Should You Specialize?

Should You Specialize?

Many freelancers would argue that specializing in the nonprofit sector is itself enough specialization. But let me make the case for going even further.

With just a simple Google search, we can find answers to very detailed, specific questions. We can find people who know the answers to problems we didn’t even know we had. The Web makes that kind of specialized assistance available to everyone immediately, and we are growing accustomed to it as a society.

This translates into our purchasing behavior. No one buys coffee anymore.  You buy decaf, or French roast, or flavored, or Fair Trade, or Ethiopian, or whatever. You have choices, and you get exactly what you want. I argue that nonprofits have the same choices available to them with freelancer and consultants.

Because 99% of what we do can be done online, nonprofits across the country, and across the world, can hire us. And because there are so many freelancers and consultants online, it’s hard for a nonprofit to decide who is the best choice. Those decisions are often made based on recommendations from others.

But if you stack up five freelancer websites against each other, odds are that the nonprofit communications director will pick the freelancer who describes herself in ways that match up with what the communications director needs or identifies with. That requires some level of specialization.

Specialization helps you in other ways too:

  • It gives focus to your own marketing materials, including your website, which makes it easier for nonprofits searching on specific keywords to find you.
  • It makes it easier to narrow down the entire nonprofit sector to a targeted list of potential clients.
  • It means you get better at what you do more quickly, because you do the same thing more often.
  • It often means you can charge more for your expertise.

Specialization does have its downsides.

  • You may limit your potential client base.  When I first started out, I planned to do writing and editing for environmental groups. That was too narrow. I ended up doing communications planning, writing, editing, and graphic design for progressive causes, adding animal and social service organizations to the enviros.
  • You may get bored. If you enjoy lots of variety, then specializing may feel monotonous to you.
  • You may not know what you like. If you are just starting out, you may not yet know what you prefer.
  • You may get locked out. If you are known as a specialist, you may get locked out of new and exciting opportunities because people may think of what you do too narrowly.

You have lots of latitude in how you go about specializing. You might work for organizations in specific fields, like the environment or health. You might lean toward causes that are considered to be more liberal or more conservative. You might specialize by geographic area or size of the nonprofits. Many freelancers and consultants specialize according to the type of writing they do, such as grantwriting, fundraising packages, event marketing, or media relations or the kinds of strategies they produce, such as strategic plans, board development strategies, etc.

For most freelancers, I think some level of specialization is helpful. But that doesn’t mean generalizing won’t work either. After all, my friend Ruth Thaler-Carter uses the trademarked motto “I can write about anything!” in her marketing!

  • Heather

    Hi, I was on the writer’s den call the other day–great info. How do you get enough experience to know what to specialize in? I’ve done brochures, letters, and press releases pro bono for a nonprofit, but nothing bigger. Thanks.

    • Kivi Leroux Miller

      Think about what parts of the work you enjoy most and would love to study and learn more about.

  • Karen Fisher

    Funny you should write this today. I have been thinking a lot lately how much more passion I feel for the work I do with NFPs with whose causes I personally connect with.

  • Margaux O’Malley

    Thank you Kivi! These are great points, and well timed for me. I’ve been narrowing my focus more and more since I started “building websites for nonprofits” (in 1999, that was very specialized!). It feels right and good, but I’m still occasionally nervous about missing the opportunities that only mostly fit. Your words give me more confidence to continue in the direction I’m already going — to focus on nonprofits who work human rights issues in Latin America. Thank you again!

    • Kivi Leroux Miller

      sounds like a great niche!