Nonprofit Periscope

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Subsector-switching, part I: Elizabeth Clawson

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My six-month-aversary at my new job was a few weeks ago, and after preparing for an executing my review with my boss I finally had time to sit back and think about how things are going, aside from the answers I’d put on the standard HR review form. After all, a year ago I was working in a different organization, for a different cause, and while the learning curve is fortunately steep, it imparts a touch of vertigo some days.

The biggest adjustment so far has been learning my way around a whole new subsector, or cause.  Cancer research is a far cry from the nonprofit infrastructure Kool-Aid I’d imbibed and then served to others. And I’m not the only nonprofiteer in this predicament: in the past year, several friends have also changed not only jobs, but subsectors as well. After all, while many of us start out following our passion for a specific cause, there isn’t always an open job in our dream cause when we need one. So I began wondering: how are us subsector-switchers faring, and is the phenomenon of subsector-switching a good career move or just a take-what-you-can-get kind of compromise?
I asked some of my fellow Nonprofit Millennial Blogging Alliance members to weigh in on their experiences, and I’ll post the responses in a new series on subsector switching. To kick it off, below are my own reflections to the questions I posed to the NMBA.
1. What subsectors do you distinguish within the nonprofit community?
I think along the lines of NTEE major groups. So when I talk about subsector-switching, I mean leaving a job in, say, a member benefit org for a job in a health-related org. I also like the dichotomy Mat’s Nonprofit Blog draws between caring and change groups. But that’s for another post.
2. What subsectors have you worked in so far?  How did you transition between them?
My first nonprofit job was an internship at a think tank. I’m embarrassed to admit I have no clue what subsector that would fall into. After that I interned at a couple of human services organizations and another think tank before landing at a member benefit org for two years. The only common thread between all those gigs was that I used my writing and research skills in whatever job I was doing. My focus wasn’t so much cause-related as job function-related.
3. Do you consider yourself more strongly drawn toward a specific subsector/cause (such as homelessness and housing issues) or to a specific nonprofit function (such as fundraising, outreach, etc.)?
After my two years at the member benefit organization, I drank the nonprofit infrastructure Kool-Aid big time, thanks to the mentorship of my fabulous colleagues and other nonprofiteers. The combination of whipping up a national movement and getting my sea legs in my first full-time, real world job was a heady brew. So when I decided to move back home to Seattle and went looking for another job, it was disorienting to get to know other subsectors pretty much from scratch. But I had some sold job functions under my belt–communications, fundraising, a touch of advocacy–so I was reasonably sure I’d be able to find something I a) was good at and b) enjoyed.
4. Do you want/plan to return to a specific subsector in the future?  Are you doing anything on the side now to keep your knowledge of that subsector fresh?
For the first few months of my new job with a health-related organization, I was wrapping up a contracting gig with a member benefit group (not the one I’d previously worked for), and I enjoyed getting to keep up on the nonprofit infrastructure world that way. Now I’m on the board of yet another infrastructure group, so you’d think that would keep me plugged in to the subsector I still think of as home. But it’s a struggle to make time for board work (sorry, fellow board members!) in my down time, and I can feel my infrastructure radar getting fuzzy. Still, I can see myself just keeping up with it on the side, rather than returning to infrastructure in a paid job.  Specifically, I can see myself staying in my current job for years, and if that means infrastructure will be more a hobby than a profession, I can deal with that.
5. Do nonprofits lend themselves more easily to this kind of transition among subsectors around than the public or private sectors do?
I don’t have a lot of experience with or data on this, so it’s kind of a guess. But I can see nonprofits being more flexible about hiring, taking a chance on someone who may not seem a perfect fit for the job description but who brings something new to the mix. This could mean that if you were previously working in one subsector and you’re interviewing for another, you don’t seem like a bad fit, you seem well-rounded. On the other hand, I’ve heard anecdotes about nonprofiteers getting passed over for private-sector jobs because their experience looks “soft” to some people.
6. Many students or entry-level professionals interested in nonprofit work are faced with a choice: take a menial job or volunteer position for an organization or cause they care deeply about, or take a more lucrative position in the public or private sector that uses their specific skills (writing, research, advocacy, etc.).  If you were advising someone on a career move in this situation, which would you recommend they do?  Is there another option?
A year ago, I would have recommended taking a better position outside the nonprofit sector (or in a different subsector–same idea) and then returning to nonprofits later, armed with new experience. But having jumped subsectors myself (though I’m still in a nonprofit, thank goodness), I’ve seen how hard momentum takes over. Once you get in the groove of a new sector or cause, the groove gets deeper and more comfortable. As passionate as I am about nonprofit infrastructure, my day-to-day focus is on health-related issues now. And with this in mind, I think it would be faster to climb the ladder starting from a peon position doing something you care about than to jump the track from one mindset to another, whether it’s a mindset shaped by sector or subsector.
7. What advice do you have for mid-career nonprofiteers who want to try a different subsector?
We nonprofiteers are multidimensional beings; chances are you’re already dabbling in other subsectors to begin with. Let’s say you work for a religion-related organization and you want to get into animal welfare. Do you already donate money to an animal welfare group? Volunteer with one? Know someone who works for one? That’s a natural entrée. Take whatever connection you have with the cause you’re interested in and bump it up a notch at a time. That way not only do you get a feel for what it’s like from the inside, you’ll also have a relationship established with the organization already when job openings crop up.
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Written by eclawson

May 31, 2010 at 7:36 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] a comment » This is the second in a series on what I call “subsector-switching”–working in one subsector of nonprofits and […]

  2. […] subsector-switching by members of the Nonprofit Millennial Blogging Alliance.  (Catch up on part I here and part II here.) Tera Wozniak Qualls is a nonprofit professional, community member, and the […]


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