How do you create a career path that aligns with your values? Angela Parker, CEO and co-founder of Realized Worth, shares insights about what skillsets are most in demand, how to pitch and get approval for your ideas, and how to keep your life’s purpose front-and-center, no matter what your career throws at you.
Angela Parker is CEO and co-founder of Realized Worth, a consultancy that helps companies build meaningful social impact programs. She is a prolific writer, speaker, and consultant whose work focuses on the practical application of transformative learning theory in corporate settings.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] SAM CAPLAN: Drastic changes have a funny habit of putting life into focus. For Angela Parker, one such drastic change was her move from the Pacific Northwest forests of her childhood to the land down under. While in Australia, Angela realized the religion she grew up with participated in the exclusion of others, including women like herself, and she wasn't going to stand for it. From her revelation came purpose.
Welcome to Impact Studio. I'm your host Sam Caplan, vice president of social impact at Submittable. In this episode, we're digging into what it takes to build a social impact career. What skills do you need? How do you craft a strategic framework? And how do you build for the long term? To find answers, I sat down with Angela Parker, cofounder of Realized Worth, corporate social responsibility consulting firm.
ANGELA PARKER: Hi, I'm Angela Parker.
SAM CAPLAN: One thing I've noticed in speaking with Angela and people across the social impact field is that the work is often personal. Most people can point to a moment when they knew they wanted a career that meant something to them. A job that had real meaningful impact beyond deadlines or revenue goals. I think it's important to hold on to that desire for purpose. And I think it's worth circling back to those stories with yourself and with your colleagues to remember why you chose the path you are on.
ANGELA PARKER: I have a story. I've made meaning of that story over the years. My mom died when I was young and it was a big thing for me in my life, as you would imagine. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Angst-filled music of the '90s was the thing. I was in a home situation that felt really tough for me. So I wanted to be from that time, from the time I was really young, a voice for people like me who didn't even know what it meant to take up space in the world. I wanted to live in a way that it sort of satisfied my own need to feel like my life mattered.
I grew up in the church. And I went to take a job in Australia and I was married at the time. I mean, anything to go to Australia on someone else's dime and live there and work there was awesome. But in that space, in the particular church I was in, I recognized a degree of exclusion, of oppression that I had not seen to that degree before.
And having gone through this nonprofit space where I'm seeing people fight for things they care about and then go into an organization where I saw a degree of oppression that affected me too as a woman, I just thought, yeah, no. For the rest of my career, I have got to get into the spaces where I can fight for people to have a voice. Where I can fight, again, for that young person back in the Pacific Northwest.
I think often when we're fighting for anything, we're fighting for ourselves. And that's what I had been fighting for my whole life. But there was a moment of clarity when I was in a new space and a new country where it was unfamiliar. And I was a woman who had my choices taken away from me and I thought, yeah, exclusion like this is not OK with me. This us and them is not OK with me. And that really solidified my career choices going forward.
SAM CAPLAN: If you're working in social impact, you probably had a moment of your own when your sense of purpose crystallized and became a career path. But I think the beautiful and tricky thing about social impact work is you have to find a way to turn that initial spark into a flame. And over the months, and years, or even decades, you need to find ways to keep that flame lit. For Angela, it's a daily practice.
ANGELA PARKER: I think one of the things that's really unique about being a practitioner in the social impact space is, maybe you can make this argument for other roles too but it is belief work. It's work that you have to wake up and believe in again every day. Because even in corporations, it does tend to be like nonprofits, a little bit underfunded, maybe a lot under-resourced.
And sometimes when you work at a job that you don't really care about, that's easier in some ways. To feel disconnected, to feel like the outcomes of your job are not connected to your identity, there can be some freedom in that. And when you feel blocked in social impact, you sort of feel like you're being told you can't be who you are. Like the reason you're on this earth becomes inaccessible. And you have to stay the course, and remember your why, and maintain the passion that got you into this field in the first place.
I have this conversation with practitioners all the time. Sometimes all they need is connections with other practitioners so that they can be reminded that we're all kind of in this boat together. That we're not alone. But it requires this vigilance about our sort of inner work, our mental health, our physical or psychological, and physical health. And you have to balance all of those things in order to even take the next step on your career because it's not easy and often not what practitioners expected. I don't think.
