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

Alexis Perrotta profile image

Alexis Perrotta

A work office with someone working on a laptop.

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!

A picture of a Cynthia Avila.

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!

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Alexis Perrotta profile image

Alexis Perrotta

As the Associate Director of Marketing and Communications at Idealist and a lifelong nonprofit professional, Alexis offers job seekers, game changers, and do gooders actionable tips, career resources, and social-impact advice.

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