Six Steps to a Purpose-Driven Career

If you’re eager to use your skills and passion to make a positive difference in the world, a purpose-driven career could be for you.

Here are some tips to help you build a career in sustainability, based on my first-hand experience as well as my experience coaching hundreds of job seekers and career changers.

#1: Clarify Your Top Areas of Interest

Job seekers are often concerned they will eliminate too many job prospects if they narrow down their interests. However, to make progress on your career development, it’s important to take the time to develop clarity and a sufficiently specific focus. To do this, take the time to research a range of topics and choose 3 or so that are of most interest to you.

Examples of purpose-driven or values-aligned career focus areas include:

  1. Sustainability and Environmental Conservation: Careers focused on promoting environmental sustainability, such as renewable energy development, conservation biology, sustainable agriculture, and green building design.
  2. Social Justice and Human Rights: Careers centered around advocating for human rights, equality, and social justice, including roles in civil rights organizations, nonprofits, policy advocacy, and community organizing.
  3. Healthcare and Public Health: Careers in healthcare and public health, including doctors, nurses, public health researchers, epidemiologists, and healthcare policy analysts, with a focus on improving health outcomes and access to care.
  4. Education and Youth Development: Careers focused on empowering and educating young people, such as teachers, mentors, school administrators, and educational policymakers.
  5. Social Entrepreneurship: Pursuing entrepreneurship with a social impact, creating businesses and ventures that address societal challenges, such as poverty alleviation, access to clean water, or education in underserved communities.
  6. Arts, Culture, and Creativity: Careers in the arts and creative industries, including artists, performers, writers, and cultural organizers, who use their talents to inspire, challenge, and engage audiences.
  7. Ethical Finance and Investing: Careers in finance and investment with a focus on ethical and responsible practices, including sustainable investing, impact investing, and socially responsible banking.
  8. Technology for Social Good: Careers leveraging technology for social impact, such as developing innovative solutions for education, healthcare, disaster response, or bridging the digital divide.
  9. Corporate Social Responsibility: Working within corporations to drive positive social and environmental change, developing and implementing sustainability initiatives, philanthropy programs, and ethical business practices.
  10. Animal Welfare and Conservation: Careers dedicated to protecting and advocating for animals, including wildlife biologists, zookeepers, animal rights lawyers, and animal shelter managers.

These examples represent just a fraction of the many purpose-driven career focus areas available. Ultimately, the right choice depends on an individual’s interests, values, and the impact they wish to make in the world.

#2: Familiarize Yourself with the Sectors of the Economy

All three sectors of the economy present opportunities to work in a way that aligns with your values or generates purposeful work. Get to know more about the sectors:

  • Public
  • Private
  • Third sector: non-governmental, nonprofit, values-driven

For each sector there are specialized websites and job boards for researching opportunities and organizations. Some people find that one sector suits them more than another. Many people will work in different sectors throughout their career. When seeking to pivot from one sector to another, you’ll have an advantage if you to learn to speak the language of your desired sector.

#3: Focus on Your Strengths

By reflecting on your skills, strengths, and the type of work you most enjoy, you can gain clarity about potential roles to pursue. A few examples include:

  • Community Organizer
  • Corporate Social Responsibility Manager
  • Data Analyst
  • Lobbyist/Director of Advocacy/Legislative Director
  • Communications Specialist, Coordinator, or Director
  • Policy Associate or Analyst
  • Research Assistant or Director
  • Sustainability Coordinator or Director

If you’re not sure what your skills and strengths are, it can help to complete one or more assessments. Working with a career coach can help you learn about additional resources that can help you gain insight into your skills, values, and interests.

Transferable Skills: If you already have years of experience, but not in the exact role, topic, or industry you’re interested in shifting to, focus on transferable skills. What skills do you possess that are necessary for advancing the missions of your target organizations?

Use job descriptions as part of your research: Reading a wide variety of job descriptions on a site such as LinkedIn can help you narrow down the types of roles you might be interested in and identify potential roles of interest.

#4: Identify Your Target Organizations

Now that you have a good idea of the topics and types of roles you’re interested in, it’s time to do some research so you can create a list of 20-40 target organizations. Here’s what to do:

  1. Identify organizations you’re interested in that are in your target markets (e.g., Chicago) or that are remote if you’re interested in remote work.
  2. Research these organizations and key players within them (for instance, not just staff, but also board members, partner organizations, funders, sponsors, community partners, etc.).
  3. Start to form connections by engaging online (subscribe to email lists, connect on social media, read content on their websites, etc.).

#5: Gain Applied Experience

You don’t need to wait until you secure a job post-grad to gain experience with organizations and issues of interest to you.

Volunteering can be a great way to build skills, build your network, and gain clarity on what types of roles you’re interested in (and not interested in), all while contributing to a cause you care about. Also, organizations often look to volunteers when they are seeking to hire because there is already a familiarity. A few options for how to gain experience as a volunteer include:

  • Campaigns: There are different types of campaigns such as issue (policy) campaigns and candidate campaigns. There are different scopes as well: local, state, national, and international. Especially if you have any interest in policy making, it is valuable to gain campaign experience.
  • Legislators: Research your local and state elected officials to find out if they’re working on something with which you might want to assist. Connecting with them via social media and signing up for their email list (if they have one) are ways to start to learn what they’re involved in. Perhaps they are working on an issue you would be interested in assisting with, or maybe you can collaborate on something. Research, writing, and outreach are just a few possible ways to contribute.
  • Nonprofit organizations: Start by volunteering. Learn about an organization’s needs and explore how you might assist. Then consider taking your commitment to the next level by joining the board.

Clubs or Part-Time Jobs are great ways to gain practical experience. Check out the clubs on UO’s campus or on-campus jobs through Handshake.

#6: Build Relationships

Strong relationships are key to leading a fulfilling career and life. Keep in mind the following:

  • People are more likely to recommend and hire people they know, like, and trust.
  • You have a whole network you may not even realize. (LinkedIn + a spreadsheet can be a powerful combination to help you track, engage with, and grow your network.)
  • What have you got to lose by reaching out?
  • Meet new people by participating in webinars and online events…then follow up via LinkedIn and/or email to get to know each other.
  • Don’t only reach out to people when you have a request. Get in the habit of providing value. Get to know others’ needs and goals and explore how you might be able to lend support.
  • The relationships we form and cultivate present an opportunity to broaden our worldview, diversify and enrich our network, and be supportive and actively engaged with individuals and organizations who are working to achieve equitable, healthy communities.
By JD Van Alstyne (he/him)
JD Van Alstyne (he/him) Graduate Career Advisor