SAM CAPLAN: Because they're both focused on social impact, CSR work is often conflated with work nonprofits do. But they're really two distinct approaches to making change. And it's worth taking time to understand your specific role as a CSR professional.
ANGELA PARKER: If you're a CSR practitioner, your job is actually not to go and build the relationships with communities, I would suggest. I think there are people that have spent their entire lives learning to do that and building those relationships that know how to engage with the community, that know how to speak that language.
Your job as a practitioner is to organize everything that exists under one framework and empower everybody to-- think of yourself as the magician running the whole thing. Putting the right people in the right places, finding the people that have already done the work to build those relationships with the community, equipping them, empowering them, sending them out, letting them lead, letting them speak, giving them credit, recognizing their efforts, paying them for those efforts.
CSR practitioners so often come from a nonprofit mindset that they think of themselves and everybody else as helpers. And that's nice. That's lovely. But we've got to start thinking of ourselves as leaders, as influencers. We've got to start thinking of ourselves as being fastidious about making sure the right people are in the right positions. And that we aren't just taking the help where we can get it from, let's say, employees in the company who want to volunteer.
But we are saying we're not just volunteering here, we're not just showing up, we're not just trying to achieve some participation goals. We are trying to drive social movement. So if you want to be part of leading this program strategically, you will qualify because this is an elite position within this company. It matters more than anything else we're doing here. And if you are someone who knows the community, who has built relationships, you lead this thing.
You have done this your whole life. You are the most important person here. You have the most important voice. You tell us what to do. We will follow. We will do what you say. And that alone, it's like almost making the emotional to say it because I know and have listened to so many people, especially in DEI, who have just gotten so tired.
Because now that this is a trendy space, now that equity matters, other people are stepping ahead in line and saying, oh, I know how to do this. I studied it for six months. When other people have lived this life. They have lived in the community and they know what to do and they'll do it right. We just have to find them, empower them, follow them. So CSR practitioners should be the one doing that work to put the right people in the right positions and follow them.
SAM CAPLAN: This push for diversity, equity, and inclusion has been happening in tandem with CSR efforts but not always in concert with them. As heartening as it is to see corporate leaders willing to put resources behind these causes, there's a bit of a missed opportunity when they're seen as separate issues. In truth, there's a necessary and very natural overlap between CSR and DEI.
ANGELA PARKER: Personally, I think it is absurd that there's been any separation between corporate volunteering, giving social impact and what's happening in the DEI space with ERGs, with people leading that space. I cannot understand it. I cannot make sense of it because the goals are or at least should be the same.
And my assumption here is that the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion departments and people who care about that field is not only to train people in how they're supposed to act and the checkboxes they're supposed to check at work but to guide people to a place where they change from the inside out. Where their actual biases are challenged. Where the assumptions that they have about people groups and social issues are called into question.
And people who are in that space, in my experience more than anybody else, understand that kind of change has to come from experience. It has to come from encountering those people. From being in spaces over repeated periods of time and forcing yourself to deal with your complicity in the issues. Where else is a better, safer, more accessible arena to do that in than the space that is volunteering?
And I don't mean ever putting people or communities at risk. I don't mean creating a circus out of people that are affected by homelessness, poverty, addiction. I'm talking about asking people who are volunteers to undo their saviorism. To stop seeing themselves as going to help the needy. But instead, to see themselves as entering a relationship. And in a relationship, if you walk up to someone and you say, I think I have something you need. Here it is. Good? Good to go? OK, bye. That's not a relationship at all. That's a transaction.
Transactions are sometimes needed by nonprofit organizations. But most of the time, in order to drive social movements, to change people from the inside out, you have to have experiences over time that are a relationship. A respectful relationship where we are not going to objectify or save those who we perceive as other. But where we are going to learn from and receive from and be changed by them and be transformed by them.
