This is not something I recommend, but I quit my sales job without having another job. I decided I wanted to work for a nonprofit no matter what. I was even willing to make a lateral or a downward move in my career in order to change industries.

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NAME

Sophie Besl

JOB TITLE

Senior Communications Manger

LOCATION

Boston, MA

SALARY

Undisclosed

NUMBER OF YEARS IN THE FIELD

5 years

COMPANY

Jobs for the Future

Education

Harvard University, 2004-2008
B.A., Government

Career Bio

The profession

I’m a senior communications manager at the education and job training nonprofit, Jobs for the Future.

The nonprofit field is very rewarding. You do make a lower salary in a nonprofit role than you do in that equivalent role in a corporate company. When I made the switch to a nonprofit, I’d been working in corporate for about four years.

I’m not in direct service. I don’t work face to face with the people we serve. A lot of nonprofit jobs you do, but some you don’t. I joke that when I first started working here, I'd just send e-mail all day and update spreadsheets. But all that goes towards a really important mission, as opposed to making more money for a company that I may or may not really care about. It’s not for everyone, but it helps me sleep at night! And I’ve heard about a lot of other people making this switch in their life too.

How I got here

I come from a family of four in Michigan--my mom, my dad, and my younger sister. My dad went to Princeton. He was very career driven. He worked a lot. His career was in computers, in a job I still don’t fully understand. My mom didn’t work for most of my growing up, and ended up taking over a job I had before college, as an assistant teacher at our temple. I’d done it for five years, and the year I couldn’t do it anymore because I was going to college, they asked my mom if she wanted the job, and she said yes. She’s still doing that job.

A lot of girls might feel like they couldn’t go into a computer job, but I felt like that was a possibility for me because of my dad--I just didn’t have the patience for a career like that. My mom affected me in that I knew I wanted to work and be self-sufficient, because I think she didn’t like being so dependent on someone else. I didn’t ever want to find myself in the position she found herself in.

I interned in the State Senate and in the Federal Senate in Massachusetts. I originally wanted to work in government because I wanted to change the world and help people. But when I interned in government, everything moved very slowly and it was very difficult to get anything done. It was too frustrating, so I stopped working in government after those internships.

I didn’t have a business background, but straight out of school, I went into inside sales in advertising and marketing. I just wanted a job that I knew I could get, and people are always looking for sales people. And inside sales is more entry level than outside sales, which is when you actually go visit people to make the sales calls. I was selling advertising at a legal publication. Through this job I was able to explore a lot of different interests at once: advertising, marketing and law. I was still considering going to law school. I was talking to lawyers all day everyday about whether that was a career I wanted to pursue. I probably talked to 100 lawyers in the first year and only two told me to pursue a law degree and the rest of them all told me not to! As is evident, I did not go to law school or become a lawyer.

So I got some exposure to the legal field and working in advertising. I got some basic knowledge of marketing and eventually felt I outgrew that company. I moved to what I assumed would be a higher paying sales job in software sales. Both of these roles are business-to-business as opposed to business-to-consumer. Business-to-consumer marketing is what companies like Puma or Reebok do. They’re marketing directly to a consumer. Both of my past jobs were marketing to another business selling a service for a business. By the way, these are things I learned as an adult. When I was a kid I only knew doctor, teacher, nurse. I didn’t know anything about any of these jobs!

When I was in the software sales job, one of the business sectors we were selling to, was nonprofits. This is when I learned that there is the public sector that is government, the private sector that is corporation, and then there is this third sector that is nonprofits. I’d never heard of a third sector or considered it! I thought if you worked in a non-profit you’d be paying your own salary by holding a bake sale! I just didn’t think there were jobs. The way that we would research potential sales leads for the software sales was by looking into the revenues for the nonprofits. If you’re a 501c3 you have to make your information public, so we’d look up their annual revenues. These nonprofits had multimillion-dollar revenues and were the size of small and large corporate business. They were not running based on bake sales! I realized the third sector had a lot of the traits of the corporate environment which I admired in terms of how it ran like being more agile, running more quickly, being able to adapt to its customers and its market but also had what I liked about the public sector which is that it was mission driven and was focused on social issues with the aim of making a difference.

This is not something I recommend, but I quit my sales job without having another job. I decided I wanted to work for a nonprofit no matter what. I was even willing to make a lateral or a downward move in my career in order to change industries. I was applying for entry-level nonprofit jobs and I was temping. I temped for about four months. I was applying for all kinds of jobs, development, assistant, front-desk reception, program manager, and program associate. I got the job I have now through one of the temp agencies.

A typical day

I oversee a small communications department. We have two writers, two graphic designers, two project managers, two people in our events team and then a director above us who supervises all of us. We work on all manner of projects supporting the initiatives of our nonprofit that is nation wide. We work with school districts, community colleges and workforce development boards.

In a given day I’ll have several meetings with either one on one or a small group of our communications staff, briefing them on projects, checking in with them on how the projects are going or guiding them in next steps of what to do. And then I will be in meetings with the people running the initiatives who are the subject matter experts either just myself, myself and my supervisor or a mix of designer, writer and other staff.

The types of initiatives that we might be working on in these meetings are apprenticeships in manufacturing and hospitality, getting people who are incarcerated either as adults or in the juvenile justice system educated and transitioning back to work, getting students who have dropped out of high school not only earning a high school equivalency but also moving on to college course work, and focusing on a STEM career. A lot of these programs are focusing on women, minorities and what we call non-traditional students or underserved populations.

Products that we’re working on to get the word out about these initiatives or these issues as a communications department include working on websites, blogs, publications we write and produce, social media posts, web tools, videos and we’ve just now started doing some podcast content.

