Former corporate lawyer shares how to ditch the grind and find meaningful nonprofit work.
Ever dream of ditching the ruthless money-making grind of the corporate world and digging into meaningful work at a nonprofit?
Betsy Werley, who spent 26 years working first as a corporate lawyer and then leading business projects at JPMorgan Chase, felt that urge. “I was one month shy of my 50th birthday, and I thought, ‘I’m not getting any younger. Go out and let that next big thing happen.'”
And she did. Five years ago, Werley signed on as executive director ofThe Transition Network (TTN), a New York City-based nonprofit that helps women over 50 through career changes. When she took the reins, there was one major chapter in NYC and a few other chapters starting to gel. Today, there are nine, including chapters in central Ohio, Chicago, Connecticut, Houston, Long Island, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., and new ones set to launch in Baltimore, Boston, Boulder and Atlanta. Total community: more than 6,000 women.
Werley has never looked back, and she is now a regular speaker on transitioning to the nonprofit sector and work changes in general. “Your passion for the mission should be what brings you to the organization, to that sector,” she says. “It was for me.”
In a conversation with SecondAct contributor Kerry Hannon, Werley talks about her career change and shares advice for others heading down the same path.
SA: What was your first step?
BW: I began by looking for boards to get involved with as a volunteer. I wasn’t necessarily planning a career in nonprofit work at the time, but I knew it would open up a lot of opportunities. I surfed onto BoardnetUSA.org, a website for anyone looking for a nonprofit board. Once you’ve posted your information, you get a weekly e-mail with a list of organizations looking for people who fit your profile.
SA: Volunteering is a big time zapper, isn’t it?
BW: It can be, but it’s fundamental to starting over in a new field. It’s important that you start developing some in-depth experience in an area that interests you. Do something apart from your job where you’re building skills and a network.
Through a friend’s recommendation, I joined the Financial Women’s Association (FWA), a professional networking association. Before long, I became president, which is really a full-time job, at the same time I was still at Chase. It was one of those ‘You won’t know what day it is’ times.
SA: What other moves did you make to help your transition?
BW: I got involved with a more traditional, social service nonprofit. I took courses at New York University in areas where I felt I needed some rounding–for instance, technology for nonprofits. I subscribed to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a very informative biweekly paper, along with their website, Philanthropy.com.
I worked with a consultant to develop a nonprofit-oriented resume. Your resume must show very clearly what experience you have and how it applies to the organization you’re talking to. Your heart and soul, however, go into your cover letter, which shows what attracts you to the organization and what skills you bring. I networked like crazy. I took a pretty broad approach to learning and meeting with people and continuing to build my network…somewhat fearlessly.
SA: How did you dig deeper into that network and take the casual meetings to the next level?
BW: Once I made a connection, I was upfront about asking for guidance. I learned about The Transition Network job through a contact at the FWA, who got the job posting by e-mail. She knew what I was looking for and forwarded the posting to me. (Lesson: Be clear about what you’re looking for so friends can keep you in mind.)
SA: What role did financial rewards play in your decision?
BW: I’ve always been a saver, so I was really in a position to take a massive pay cut. I was earning in the solid six figures. Now it’s well under $100,000, but I would say I am fairly compensated, compared to other nonprofit salaries. I was able to negotiate an above-average amount of vacation as a tradeoff. In a small, growing organization, you can be creative about negotiating nonmonetary perks like flexible hours or vacation.
SA: What are some of the biggest challenges of working for a nonprofit?
BW: Typically decisions are made by consensus, so you’re not in a command-and-control environment. Many of the people looking to make job changes, like me, have been managers and leaders. We were used to essentially telling people what to do and having financial incentives that get people to do that. In the nonprofit world, there’s a shared sense of the mission, a collaborative decision-making environment. You need to know yourself–is this just going to drive you crazy? And no matter how many resources you have, it’s never enough.
SA: What’s the strength behind The Transition Network?
BW: It has to be the combination of dynamic women helping each other learn and grow through their support and inspiration. TTN is unique in offering programs that get participants talking to the other people in the room; volunteer opportunities where people work in teams; and peer groups, which meet monthly to talk about topics, including transitions, job hunts, starting a business, travel, current events, living alone, living with a partner…whatever issues or new ideas people want to explore.
SA: Besides The Transition Network, what passions do you hold dear?
BW: I’m an adopted New Yorker–31 years ago. I quickly fell in love with ballet, opera and museums. I’m also devoted to mentoring. I am a firm believer that mentoring goes two ways. We all have a lot to learn from each other.