DEI has always said these things matter. They have always said saviorism's a problem. They have always said that going to communities and doing to them rather than with them is wrong. Volunteerism has got to get on board with that. Social impact has got to learn from that perspective. So yeah, the fact that equity is centralized right now and social impact means everybody going into DEI careers, we're ready for you, we need you. There has never been a greater and more important time to bring that perspective, that strategic direction to social impact.
SAM CAPLAN: CSR professionals are in a unique position right now. Corporate leaders are more open to making these social impact investments than ever before. And practitioners are trying to seize that opportunity. Or will CSR professionals themselves have to create the change?
ANGELA PARKER: Yeah, I think it's absolutely true that we are now, as social impact practitioners, in a place where there is an opportunity there has never been before to make the business case for these programs. But there's an important nuance there, which is we've always been trying to make the business case. And over years, and years, and years, Realized Worth has received requests for PowerPoint decks, and statistics, and studies, and research on how do these programs contribute to engagement, to retention, to attracting the best talent, to all the things we know are important.
That business case still matters. It will always matter. But we have to begin to do the things to get the stats that we've always wanted. So relax on making the statistical business case for why these programs achieve engagement and all the other things. Instead focus on the program itself. Make the program itself the strategic framework around that program compelling to senior leaders.
Set up the strategy of your program as opposed to starting from the other way around and trying to make the case to get the funding. Demonstrate that it is a strategic program, that it is as legitimate as any other business initiative. That you can speak to how every program, how every person, how every supporter, how every capacity element contributes directly to business aligned outcomes, contributes directly to a rally cry around social impact for your company, the story your company wants to be known for.
These are the only programs within a company that can tell that story differently than anybody else. That this is the unique contribution. But if there is no clear framework around the people, the programs, and everything else, nobody will believe when you try to tell them it has a place in business.
Hi, this is Keriann with Submittable, the sponsor of today’s conference. Submittable works with brands all over the country to launch, manage, and measure CSR programs.
One thing Angela just mentioned really struck a chord with me: the idea that the structure of your program can tell the story of your impact.
We’ve seen this in action with our employee volunteering product. It serves as a home for all volunteer activities, where employees are empowered to create their own volunteer events and invite their coworkers to join.
Having one, centralized tool to view all this activity provides a clear view of the effect a volunteer program can do for an organization.
Look to the show notes or visit us at submittable.com for more information.
Now back to Angela and Sam!
SAM CAPLAN: This is where we get to the double-edged sword. CSR professionals have this incredible window of opportunity but they're also dealing with some pretty intense pressure. Thought leaders are waking up to the importance of this work but the resources are lagging behind.
ANGELA PARKER: Practitioners are being asked to do so much. To go above and beyond, I would say, what's reasonable now that the job is more important. And they're being looked at by senior leaders with a degree of respect, finally, that I think has not been received in the past. But they're also being told, make a significant, measurable, transformative difference. And do it soon without budget until you prove that you've done it. And without additional headcount until you show me that it's worth it. And people are exhausted.
And I know this is true across the board. This is true because of COVID. We have people that have gone for years now from Zoom meeting, to Zoom meeting, to Zoom meeting, all day every day with no time to walk down the hallway in between. And then to walk from their desk table in the kitchen to the kitchen to make dinner, or deal with their kids, or whatever it is. These are very high pressure times.
But you take social impact practitioners and you say, now your job matters more than ever and you're just as exhausted as everybody else. I cannot tell you the difference now, between now and five, 10 years ago, the number of people that I run into at a conference and I say, how are you? And they don't even pretend. They just say, I'm tired, so tired.
And they are. They're tired. And it's an unfair situation. And I can go off in a tirade on this. I'm kind of holding myself back right now because it makes me angry. It feels almost unethical that the ask that we're putting on social impact practitioners and saying, do this very important thing in a rich company and do it without funding.
SAM CAPLAN: So the big question is, who is going to right the ship? Can we rely on corporate leaders? Or will CSR professionals themselves have to create the change?
ANGELA PARKER: I do think it's possible for practitioners to do some things to get noticed. I don't think it's their responsibility necessarily but I think it's probably going to go that way. So they can do some things to begin to demonstrate the strategic position of their own role and the program itself. And over time, just bit by bit, begin to demonstrate to people who make decisions about resourcing and about budget that their programs are worth it.
