Pursue Your Purpose, Make Your Mark.
Careers4Change has started this series of changemaker profiles to inspire and encourage those who are considering a career change to explore the options in the social impact sector and find their purpose. We are keen to reinforce the message from social and impact investor leaders that impact entrepreneurs are at the forefront of rebuilding the economy post-pandemic and purpose-driven businesses are the future.
Colleen Ebbitt is a Vice President, Programme Officer for J.P. Morgan Global Philanthropy, EMEA. Colleen has 15 years of experience centred around corporate social responsibility, social impact investment, enterprise development, public policy, and banking. She’s passionate about improving lives and communities through innovative solutions to social challenges. Colleen is a regular contributor to thought leadership on social impact investing and inclusive growth at global conferences and volunteers regularly at MediCinema.
Why did you want to move to a social impact role?
Being in touch with my community is a very important part of my life; I have always been very socially aware and actively volunteering. My professional and purposeful life were very separate while working as a Vice President banker at J.P. Morgan. That was until J.P. Morgan, in partnership with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched a social impact investment fund (Global Health Investment Fund), in 2012, to invest in late-stage pharmaceuticals to get affordable medicine to low income countries. That was the first time I saw this merger of philanthropy and investment. That’s exactly where I wanted to be. It was the catalyst that made me explore the new emerging area of impact investment and social entrepreneurship.
How did you make your first move to mothers2mothers maternal HIV/AIDS charity based in South Africa?
I became a coach for social entrepreneurs with Ashoka which happened to be a J.P. Morgan philanthropy grantee in Switzerland. I really enjoyed it but they didn’t have volunteer opportunities for impact business or finance. That’s when I started looking at impact investment fellowship programmes. I spent a lot of time thinking: Is this going to be detrimental to my career progression? Should I make money and continue to volunteer instead? If it didn’t go well, I already had eight years in banking behind me. I felt more confident because of that. I decided to take the risk.
Fellowship programmes like those provided by Acumen or LGT Impact Ventures are targeted at people who already have work experience, not undergrads or recent graduates. Within LGT Impact Ventures’ portfolio of enterprises I found mothers2mothers, a maternal HIV/AIDS prevention organisation. I had already volunteered with them through a philanthropy group called Giving Women. I loved this organisation. Plus, it was based in Cape Town and I was really interested in looking at health in sub-Saharan Africa – a hot spot for impact investment at the time. When I applied for the fellowship programme, there was another opportunity available in Colombia. But it was such a nerve-wracking transition that I really got into this ‘all or nothing’ mindset. I wanted to work for mothers2mothers. It just felt right.
What was difficult about the move?
It was an eye-opening experience. When you are coming from a corporate environment, you are made to believe that that’s the most competitive area with the smartest people. The truth was that I quickly felt out of my depth surrounded by incredibly talented people in the social sector; with their immense experience, background, and knowledge. I had enthusiasm for this area and was bringing different skillsets from a banking background. However, in terms of truly understanding the nuances of really deep-rooted social issues, in a place with geopolitical risks and cultural barriers contributing to the problems surrounding HIV/AIDS, I had a lot to learn. There were some difficulties setting up the first emerging market social impact bond. I quickly realised that some of these impact investment structures are so unique and tailored to local markets that they are difficult to scale and extremely lengthy to set up.
How does a role in a social sector organisation differ from the corporate sector?
The stakes were so high emotionally while working in the social sector. Working with HIV/AIDS, it was difficult to witness not only the hardships that these individuals faced from stigma but the hardships of living in disadvantaged communities too. Everything from poverty and inaccessible education to violence against women. Being in the field brings unbelievable highs as you see how impactful the work is in improving lives and communities. I didn’t get that from my previous job in the corporate sector, it wasn’t as fulfilling.
You are now overseeing philanthropic grants supporting more inclusive economic growth back at J.P. Morgan. How has that role differed and why did you move?
After working with mothers2mothers, I knew I wanted to stay in impact investing. I ended up working with the U.K. Government’s Inclusive Economy Unit (GIEU) as a Senior Policy Advisor. GIEU was responsible for the U.K.’s social investment strategy. I was creating social investment funds and partnering with social, private, and government sectors to design solutions to tackle social challenges such as affordable housing or access to finance for social enterprises.
I wanted to bring to the corporate sector what I had learnt while working in public policy developing the skillset to lead a strategy – J.P. Morgan Global Philanthropy allowed me to continue to work on inclusive economic growth. I had the required experience to come back into the corporate philanthropy space; with my corporate background I knew the stakeholder aspects, I came with field experience, and I had important strategy and agenda setting skills to make philanthropy as impactful as possible.
It’s incredible to be a strategic partner for organisations and fund really impactful programmes. As a philanthropic funder, J.P. Morgan had to adapt with our grant partners during the pandemic so they could continue to change lives and create more inclusive economic opportunities. The lack of travel this year has been challenging – especially when you are doing strategic planning, due diligence, and overseeing philanthropy for South Africa, Switzerland, Sweden, Turkey, and France – travel is such an enriching part of my role. But it is a privilege to work on these issues every day.
What top tips would you give to someone thinking about a career transition?
- Get some form of experiential learning – either board, community, or volunteering experience. You can sit and read about the social impact space but volunteering or a fellowship will really open your eyes to what it would be like if you made that switch. You won’t look back if it is something you are really passionate about. If it is the wrong move, no decision is forever. Don’t overthink it.
- Think about your values. Oftentimes people might say: I couldn’t possibly move because of how different the earning potential is in the corporate vs social sector. If you are driven by money, that’s one thing, but if you are driven by community, making an impact, or travelling, you’ll reach a different conclusion.
- Find role models. Personally, I’d look at Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of Acumen. I find her story about how she got into impact incredibly inspirational and she’s helping more leaders into that space.
- Discover opportunities. Follow LGT Impact Ventures – their portfolio of organisations is top-notch and, if they do open their applications, they’ll be on your radar. Big Society Capital is a great career site, as is Escape the City, and of course, Careers4Change. It is limited with regards to how many head-hunters are out there in the social impact space – these organisations are really valuable.
If you have a career transition story you would like to share, get in touch!