Bangalore: This summer, after she graduated with a master’s in information systems from Texas A&M University, US, Pooja Rao headed to India for what she thought would be a six-month break before taking up a job. To fill her time, she volunteered for a stint with Dream A Dream, a not-for-profit organization working with underprivileged children.

“But in two months, I realized this was the long-term career I was looking for," says Rao, 24, who joined the 10-year-old Bangalore-based organization full time to work in fund-raising and communications.

For Parikshit Dubey, 26, a management trainee at the Bangalore-based Grameen Financial Services Pvt. Ltd, which runs the microfinance organization Grameen Koota, the switch from software services company Infosys Technologies Ltd was part of a premeditated move to engage in rural development.

Dubey left Infosys to sign on for a two-year master’s programme at the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal, before he was chosen by Grameen Koota through a campus placement programme.

“Yes, I have a taken a drop in compensation compared with what I would have earned in the IT sector," says Dubey, “But here, I am already participating in strategy-level managerial operations and I no longer feel like I am away from the real India."

‘Cause-focused’: Mahesh C.N. (centre), head of human resources at microfinance organization Grameen Koota, says the challenge is to find people with the professional skills and the right value systems. Hemant Mishra / Mint

“The world today is much more ‘cause focused’ and not-for-profit organizations are more regulated, organized and professional, with some offering good salaries" says Raju Shahani, executive adviser and chairperson, Christel House India, which also focuses on education for the underprivileged.

The social sector today includes organizations ranging from grass-roots level non-governmental organizations, (NGOs) to for-profit organizations such as those in the microfinance space, as well as funding agencies that lend to social enterprises.

“In fact, salaries at funding agencies and for-profit organizations tend to be very competitive," says Vishal Talreja, co-founder and director, Dream A Dream, who gave up a career in investment banking to set up the organization about a decade ago. “If I had to make do with just one-tenth of my salary when I switched to the non-profit sector, today a similar switch might mean giving up just a quarter of the existing salary."

But the growing interest in the social sector is not just being driven by the narrowing gap in salary structures.

“Professionals who work for a few years in the NGO/non-profit sector may be highly in demand later in the mainstream corporate sector due to their enhanced knowledge of rural business opportunities," says Richa Ghansiyal, coordinator programmes, development initiatives, Studio Alaya, an organization that works in rural Uttarakhand. “Also, as the interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR) increases, such professionals with experience in both for-profit and the non-profit world may be highly attractive as leaders to head CSR initiatives."

Sandeep Farias, managing director of Elevar Equity Llc, a fund that focuses on investments in the social sector, quit a 10-year career in corporate law to move to the social sector.

“In the past, there was this gap in information arbitrage between people looking for jobs in the social sector and employers looking for the right skills. That gap is now being filled as the network between mainstream and corporate and the social sector is narrowing," he says.

Farias feels the diversity of challenges offered by social enterprises make it a prime training ground for those looking to build entrepreneurial skills as well.

“With the social sector in the country becoming more accountable in its work and not shying away from ensuring their investors make profits through them, there is a healthy amalgam of the two interests," says Manjusha Raulkar, vice-president, human resources, SKS Microfinance Pvt. Ltd.

At the leadership level, SKS has hired professionals with extensive experience working with some of the best corporate employers in the world. It has talent from Standard Chartered Plc, Barclays Plc, Infosys Technologies, General Electric Co., McKinsey and Co. and ING Groep NV, says Raulkar.

As interest in the space grows, companies in the social sector are hiring with care. “The challenge is to find people with professional skills and the right value systems," says Mahesh C.N., head of human resources at Grameen Koota.

The hiring model at the microfinance institution includes a scenario-building process during an interview to try and gauge whether the candidate focuses on his own welfare or that of his company and community in times of crisis.

“One underlying attribute across these diverse professionals would be the sincere passion to contribute to social change," says Sheetal Mehta, trustee and executive director, KC Mahindra Education Trust.

For those looking to build a career in the business of social good, now is clearly the right time.