Nonprofit Periscope

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Subsector-switching, part II: Elisa M. Ortiz

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This is the second in a series on what I call “subsector-switching”–working in one subsector of nonprofits and then changing to another, for any of a variety of reasons.  I asked the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance for thoughts on subsector switching, and this is the first guest post on the topic, from Elisa M. Ortiz. Elisa is a dedicated activist and organizer for social change with extensive experience developing and leading advocacy and civic engagement campaigns, working with diverse grassroots constituencies, utilizing various social marketing and outreach tools, and training, educating and empowering thousands of people. She currently works at Smart Growth America as the State Campaigns Director, leading state policy reform efforts around transportation and land use. To learn more and connect with Elisa, check out her blog Onward and Upward or follow her on Twitter.

What subsectors do you distinguish within the nonprofit community?
I think of subsectors in two different ways: one based on issue area and one based on mission focus. These aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. In terms of issue focus there are nonprofits covering everything from homeless issues, to women’s rights to transportation and land use (like my own organization) to education to health care and much, much more. On the mission-focused side there are think tanks, advocacy organizations, direct service nonprofits, grant makers and others.

What subsectors have you worked in so far?  How did you transition between them?
Within the issue area subsectors, I’ve worked in various nonprofits including two different women’s rights and reproductive justice organizations, in low income housing, nonprofit infrastructure and now in smart growth and transportation. Transitioning between these subsectors hasn’t been that difficult for me. I’m a fast learner and as soon as I accept a position in a new subsector I try to read and absorb as much as I can. I then spend the first few weeks of a new job continuing to read, listen, learn and ask tons of questions. One can generally ‘get’ the terminology, key issues and basic themes pretty quickly, especially if the new job offers good training and on-boarding for new employees.

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.)?
I definitely find myself more drawn to my job function – organizing and outreach – more than any particular subsector. I find that moving between subsectors allows me to learn about a lot of different issues and still gain skills and experience as an organizer and strategic planner.

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?
Honestly, there isn’t any particular subsector that I’m looking to return to in the future (though I’m not opposed to returning to any of them). I’m looking to advance my career and I’m flexible as to the type of organization that can help me do that.

Do nonprofits lend themselves more easily to this kind of transition among subsectors around than the public or private sectors do?
I’m not sure I can answer this since I’ve never worked in either the public or private sectors. But if I had to guess, I’d say that the private sector probably provides more flexibility in transitioning between subsectors. My take is that corporations are focused on finding the right person with the right skills for the job and that skills are transferable across sectors. I think many government jobs are highly specific and focused and therefore it may be harder to transition between departments.


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?
This is a tough question. If someone decides to take a job in a nonprofit she cares about, she also needs to make sure she’s going to get something out of it besides ‘making a difference’ – it should provide professional development (formal or informal), allow that person to learn new skills and if possible, provide direct opportunities for advancement. If those things don’t exist, he or she will end up like so many young nonprofit idealists: burned out and forced away from the work that he or she loves.

What advice do you have for mid-career nonprofiteers who want to try a different subsector?
Go for it! Some job roles may lend themselves to subsector switching more easily than others (for instance, I think government relations/policy jobs may be more difficult to transition between issue areas), but even if it seems difficult I think getting out of your issue area pigeonhole can only prove beneficial. If you’re transitioning between issue areas, I suggest stressing one’s skills and abilities rather than experience in that particular area. I also recommend reading up on the new issue as much as possible before any interview.
In terms of switching job roles, I think volunteering to do the work you want to do is probably the best way to gain experience. I think you may also have to accept a ‘step down’ from your current level of responsibility if you’re switching job roles entirely. But if you’re really interested in switching, its worth the extra work.
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Written by eclawson

June 6, 2010 at 12:47 PM

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  1. […] 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 original social […]


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