Engaging the Next Generation of Social Impact Leaders

Jerome Tennille
The Uplift Agency

The call for innovative solutions has never sounded more urgent as we address an ever-changing landscape of incredibly complex challenges, such as climate change, social inequality, and economic disparities. To address these challenges head-on and foster continued change, we must nurture, engage, and equip the next generation of corporate social impact leaders.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that those in corporate social impact often struggle with bringing new, more diverse talent into the pipeline. There are myriad reasons, but some include the lack of visible and dedicated educational programs focused on corporate social impact, too few mentoring programs, and a general dearth of entry-level corporate social impact positions. There are ways we can address this, but it will take the entire profession to make a measurable change. Here are a few ways to help us engage, equip, and empower the next generation of corporate social impact leaders to take our corporate impact to the next level in the coming decades.

The Power of the Next Generation

I’ll be the first to tell you that someone’s life views and lived experiences profoundly influence how they navigate their jobs. In general, early career professionals have enormous potential to bring new ideas and new ways of thinking about how we conduct our work. With that in mind, some of the most salient ways they can move our profession to the next level are with the new perspectives they bring, their determination to challenge antiquated systems and practices, their overall passion and idealism, and an adaptability to new situations.

  1. New Approach to Old Problems

Engaging the next generation can be exciting because they bring fresh and innovative perspectives while challenging old systems and practices, especially having grown up in an age characterized by rapid technological advancements and global connectivity. Their differing experiences, perspectives on life, and insights can reduce the probability of groupthink while working to unlock breakthrough solutions that may have eluded previous generations.

2. Enthusiasm and Vision

Many young people are fueled by an unshakable sense of purpose and an unwavering commitment to making a positive impact. They have grown up with a focus on the limited resources available on our planet and significant attention being paid to how people treat each other across cultures, not just as theoretical topics but as a stark reality impacting our very existence. Their daily lives are filled with discussions of climate justice, wage inequality, reproductive freedoms, racism, oppression of LGBTQ+ populations, and housing discrimination. They fearlessly speak up about critical social and environmental issues. Their passion and idealism make them formidable advocates for change, serving as powerful catalysts for inspiring others to act.

3. Adaptability

Younger generations also possess an ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances (partly out of necessity), which has proven to be an indispensable skill for leaders in the social impact sphere. The world around us constantly changes, and the circumstances we find ourselves addressing these often shift underneath us. The next generation is well-versed in adapting to new (and sometimes disruptive) technologies and evolving social norms, which equips them to navigate the evolving social impact landscape with agility.

Engagement Strategies: How Can We Engage and Empower our Future Corporate Social Impact Leaders?

Given the barriers our industry faces with attracting qualified and diverse talent and the endless potential of the next generation, we’re past due to change our tactics to tap into new pools of talent more effectively. There’s no better time than now to leverage their social awareness, ability to apply emerging technologies like AI, and their passion to nurture future leaders who can shape the industry. Here are a few ways we can begin to do this.

  1. Addressing the Mentorship Gap

In my experience, there’s a gap in active mentorship within corporate social impact. We need experienced leaders to proactively seek to mentor and guide emerging corporate social impact professionals. Sharing knowledge, experiences, and insights is often invaluable in helping the next generation navigate the complexities of the field. Effective mentorship includes providing career advice to younger professionals, introducing them to others in our industry to foster a community of support and practice, and actively looking for ways to be a workplace sponsor where appropriate.

2. Investing In Education and Training

There’s a real need for more robust and tailored learning and development programs for young emerging leaders in corporate social impact. These programs should include workshops, courses, or academic programs focused on what I’d call the bread-and-butter corporate social impact subject matter. But it also must consist of experiential learning opportunities that develop the often-forgotten soft skills we need in the field, like persuasion, communications, people and project management, strategic planning, and how to apply social impact within the operational boundaries of a for-profit company.

3. We Must Actively Seek To Diversify Our Profession

We must actively focus on bringing a more comprehensive range of voices into our industry. Embracing inclusivity and diversity is pivotal for nurturing the growth of the next generation of leaders. Just as we promote our own brand’s diversity and inclusion goals, we must live these same principles and apply them to our teams. We must actively seek greater representation from all backgrounds to ensure our teams have a broad range of perspectives that reflect the makeup and perspective of those we’re serving in the community. This includes lived experiences, which can contribute in meaningful ways to our programs’ direction.

4. Networking and Building a Community of Support

Corporate social impact is a network-driven profession. Promoting collaboration and networking opportunities for the next generation is therefore crucial. We need to actively create opportunities where early-career professionals can connect with like-minded peers, have space to exchange ideas and find others who can support them personally and professionally. COVID stunted this in our industry – as it did in many others. But we can move forward meaningfully, and convenings like those from ACCP are a step in the right direction.

5. Encouraging Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship

We must enable young professionals to creatively explore solutions to some of the world’s most complex social and environmental issues. We can encourage entrepreneurship and social innovation within corporate social impact. Those of us currently in corporate social impact can more actively provide resources, including the knowledge, mentorship, infrastructure, financial capital through grants, and the environment to explore social startups, product innovation, and new methodologies that can change the game within corporate social impact.

6. Recognizing Achievements and Behaviors We Want To See

Acknowledging the accomplishments of young social impact leaders through awards, grants, or media exposure can motivate them and inspire others to follow in their footsteps. Corporate social impact professionals should look at how their companies can recognize the accomplishments of their more junior employees (and young professionals in academia or enrolled in other social impact programs) to continue motivating them to pursue this career path.

  1. Generate Visibility and Awareness of the Corporate Social Impact Profession

Clearly, most job-seeking youth and those attending university don’t know corporate social impact is even a profession. That must change if we’re going to attract and develop the next generation of professionals. It’s not enough that some universities offer graduate-level certificates in corporate citizenship and ESG. As a profession, we need to advocate more strongly for the field and make it known that the nonprofit and governmental sectors are not the only career paths available for those seeking purposeful work. We must break out of our silos and actively speak at high schools, in the university system, and in other adjacent professional associations where young professionals exist.

Bringing forward the next generation of corporate social impact leaders is not just a choice; it’s necessary if we advance our work collectively as a profession. They bring new global perspectives and boundless passion, actively challenge the status quo, and possess unyielding adaptability and an unwavering commitment to improving the world. By focusing on a few long-term actions to develop their talents and potential, we can empower these emerging leaders to spearhead the change our society desperately needs through the profession we love.

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