Natalie Fleming graduated from Arizona State University two weeks ago. Like many new grads, she’s been applying to jobs since December and has applied to more than 50 jobs. Natalie wants a position with a mission, ideally at a values-based company. “I’ve been in short-term jobs and internships without impact,” she explained. “Those don’t feel as productive ... in order for me to keep my energy levels up and help others do the same, I need to be doing meaningful work.” She continued, “Right now, I’m still holding out for an impact job, and while I have my ups and downs, this week I’m optimistic.”

Natalie’s isn’t alone. There are increasing amounts of research on employee engagement and job satisfaction, and new research from Net Impact and Rutgers University indicates that employees who have the opportunity to address social or environmental issues while on the job are more satisfied than colleagues who don’t—by almost a 2:1 ratio.

Impact work can manifest itself in many ways—roles in corporate social responsibility departments at large companies or in mission-driven organizations like nonprofits are just a few. Supported by the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we recently surveyed nearly 2,000 college students and currently employed workers across the country to see what they thought about impact work. The result of the study, “Net Impact’s Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012,” suggests that employers who provide workers with tangible ways to make a positive social or environmental impact will find that it pays off in more than just good karma. Satisfied employees are often more engaged and, therefore, more productive.

Among the employees we surveyed, 45 percent of those who said they have impact opportunities at work also reported high job satisfaction levels, while only 29 percent of those who didn’t have such opportunities reported high job satisfaction.

Among students, we found that Natalie is indicative of her peer group because she wants to make an impact through her job; she’s also similar in her willingness to hold out for a job that will allow her to do so. Two-thirds of the graduating university students we surveyed said that making a difference in their next job was a priority, and 45 percent of them said they would accept a lower salary to do so. In fact, students considered finding such jobs even more important than having children, a prestigious career, or wealth (see graph). That’s a pretty serious commitment to impact work.


All of this is good news, because the world needs Natalie’s talent and the talent of others like her to solve problems like climate change, income inequality, and education. At Net Impact, we envision a future where all of us can go to work to make that difference, but to make it really happen, we, as employers, have work to do. Companies need to do a better job creating opportunity for employees to connect their day jobs to sustainability and social good. Nonprofits must do more to tie the daily grind of meetings and emails to a higher purpose.

Such efforts can take many forms, and there are already many organizations experimenting with ways to do this. PepsiCo, for example, established a leadership development program that sends employees to work on short-term projects in developing countries. Microsoft actually established its own internal Net Impact chapter led by employees. And national nonprofit KaBOOM! keeps its employees engaged with a daily practice of sharing written words of encouragement with colleagues.

The executive summary of “Net Impact’s Talent Report: What Workers Want 2012” includes some ways that employers can integrate impact opportunities into the workplace. Of course, it’s not always easy. But a more satisfied workforce—which translates to a more engaged and productive workforce—makes it well worth it.

Download the executive summary and full report.