That their programs are bringing a unique and strategic value to the company that goes beyond participation and hours. That leads directly to outcomes and impacts that are beyond those outputs that we've been measuring based on financial models for years, and years, and years. And now these high level people in companies are just saying, how is this strategic? Well, practitioners can certainly step up to that challenge. And I think it's time that happens anyway.
SAM CAPLAN: So with all of that context in mind, I want to dig into what it takes to succeed as a CSR professional. What are the skills and expertise that are needed right now in the CSR space?
ANGELA PARKER: To really thrive as a social impact practitioner, to have the skills that will help grow your career, there are some things, I think, that will feel obvious to some people. But we're in a wave right now of new people and new positions in social impact. We also have many people that have been in their careers for a long time that are beginning to switch, either to other companies or to lateral roles within their company that still fit within social impact.
So while some of these thoughts may feel like I already knew that, I'm going to assume that there are people that would really love to hear some of the even knowledge areas that are important. So one is clearly a background in business. I mean, background in both business and nonprofits, if you're one of those people that has an MBA and you've worked in nonprofits for a long time, please go into this space. We really need you.
But within that, the implication is that a broad understanding of what this space needs is what's important. So from business strategy to understanding corporate foundations, DAFs, Donor-Advised Funds, community issues, DEI, ESG philanthropy, all of these things. Having a broad understanding of what's out there in this space, this is hugely important.
Knowing workplace giving software, how it works, how to motivate people to use it, goal-setting measurement. I mean, these are the things that not only have we talked about in this space for a long time but people in isolated positions in social impact in different companies are feeling really stuck and not having access to that information out there. So to bring people into these roles or to be in your role and begin to gather knowledge from each of those areas and then let that contribute to the strategic framework you're building is the language of other strategic partners within the company that are running other initiatives and don't really see yours as valuable.
And one more thought I just had on goal setting and measurement. Being the person who can help individuals, even your team if you are part of a team as a social impact practitioner, and your volunteer leaders within the company. If you can help individuals set goals and articulate how they contribute directly to the overall objectives of the program, assuming those objectives are business aligned, that is gold. If it feels obvious to anyone, they should know that they are an enormously valuable person in this space because most people can't even speak that language.
SAM CAPLAN: If you're looking to move into CSR as a career or you're just trying to find that perfect role, you might be surprised at which companies are really putting resources behind these efforts.
ANGELA PARKER: I think we will see significant innovation in small to medium-sized companies. I'm already seeing it, I think. You think of some of the better known but still relatively small companies like Okta, even Airbnb, they're pretty small in terms of number of employees, maybe not revenue. Some of the ones that are pretty mid-market, they are-- it's almost like they see an opening in how they can become known.
How they can differentiate that space to almost step back and look at the large companies that have not taken this opportunity and they're like, oh, come on, guys, really? You're not, you're not-- OK. We will. We'll step in. And they are. They're run by younger people who have seen the effects, who are in the middle of the effects of not caring about the well-being of not only employees but the communities they live in.
We've all heard the stories of people working at PayPal or large companies in Silicon Valley. And they're sleeping in their cars because they can't afford to live. And I'm not saying it's because PayPal has necessarily done something wrong, but our society certainly has. And the people that are affected by these things are the people that will make the changes.
And they have a lot more room to do that in the smaller to medium-sized companies that are not as bureaucratic yet. They don't have the long conservative history. And oftentimes they, at this stage anyway, they exist in a space that allows for a lot of movement. It has gotten really exciting to talk to some of the small and medium-sized companies. And even at Realized Worth, we're looking at how to become more accessible to them because it's a lot more fun for us to be able to be flexible, and agile, and innovative with them.
It's so interesting because I think that there are a lot of corporations that you would think are the size that would have a really well resourced team of 40 people across different disciplines. And then you'd think smaller companies don't. But I don't see a consistency across size of company. Now I really want to do a research project on this, thinking about what is it that motivates the company to really invest in its social impact team?
