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Common Paths in Social Enterprise

By Erdin Beshimov

Social enterprise and nonprofit is a broad field with a wide variety of opportunities. What are the most common pathways people take? Here's the scoop on four popular career paths.

Community Development

The often low-profile work of community development practitioners helps ensure access to jobs, housing, healthcare and educational opportunities, and fosters safety and sanitation in millions of communities around the world.  Community workers collaborate with businesses to create jobs for community members, with health care service providers to improve access to affordable quality health care, with educational institutions to help community members acquire the skills they need, with real estate developers to create and improve housing facilities and conditions, and with many other organizations to solve pressing challenges for communities. 

Community workers typically work in community development corporations or CDCs.  There are local, national, and even international CDCs, allowing community workers to choose the geographic focus of their work.  In their practice, community workers tend to focus on either specific populations, such as youth, or functional areas, such as housing development or education. 

Community workers frequently start out as volunteers by getting involved in their communities.  A master's degree in social work, community development, or public policy is helpful for further advancement. Excellent opportunities exist both for growth and for diversification of one's field of focus. People who start out as community developers at the grassroots level often go on to become policy analysts, advocates, and even elected representatives. 

International Aid and Development

As our world grows progressively interconnected, it becomes imperative that those who work to battle poverty, disease, and conflict receive effective help.  International aid and development workers are at the forefront of this noble agenda. 

International aid workers deliver rapid and effectual relief to people affected by catastrophes of famine, violent conflict, or natural disaster.  They deliver water, food and medicine to crisis zones and develop and implement action plans for safeguarding endangered communities.  They work both on the ground, directly helping communities, and off the ground, working with private donors, governments and media to bolster financial and political support for specific problems.    

International development workers design and implement projects that improve physical infrastructure, stimulate economic growth, strengthen social fabric, and democratize political institutions in developing countries.  They carry out projects that ensure access to safe drinking water by rural communities, create centers for the education and employment of women, promote access to educational and computer facilities for the poor, among many other projects.

People become involved in international development through a variety of pathways.  Some have specific professional backgrounds -- as engineers, physicians, nurses, educators, or military -- that are critical to various aspects of development work.  Others have functional expertise such as project management, fundraising and budgeting that is also vital to effective development work.  Students often begin as volunteers and, upon obtaining a master's degree in a specialized field like public policy or international development, advance up the ladder of responsibility. 

International Education

On a day-to-day basis, international educators are busy teaching, grading exams, and writing reports, but in the bigger picture their work is often considered essential to international peace. They are cultural ambassadors who engage in activities ranging from teaching English as a foreign language to helping countries develop new education policies. 

International educators have ample opportunities to work at home or abroad.  Many countries are eager for young Americans to acquaint their students with the language and way of life in the United States, and companies in places like Thailand, Poland and Korea need qualified assistance in teaching employees business English, as well as American norms and customs. Some international educators choose to work at home among the thousands of foreigners who come to live, study, or work in the United States. 

Relevant academic credentials such as a bachelor's degree, and sometimes certification in English as a Second Language (ESL) or a master's in education, are necessary to get your foot in the door. Local teaching or tutoring experience is also helpful. Programs like Peace Corps and Fulbright send many teachers abroad, but a wide variety of independent programs and opportunities exist all over the globe. 

Activism and Advocacy

Since the early days of social and political movements, activists have played a crucial role in making the world a better place.  They strive to educate the public on important issues such as human rights and the environment, and they pressure citizens, governments and the international community to implement necessary reforms. 

Normally, activists focus on one issue or a series of related problems.  Today, issues such as international security, human rights, climate change, and poverty command high- profile regard, and vast activist networks exist in support of many visions for change. 

Human rights and democracy activists work in various countries to build the foundations for effective democratic governance and respect for individual liberty.  They work with youth groups to advocate political involvement, pressure governments to adopt democracy-promoting legislature, establish human rights watchdog organizations, educate the public about the value of rights and liberties, ensure the freedom and fairness of elections, and campaign to defend the rights of political prisoners, women and children.   

Environmental activist groups pressure governments and legislatures to adopt environmentally-friendly regulations, businesses to develop environmentally-sound business practices, and the international community to adopt global environmental standards. 

Activists usually start out as volunteers.  This important work helps them build experience and learn to communicate effectively their passion for a cause.  As one advances up the activist ladder and becomes responsible for speaking on behalf of entire groups and organizations, relevant expert credentials often also become important.   

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