From Retail to Nonprofit Customer Support | An Interview With a Sector-Switcher


Here at Idealist Careers, we get a lot of questions for readers who are considering changing careers to switch into the nonprofit sector. But what many of you don’t know is that we have quite a few people here on the Idealist team who have been down that road, succeeded, and lived to tell the tale!

This post is the first in a multi-part series in which we’ll be featuring some of Idealist’s very own sector switchers.

No matter what field you’re transitioning out of, there’s somebody out there who’s been through it. And for those of you looking to move into the nonprofit space from fashion, retail, education, customer service, real estate, or finance, that somebody happens to work at Idealist and wants to share their story!

Meet Cynthia Avila, Community Support Specialist for

Switched into the nonprofit sector with a background in: retail customer service and operations

Q: How did you first decide that you wanted to make the switch?

A: Six months into working in the luxury goods sector, I knew it wasn’t for me. I did not feel as if what I was doing was helping to better our world. Although I appreciated that the company I worked for ethically sourced their gemstones and metals, I was not getting the type of satisfaction I wanted out of the job. Because of financial obligations, I stayed with the company for many years. However in 2015 (after living in New York for two and a half years), I decided it was time for me to finally take the leap and change things up.

Q: Once you realized you wanted to switch sectors, what was your approach?

A: I began researching organizations and jobs I found on and took my time writing cover letters and responses to questions in the application. After about a month and a half of doing this and not even getting a request for a phone interview, I decided finishing my degree would help me be more competitive. I took the next year to finish my undergraduate degree and reformatted my resume using tips from Idealist Careers. Since I was being selective with which organizations I applied to, I only applied to one organization shortly after completing my final semester of school and that was with Idealist. Exactly one month from submitting my application for the job, I started my first day of work!

Q: What are some of the differences between working in the private versus the nonprofit sector?

A: I have definitely felt more valued as an employee working for a nonprofit than I did in the private sector. One huge difference is the clients I help now tend to be much more understanding because they too are in the nonprofit field. The end result of my interaction with the people I help also tends to be more fulfilling to me. Rather than helping someone repair their broken necklace or clean their ring, I am able to help someone get information out about the services they offer and the opportunities they have available for others to help too!

Q: Are there any surprising similarities you’ve noticed between the sectors?

A: Efficiency in both sectors is extremely important. While in the private sector it can impact how much money is brought in to shareholders. But for nonprofits, lack of efficient practices can hinder the amount of services provided to the people they serve which can then impact the funding they receive. Joining the nonprofit world, I was surprised to learn how business savvy many organizations are.

Q: How have you been able to apply the skills gained in the private sector to your current work?

A: Working in retail I had to be an expert multitasker, be able to quickly assess the situation with my customer to tailor my approach and/or resolution to an issue, and diligently follow-up with clients and staff. These skills have proven invaluable to my work with Idealist. I am able to apply the high level of customer service I provided to clients in the private sector to the wonderful people that use our site to make their experience with us seamless and enjoyable.

Q: Has your sector switch impacted anything for you, personally?

A: Retail can be tough because of the erratic and long hours (especially during the holidays). I am much happier with my work-life balance and so happy to have weekends off. Since my schedule is more consistent, I am able to spend more time with friends and do the creative things that make me happy.

Q: Do you have any advice for people considering a sector switch?

A: Don’t be afraid of switching sectors due to lack of experience in that particular field. Skills are transferable and the organizations recruiting know this. Also, not everyone is meant to provide direct services. I have so much admiration for direct service workers, but it is not for everyone and that’s okay. There are plenty of other roles to fill in a nonprofit that may suit you better, so keep an open mind!


Want to learn more about Cynthia’s path to the nonprofit sector? Tweet us at @idealistcareers and we’ll make sure to deliver the message and share her response!

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As a seasoned communications professional with 15 years of nonprofit experience and 6 years of experience creating engaging content and copy, I love the idea that a thoughtfully crafted piece of content can spark social change. Here at Idealist Careers, I'm eager to offer job seekers, game changers, and do-gooders actionable tips, career resources, and "social-impact lifestyle" advice.
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  1. Love it. Very proud of you Cynthia. Live your dreams and enjoy your passion. #sisepuedes

      • Cynthia Avila
      • September 28, 2017

      Thanks for your message, Julie! I never would have switched sectors without having such a strong support system. People like you who lift others up is what promotes positive change in our world.

  2. Great read! Working for different industries and in different roles offers workers a more well-rounded background. It teaches you how to relate to all different kinds of people using different approaches. Even your high school job in fast food or retail will teach you skills that will come in handy for the rest of your career.

      • Cynthia Avila
      • September 28, 2017

      Thanks for commenting, Jessica! I completely agree with you. I see work experience from a different sector as an asset to organizations. Not only are these individuals able to interact with people of all different backgrounds, but sector shifters are also able to use their existing knowledge of successful processes and systems in one sector to, perhaps, suggest other ways of doing business in their new sector. They can offer a fresh perspective.

      1. Good thoughts. Check out this article on the transferable skills learned from customer service and retail jobs that can benefit you for the rest of your career:

    • Kristen Green
    • September 26, 2017

    I’m am currently in this same boat! I graduated college in 2010 and have been stuck in retail ever since! I’ve reformatted my resume a dozen times, read article after article but have not been able to land a job in the non profit sector! I’m at the point now that I am preparing to go back to school for my masters. Is there anything else I am missing to help me land at least an interview with these companies???

      • Cynthia Avila
      • September 28, 2017

      Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Kristen. I completely understand how discouraging it can be when you have such a strong desire to help others, and it feels like it’s just not working out for you. I certainly am not an expert in this subject, but I’m happy to lend my suggestions.

      If you haven’t already, I’d recommend expanding your nonprofit network by volunteering for the types of organizations you’d like to work for, attending networking events, and letting your family and friends know that your are interested in working in the nonprofit sector. I’m sure you have heard these suggestions a hundred times but connections are powerful! When employees at an organization you apply for can personally vouch for your excellent work ethic, that has a greater impact than if you were to just submit your resume and cover letter.

      In my experience of attending networking events, I kept in touch with just a handful of the people I met. However, because I strengthened my relationships with them over the years by meeting them for coffee, asking if they needed help from me for anything they were working on, and checking in with them occasionally these people became some of my strongest advocates. When networking it is not about the amount of connections you make; rather it’s about the meaningful relationships you are able to build.

      Lastly, before I moved to New York, I did try applying for nonprofit jobs in NYC but never received an interview. So, when I applied for a well known nonprofit that I knew got an overwhelming amount of applications every time they had an open position, I knew I had to stand out somehow. They had a virtual Culture Book on their website to help people understand their mission and culture. From that idea, I decided to create a Culture Book about my work experience and mailed it off to the COO. She personally video chatted me and referred me for the open position. Because of how quickly they needed to fill the position, I did not get the job, but I got the interview and a chat with the COO. I am not saying you need to do something like this for every application you submit, but doing a little something to make your application stand out can be helpful.

      I hope this information helps, and I wish you all the best!

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