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At a recent workshop on how to pursue a career in CSR, I asked students at the University of Minnesota how they define CSR. Some of their answers:

“Weaving sustainability, community responsibility, and diversity in any business role.”

“Considering all stakeholders (customer, employees, community) when making a business decision.”

“I define [it] as how the company does college student become a CSR practitioner?

While the essential job search in itself is undoubtedly important, identifying how you define CSR is more important for two reasons: 1) CSR jobs — or jobs with the specific title of CSR/sustainability — are scarce; and 2) The continuing lack of standardized scope and skills attributed with these jobs doesn’t make for a very structured job search.

This dual combination then makes it even more crucial that you understand which thread of CSR really interests you, because there are several.

Nancy Lublin from doSomething.org made an obtuse reference to this at the recent UN Social Innovation Summit, noting that most of the panelists with her were founders of something. “Everyone cannot be a founder,” she said. “It’s okay to join stuff.”

While Lublin was referring to social innovation, her comment applies to all of us: We don’t need to reinvent the wheel on responsible and ethical behavior—you just need to have a clear idea of where you stand on it, and how you can apply that to your job search.


So, how does a college student become a CSR practitioner? Here’s my two cents:

1. Define CSR: What does that mean to you — and your career?

If you are a great communicator and enjoy writing, then marketing would be a good fit. But if research, analysis and data are your passions, then working on CSR reporting would be a better fit.

And if working with people or organizing things is your deal, then HR or even community relations could prove to be better fits.

You get the idea.

2. Identify required skills

Now that you know what you would enjoy doing, evaluate your bucket of skills. Continuing with one of the examples above, if data gathering and analysis is your forte, here’s a few things that should be on your Skills Checklist:

  • • Understanding of what kind of data is used by companies in CSR reporting
  • • How this data is collected
  • • Industry standards
  • • Thorough knowledge of the structure and organization of CSR reports
  • • Certifications: One that instantly comes to mind is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards, which many more companies — and universities — are starting to adopt.

3. It’s time to think: Brand Awareness

Start building your personal brand. Blog: write about your passion, why you want to work in the field, your motivations, etc. (It might be for free but you’ll get a better-than-decent ROI if you’re seen by the right people.) Write for publications and websites, both mainstream and niche. Meet with like-minded students who are pursuing similar interests. Join your local Net Impact chapter. Arrange informational interviews with the faculty.

These conversations will go a long way towards helping you decide whether to pursue what you are passionate or change course: Either way, a huge benefit.

4. Get practical experience

Internships: Incredibly important. Pursue as many as possible in your four years at college because that’s the time when you have the least to lose.

Internships will give you the hands-on experience that no number of years spent in college can provide. But use these opportunities responsibly because there aren’t many out there. Network, approach each day as a new lap you need to complete, seek out projects, volunteer, focus on demonstrating your skills, and share your opinion.

And learn to fail.

When you do (not if), pick up the pieces and continue on, or start over—both are perfectly okay. Failures later in life will sting a lot more, so fail early and learn well.

5. Social Media: Learn to be a bystander and listen

Another skill that I just cannot overstate the importance of. While you build your personal brand–whether through blogging, research papers, tweeting, commentary on Facebook or the college newspaper—be sure to share it with others. And demand feedback: the good and the bad.

Listen to what is being written about the subject, who the prominent speakers are, the movers, the exemplified, the ridiculed (you’ll learn from both, trust me), the practitioners.

In the end, use your skills to guide your job search. Once at a company, let your passion guide you in creating the change you want to see happen. We can no longer afford to stand outside and point fingers.