This doesn't apply to non profits / charities) 

Having said that, I would have taken a paid internship in a few different places If they were available, rather than the £10.5K salary I was paid doing sales for a ethically-constrained publishing company. 

But being an intern shouldn't mean you can be exploited. 

Minimum wage is an ethical and legal must, and really, the living wage is what you should be paid by anyone with a conscience.

(Given this is a tricky area, I would welcome reader comments on this post and will be happy to publish them)

*Another investor tells me I am now "unemployable" which I have learned to take as a compliment.
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