So companies like Walmart, companies like Telefonica, like Comcast have bigger teams but they usually are spread across multiple functions. Even if they're all under social impact, it's usually some part of comp, some part of HR, DEI, certainly sponsorships, volunteering, giving. And they're all sort of seen as their own areas. And they do need to have expertise in those areas. And they all kind of work together toward the same goals. I'm seeing that being pretty few and far between, even for large corporations.
Usually it's the legacy corporations that have been doing this for a long time. Again, like Walmart, like GE, the ones that-- they kind of started some of this stuff. I'm not saying all of them are doing it really well, but they're certainly better resourced.
And then you look at other companies that you would expect to have huge teams. I think of a really good friend in a major pharma who just left her role because she advocated for herself for years and she built an awarded program, a recognized program that has 94% retention. People come back year, after year, after year, and they say, this is the best training I've ever received in 20 years at this company.
When they do the annual training for the program, it is spectacular. The case is clear. And they would not further resource her. And she just worked so hard she burnt right out. And she's gone on to another place now and the program is already starting to suffer without her there. So it's a terrible mistake. That is a huge company with a ton of money and they're not doing it.
I think of another amazing technology company. They only have four people, and they're running their programs beautifully. But it's clear that they all have to be general practitioners within social impact. They all have to know everything because they function sort of like a small company of entrepreneurs functions. They've all got to kind of look after each other and jump in where things are needed by the other.
If one person goes on vacation, the other one's got to be able to manage that day. So they've got to jump around. Whereas in companies that are well resourced across multiple disciplines, somebody can know their area well and stay there and typically, have other people to cover for them within their own teams when they're away or whatever it is.
SAM CAPLAN: For many people looking to grow their career in CSR, that's the big question. Do you go broad or go deep?
ANGELA PARKER: I tend to think that if you want to be in social impact consultancy, you should go deep into one particular area. Or if you happen to be part of a big team in a corporation, those rare unicorns out there, you are part of a team of more than four. If you're one of those teams, yeah, I mean, it makes a lot of sense for you to have one person on your team who goes deep into workplace giving, who is the expert at whatever tool you use.
To have the other person that is the expert at building volunteer leader networks and just nurturing and managing that network. And then to have the other person that is completely focused on sponsorships and donations. That's a dream. If you can do that, do that.
But if you are one or two people on a team and you know that you have way too many things on your team to manage, be the ones who can speak the language of each area. And as you grow, as you make your case for the strategic framework that your programs fit within, then start thinking ahead about resourcing for expertise. But at this point in where we are in the field, the broad feels a bit more valuable than the deep.
SAM CAPLAN: So corporate leaders are feeling urgency around social impact. But they're just tapping into what CSR professionals have always known. This work is essential. It's ongoing. And when done right, the impact can be really profound.
ANGELA PARKER: I think the increased urgency, the depth of what matters about social impact programs has helped social impact practitioners because they always thought that anyway. They always thought, at least the best of them, 90% of them always thought that this work was about more than getting a bunch of people to show up at an event where the impact of that event is limited to its time frame.
They knew that it was better than participation goals. They knew that it was better than the number of dollars given in a year. Those things matter, of course. But they're lead indicators to bigger impacts. And most of the people who got into this space wanted to see barriers broken down between people. They wanted to see an effect on how people understand the world and its issues. They wanted to see all the isms broken apart. Racism, sexism, everything else that puts us in a position of pain that we're in right now in society.
And during COVID and shortly after the murder of George Floyd, many of our clients at Realized Worth were saying, hey, I've got a moment in time right now. I've got senior leaders looking at me in the face saying, how are we changing hearts and minds for the first time? So for that purpose, and who knows how long it's going to last? It's still going. People are still asking real questions about what's changing internally about people because of these programs. And then how is that affecting their company? But that is happening now. And that is what these practitioners have been asking for, for a long time.
Thanks for listening. For more conversations like this, be sure to subscribe to our Impact Audio podcast at Submittable.com.
Until next time.
[MUSIC - DR. DELIGHT, "LEFT TO CHANCE"]
Realized Worth has a lot more wisdom to share when it comes to building transformative social impact experiences. Here’s a few places you can go to learn more: