“I was becoming resentful of how superficial it all was.”

Image of Breanne O’Brien
From Advertising to Charity

Breanne O’Brien knew from an early age that she wanted to do something that would make the world a better place. But, after falling into her initial career, that direction seemed to slip away. Here, she shares how she found her way back to work that feels meaningful for her.

What work were you doing previously?

I have a background in digital advertising, and most recently worked in influencer marketing, a relatively new space within the sector.

What are you doing now?

Ten months ago, after years of forcing the round peg into the square hole with regards to my career, I finally made the switch to the charity sector.

I now work for a social enterprise called Pilotlight, where we connect skilled professionals with charities who need strategic and operational coaching and support.

My role is Partnerships Manager, and I'm responsible for finding new members to join our community. I seek out people with business experience who want to give back in a meaningful way, which means I get to meet with some really interesting people from some exciting businesses and public offices.

Why did you change?

Since I was a child, I always cared deeply about social issues, politics, and the future.

From the time that I knew I’d have to get a job one day, I knew it would be something meaningful and purposeful. I wasn’t prepared for the abyss that one can get sucked into when your career sort of careens down a path you didn’t plan for. You wake up one day and find yourself in a job, not sure how you got there, realising that you did it because someone you knew had found success in it.

There were so many 'red flags' telling me that digital advertising wasn’t where I was supposed to be, but it was becoming more and more difficult to resist the increases in my salary, the fun that I was having, and the ascent up the ladder.

Underneath it all, though, I was becoming a bit resentful of how superficial it all was. I wasn’t getting that sense of fulfilment from my work that I’d always craved, and after a while, it really started to impact my happiness. I was becoming one of those people who rolled my eyes when people asked me what I do. I was rationalising my choices by saying that social issues were just my passion - it was too late to go back to square one now, I’ll just become a philanthropist when I retire. But at the end of every contract, I had this feeling of, “If not now, then when?”

Eventually, it was just a weight sitting on my chest and I knew I had to do something about it.

When was the moment you decided to make the change?

I ended a freelance contract at a marketing events agency after being in a position that I hadn’t particularly enjoyed.

The culture wasn’t very positive or balanced ('so busy' seemed to be everyone’s permanent state), and I remember being grateful that I knew when I’d be leaving because the work was so poorly suited to me.

In hindsight, this was a gift because it was the push I needed. It hit me that I could carry on taking jobs that I didn’t really like, in an industry that wasn’t making me happy because it was easy, or I could take some time off to really focus on investigating companies, organisations, and charities with roles that would interest me.

I realised that there was never going to be a better time, so I made the leap.

Are you happy with the change?

I can honestly say that the last ten months have been the best of my career so far.

I’m being challenged in new ways, growing as a person, doing what I’m good at (finally), and all with a meaningful purpose. I get to meet interesting people. I still get that rush of 'closing a deal', but I leave work at the end of every day feeling like I’ve helped to make a real difference. It’s so much easier to sell something when you truly believe in it.

My team are exceptional too. Working with people who are compassionate, dedicated to something bigger, and are aligned with the mission is life-changing. We’re all so proud to work at Pilotlight, and because of this shared goal we all know why we come into work every day. Our leadership team is great about development, growth, and including us in the direction of the organisation too, so it feels like we all own a bit of Pilotlight.

What do you miss and what don't you miss?

I suppose I sometimes miss the energy and 'fun' of working in marketing, an industry notorious for its 'work hard, play hard' approach, but that never offset the dissatisfaction with the work for me.

The other obvious element is the sizes of budgets in that world and the freedom that they can offer. The sky was the limit, really, and that included salaries. But there’s a reason for that. In those kinds of industries, where you're effectively working to make some execs rich, the lack of purpose means that people burn out faster. The client expectations, the hours, the culture of the agencies, all means that so many people aren’t happy in their day-to-day work. They come in stressed out about deadlines or deliverables, resentful of the abusive relationship they have with their clients, and they wonder what they’re doing it all for.

The salaries and the drink carts on Thursdays make it all go down a little easier, I suppose, but they don’t feed your soul.

How did you go about making the shift?

In one way, I was forced into it because I knew I couldn’t take doing another marketing gig.

Once I decided that I would make the shift, I had to commit to taking the time to really dive deep into where I wanted to go next. I had to swallow my pride and accept the fact that I would probably be taking a salary cut (partly due to my inexperience in the sector and partly due to the nature of the sector itself); I had to be a bit brave and take the risk that I might not find anything at all; and I had to resist the urge to just fall back into the roles that were being offered to me but weren’t what I wanted, at the end of the day. My resolve was tested more than a few times.

After a couple of months of not bringing in any money, of being on the couch every day sending out CVs with no success, and seeing what some of these charities were offering from a salary perspective, I was definitely questioning my decision. Seeing some of the work that these organisations were doing, though, helped to reaffirm that this is what I wanted, and that I was doing the right thing.

What didn’t go well? What wrong turns did you take?

Before getting the offer from Pilotlight, I received a lot of negative responses due to my lack of sector experience.

That was certainly discouraging and a test of my resolve to keep at it.

In interviews it was so obvious that I didn’t know anything about the charity world, and it impacted my confidence in my own ability and what I was bringing to the table.

Some of the places I interviewed at had a staff of only two or three and not a lot of energy or culture. After being in marketing for years, it was difficult to feel that I would ever find the right fit for my personality.

On the same day that I got an offer from Pilotlight, I got an offer from another company that was really enticing. For two days I waffled between the charity path and a totally different path that was a major draw. Again, I was feeling tested; do I really want this? Is this the road I want to go down? Am I really okay with the salary cut?

In the end, I felt a nudge from within telling me that I had already decided years ago what I truly wanted to do. Trusting myself was key.

How did you handle your finances to make your shift possible?

I was lucky enough to have a very supportive and generous partner, but it was definitely a period of being financially strapped.

I had to be much more decisive about how I spent my money, and I had to decide how far into debt I was willing to go.

In a way, though, it was helpful in preparing me for my transition into taking the pay cut that I knew was coming.

What was the most difficult thing about changing?

In the transition period, being unemployed and having people ask me the age-old question: “So, what do you do?” really brought up a lot of feelings of shame for me.

What story was I going to tell? Was I in marketing, was I between jobs, was I working in the third sector? I really had to sit with the discomfort and be OK with where I was, knowing that it was a conscious choice and I had a goal in mind.

The early months in my new role, when I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, were a challenge for me. I was used to being capable, effective, efficient, and I normally had an opinion on everything. Feeling like an intern again was a major ego check, and I think I was hardest on myself. I desperately didn't want to screw up, take too long getting up to speed, or be seen to 'not know'.

I wanted to get right back out there and start meeting people and telling our story, but I had to admit to myself that until I could comfortably and confidently answer the questions that would surely come, I was of no use.

If you asked my boss what one of my challenges has been, he would probably say that I haven’t quite got my head around the work-life balance that exists at our organisation yet.

In my previous work in advertising and marketing, you’re given a work phone and it’s an unspoken rule that you’re to be attached to it 24/7. If something comes in that involves you, you’re on it, even if it’s 10pm or a Sunday or you’re on holiday. I’m still getting the hang of the fact that I'm not expected to always be ON in my new role. When I leave the office at the end of the day, I can shut off and things will be waiting for me in the morning.

As silly as it sounds, that’s been quite an adjustment.

What help did you get?

Personally, I had very supportive friends and family who encouraged me in my move, and who sometimes even reminded me why I was doing this when I started to lose focus.

I had a couple of informational meetings and a few contacts who offered me recommendations or direction, but for the most part I just used the resources I had at hand to scour the internet for positions.

Once I started at Pilotlight, thankfully, I had a supportive supervisor who was patient, answered all my questions, set realistic expectations, and had a really thorough induction process. This was a huge component in restoring my confidence, allowing me to grasp our offering and our story that much faster.

What have you learnt in the process?

I’ve learned that you must trust and follow your gut instinct, stick with your plan, and don’t take the easy road if it leads you back to where you were when you made this decision.

I’ve learned that you cannot compare your story or your choices to anyone else’s, and thus you cannot compare the outcomes.

I’ve learned that even though you can look outward for guidance and advice, the decision is yours to make. No one is living your life, so they don’t know what you should do.

I’ve learned that, for me, purpose is worth so much more than income.

I’ve learned that the people you spend five days a week with can really impact your happiness, without you even realising it, and to choose them wisely.

I’ve learned that 'starting over' isn’t a bad thing and can, indeed, be the best thing.

I’ve learned that if you persevere, you will prevail (I have that tattooed on me!).

I’ve learned that ‘this too shall pass’. Nothing is permanent and you can always change your mind, change direction, and change your outlook.

Most importantly, I’m still learning.

What do you wish you'd done differently?

I want to say that I wish I’d made the move sooner, but then I know that it happened at exactly the right time, so that eases any worries I have about my choices.

What would you advise others to do in the same situation?

Do the research!

Find specific companies or organisations that interest you within your chosen industry, connect with people on LinkedIn who can either provide insight into the role or possibly refer you, and make sure you are over-prepared once you do get an interview.

If you’re switching sectors, you have to do twice the prep work to sound tapped in.

I’d also advise that you try to be patient with yourself in the first few months of a new role.

Ask lots of questions, do some homework when you find there are things you don’t know, but remember that you’re going back to the crawling stage so don’t expect to be running from day one.

What resources would you recommend to others?

Networking has been the biggest asset for me in finding my new job.

Going to events, telling people what I wanted to do (everyone knows someone in X industry), and asking people to coffee was essential for me. Once people get to know you, they’re more open to helping you.

I’d recommend reaching out to people at companies of interest in more senior roles because they’re often more willing to meet. Use them as a resource for learning more about the company, and if they’re willing, as a referrer. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.

LinkedIn was one of the most useful tools for me. I used it to research companies, expand my network in the sector, connect with people in similar roles, and find job openings.

I’d also recommend finding job boards that might be more specific to your sector.

Thanks to Pilotlight for this story. To find out more about its work, visit www.pilotlight.org.uk.

What lessons could you take from Breanne's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.

Plus, if you know someone who's made a successful shift into work they love, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at [email protected]. and you could win a £25 / $35 voucher in our monthly draw.