The hardest parts

The worst part of the job is when you’re not able to drive strategy or strategic planning for your own work. That can happen for a wide variety of reasons. Maybe the client has too much ownership over it and you have to defer to the client or you’re in disagreement with another stakeholder. But it’s challenging when you have an idea and either the ideas don’t get approved for implementation is not possible for whatever reason.

The best parts

On the other hand, it’s really great when you get to run the strategy of a campaign or product. Say the campaign is to get the word out about training workers in green jobs it’s great when you get to decide everything about that campaign like what it will be called, the design, how it’s posted on social media, what reporters to call, and how to post it on the website.

The myths of the profession

Everyone is poor or desperate in nonprofits! That’s not true.

The workplace

At corporate marketing departments one person writes the email, a different person sends the email. Everyone only does one thing and has a very specific role. In a nonprofit, everyone has to wear multiple hats and it's all hands on deck. I really like that because it keeps the job more interesting. In a nonprofit everyone is problem solving and everyone is chipping in. Even the really big nonprofits will never get to the level of a corporate job where everyone has just one job role so I think that makes the job more interesting.

I went from working at a company that was 20 percent women to a company that is 70 percent women when I transitioned from working at corporation to an education nonprofit. People say it’s different with female leadership and it definitely is! It’s much more collaborative which has positives and negatives. Working with all women is great and I don’t have to deal with the issue of “are they not listening to or not valuing my idea because I’m a woman?” And that’s awesome! That’s something I’ve felt for the first time in my life at this company that is vast majority women.

There was a time at our company where the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief Executive Officer and the Chief Financial Officer were all lesbians and out! Their partners would come to the holiday parties. In general, because the way I present is very femme, and I’ve had male and female partners during the time I’ve worked at these different companies, my identity can be invisible, so it’s great to see that visibility. Because of the way I present, sometimes I’m invisible as a queer person and people have sometimes made comments they might not have made if they knew I was queer, but in general it’s a very diverse and supportive environment. For example, right now we’re moving to get non-gendered bathroom signs at our office.

We also have really good benefits. At three years you get three weeks vacation, four years you get four weeks vacation, five years you get five weeks vacation and you can roll over two weeks into the following year if you don’t use it. Every year I do hear that people lose vacation days even with the rollover but that’s because they didn’t set their own boundaries with work/life balance. They didn’t advocate for themselves and get the days scheduled on the calendar. I think a lot of people feel guilty about leaving work and taking vacation but it’s your right! You just need to do it. Vacation does increase your productivity over all. You work more efficiently and effectively if you recharge and then come back to work. There is no reason to even feel guilty about it! It’s proven.

Work/life balance has been an issue that is up for discussion for the organization as a whole. Definitely some people struggle with it, working during their vacation, working on weekends. It’s something the organization is working on as a whole to encourage people to have better work/life balance. It’s really about setting your own boundaries. If you choose to work 24/7 you can, and you will, and people will e-mail you all the time. But if you set your own boundaries that you’re not going to check emails after 6 p.m. or 8 p.m., that you’re not going to check emails on the weekends then people will respect that and it’s fine. It creeps in to the extent that you let it. There is always more work to do but you can set that boundary for yourself. Something that helps with this is that they allow for a flexible schedule. For example, if you need to come in late because you were dropping your kids off at school or daycare or leave early to pick them up, that’s very accepted. If you leave for dentist or doctors appointments that’s fine as long as you just make up that time. And about 30 percent of our office is remote so there is a good work from home policy as well.

Our dress code just changed and now we’re allowed to wear jeans. Before it was just jeans on Friday. Now as long as when you have an external meeting with a client you look very professional it’s fine if just in the office to wear jeans. It’s very casual.

Advice for someone thinking about going into the field

Going to a liberal arts college can be really interesting. You can learn a lot about literature, and history, and film, and why things are the way they are. But if you know you want to work in something like business, marketing, sales, communication, finance, or culinary arts I’d recommend going to a college that is more tailored to those fields and offers programs in those fields because if you know what you want to do it’s never too early to start learning how to do that job. Liberal arts students often find themselves in these programs if they don’t know what they want to do.

Don’t be afraid to do what you’re actually interested in, versus what you feel is the “right” job to have, or the “right” career to pursue. I’ve seen a lot of people go down a certain path because they think that’s what their parents would want them to do, or they think it would make them more money, but if you’re passion is aligned with what you’re doing, that will be more lucrative for you, even if it’s a traditionally less lucrative career path. There is so much more potential to mine with what you’re doing. Each day will be so much more fulfilling so it’s definitely worth it.

Advanced degrees may not be necessary to get into this field. There is a lot you can learn on the Internet in terms of this field. The best practices change all the time because marketing has become so much more digital. The digital trends and way of doing things change all the time. The platforms are always changing so you’re always doing things differently. So if it’s a field you’re interested in you can start doing research online and get articles about best marketing practices and about content marketing. Compared to other careers that might be more obscure, you can learn a lot about this field on your own.

The thing about being a graduate of Harvard is so many people went into finance or consulting right away, and many have founded their own companies by my age and are very successful. Or they’ve published a book! I wasn’t talking to a lot of people about these career shifts, probably not even my own family. They were just decisions I felt I had to make. It’s very important to not think in terms of what some call life on a ladder. It’s very important to not think of yourself above, or below, other people, because you’ll drive yourself crazy if you compare your progress to others.

Advice to my younger self

Be less afraid of testing out the waters and trying different careers. Reach out and ask for help. Don’t be afraid to bother someone with more years in the field.