Career Change: Beltway Bound
November 7, 2005 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Midlife career change road map needed! Help my friend become a DC-based advocacy/lobbyist type.

After much soul-searching and What-Color-is-my-Parachuting, my closest friend has realized that he has the skills and desire to go to work doing advocacy for non-profits or policy groups, and would like to work in or around Washington, D.C.

Some information which may help: He's 38. As an undergrad, he studied biology, and after college, taught biology in the field and in public school. He moved into the administration of a large environmental education program, doing day-to-day management and staff training. He was also given the role of representing the program on the road, doing presentations and information sessions for prospective students and parents. From this he went into his present position as a conference center director. He schedules and plans conference group programs at a large facility. This involves ambassadorship, meeting and working with an astounding variety of people, and seeing to nitty-gritty details while playing the consummate host. He's great at this work, but not satisfied by it.

There are a number of causes and public policy areas he cares deeply about. Education, the environment, and gay rights are probably the top three. He would not be willing to do work that would compromise his values, so there are many types of advocacy he would prefer to avoid. In other words, he doesn't want to work for a slimeball front group - he'd hope to work for some of the good guys. Since he's been in NFPs all his life, his salary expectations are reasonable.

His skills are formidable. He's an incredibly engaging person who can charm anyone. He's got an encyclopedic knowledge of American demographics, politics, and geography. He's travelled to almost all the U.S. States. He's great at public speaking, giving presentations, and wining and dining. He enjoys travel, even relentless business travel.

He works best as a right-hand man. That means that he is that excellent lieutenant that will dedicate himself to his employer's vision - he responds well to a strong, clear structure, and would rather deal in people and ideas than in details and minutiae. He is also not likely to spend his evenings buried in long manuals and research materials. His talents lie in recieving information that has already been digested, and repackaging it for lay consumption. He's persuasive.

So my questions are several. For those who work in the advocacy field, what qualifications would strengthen his profile? What advice or knowledge would you give someone transferring into this field? Does he need a graduate degree? In what? What are the major job-finding newsletters and resources? Would you recommend that he identify organizations he'd like to work for and approach them for employment, or take a more global approach and remain flexible about what he would do? Are there important books about the field that he should be reading? Who might he want to contact for an informational interview?
posted by Miko to Work & Money (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd recommend that your friend interview with the PIRGs. They have a big lobbying office in DC, and offices in many states around the country. They are likely working on issues that would interest your friend. The PIRGs don't pay very well, but what they lack in monetary compensation, they make up for by giving people lots of responsibility to make a difference on real issues. They are effective, and they often hire people with background in other fields.

ObDisclaimer: I work for a PIRG-related organization, having transitioned from for-profit work in the computer field. I now spend my days working on issues like global warming and endocrine-disrupting toxics.
posted by alms at 10:17 AM on November 7, 2005

As always, IdeaList for listings. GuideStar is a great place to look up annual filings information on anyplace your friend is considering working; it's often useful to see what they're paying the high muckitymucks and where their money comes from and where it goes.
posted by phearlez at 10:35 AM on November 7, 2005

I can only answer the last question. Your friend may want to contact Rodney Ferguson, who heads up Lipman Hearne's public affairs office in D.C. Lipman Hearne only works for nonprofits, so the company or one like it might be a good fit for your friend.
posted by Sully6 at 10:50 AM on November 7, 2005

Is your friend interested at all in fundraising/development work? That's where most of the frequent job openings in nonprofits seem to be, and where a generalist might have the most luck. It sounds like although he doesn't have fundraising experience, he has all the skills to do well IF (big if) someone else would be handling the details of grant reports etc.
posted by footnote at 12:23 PM on November 7, 2005

One of the things that struck me as you were describing your friend was the fact that he might be well suited to grassroots work. His trends toward public speaking, personality, the ability to take in information and "repackage it for lay consumption" all speak to the ideas of grassroots work. There are many places that are doing this in DC (of course), he may want to look into it.

Regarding some of your other questions: I would suggest he do both a wide search in lobby groups in the hope of happening upon something he likes, as well as targetting a few dream groups he would love to work for. I've lived and worked in DC for 3 years now, and have wanted to work at my current office since I moved here. Unfortunately, they're a small office and don't hire often. But, through keeping up with a few people in the office and checking the job area of their website, I finally landed a job here and started working last Tuesday. Perserverence and knowing the right people both help.

He does not need to have an advanced degree to do this work, but if he's going to start working on crafting actual policy, he's probably going to want either a Masters in Public Policy or a law degree.

To be honest, I don't know much about the education lobbying field, but in environment there are plenty of good places to start, including the National Resources Defence Council, the PIRGs (as stated above), or even the Department of the Interior.
In gay rights, simply contact the Human Rights Campaign and they should be able to point him in the right direction.

Finally, if he wants someone to throw questions at someone who's lived in DC for a little while and is working at a lobby group, my email is in my profile (for the time being).
posted by Inkoate at 2:13 PM on November 7, 2005

He should put his political network into play -- a conference center director probably has a lot of relationships to leverage, even if he doesn't quite realize it.

Senior Congressional staffers are great sources of intelligence about what lobby / advocacy organizations are effective and offer a reasonable work environment (two characteristics which all too frequently don't coincide), and an even better source of introductions for job seekers.

The advanced degree is also important if he's willing to take a long-term view. DC is a credentials-crazy place, with left-leaning organizations typically more credentials insistent and top-down than right-wing organizations. ("Foster egalitarianism, don't practice it" is a working principle in more places than you'd think.)
posted by MattD at 3:08 PM on November 7, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks, all. Those this question was pretty highly specialized and didn't draw an avalanche of responses, each one was useful. I won't select a 'best' because all are valuable. Career changes are tricky, and I'm glad to have the resources of MeFi to make my buddy's easier. Much obliged.
posted by Miko at 7:18 PM on November 16, 2005

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