Among Idealist Careers readers, nonprofit communications, PR, and event planning have been popular career areas of interest. Jhia Jackson and I recently spent some time talking with Vanessa Wakeman, founder of The Wakeman Agency, an award-winning event management and public relations firm that serves a national roster of nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and socially responsible companies.
Whether you’ve been interested in nonprofit public relations or you’re just curious about Vanessa’s work, read on!
How did you become interested in nonprofit public relations?
It was an interesting start. Prior to starting the agency I worked at Morgan Stanley as a technologist. I knew I wanted to do something different, so I left that job and opened an event planning company. One of my first clients needed my PR help and asked if we could assist them. I had no prior PR experience and only a basic understanding of what it was. I had studied English in college and could write. What we did for them worked really well for them and had such a community impact.
Before starting my agency, I remember sitting in a conference room at Morgan Stanley and was asking myself, “if not this, what should it be?” I had studied English and thought I would be a teacher but I knew that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go into, so I wanted to start my own business. The idea of organizing events and creating experiences was interesting to me even though I didn’t have experience in it. So I took some time off to talk to others who work in event planning and got more insights. I didn’t know the inner workings of those organizations but I was naive enough to think that I had a really good idea.
That is such great advice to job seekers, to talk to professionals in the field that you are interested in and learn more about it before plunging in!
What advice would you give someone who is interested in a career in nonprofit event planning and public relations?
It’s not as glamorous as people think. They see the photos of the event and they are excited about that, or meeting that influential person. But there is a lot of work and a lot of steps involved. There’s a lot that goes into it. The people we work with (at the nonprofits) tend to be overworked and are doing a lot with less resources than a corporation would have.
It’s a long game- we don’t work with a client and create change in one day. It starts by getting the organization more visibility so more people are supporting it. You have to be “impatiently patient”.
What skills should someone who is interested in nonprofit public relations or event management have?
The ability to create a strategy is really important. Many people can execute really well but you also need to be able to quickly assess the viability of an organization- will it be able to make a million dollars? And what will be required to get there?
Strategic mindset is critical to move and accelerate progress. Understanding the issues is also important. We don’t work with a potential client if we don’t understand what they do or have passion for what they do.
Passion plays a real part and anyone going into business should have passion for what they do. There are some great nonprofits that approached us and we just didn’t feel we were the right people (for their job). While I am competitive and I like to win, you need to have that connection (to their work) when people are tired, in order to get through those hurdles.
You also need scale. To create change, you have to understand that social change is about movement and feeling so connected that you want to do something. There’s no shame in preaching to your choir but you want to educate more people and create that emotional connection. That creates a bigger opportunity to have something happen. Scale an idea and find solutions for a problem.
What was your introduction to social change and how did that affect your career choices?
Without realizing it at the time, looking back I see there were lots of breadcrumbs of a social justice and advocacy spin throughout my life. I hadn’t paid attention to it earlier. My grandfather was very involved in the civil rights movement and passed that passion to my mom to fight against injustices.
My first job as a teenager was at a catering company. We didn’t get any breaks and I thought that was insane, especially for the people who worked longer than I did as an after-school employee, so I organized us to get longer breaks. While I wound up getting fired, the workers got what we wanted as a result- better working conditions and flexible schedules. Several years later I bumped into the boss and she was so lovely to me and I said, “you do remember you fired me right?” And she said, “I always fire the ones who are troublemakers and turn out to be really smart,”
I noticed a new initiative on your site- Films for Change. Tell us about it!
We have been seeing a trend that social change issues have been making their way into the mainstream. Studios are getting behind stories about real issues- education, climate change, and the like. There are a lot of independent filmmakers who are interested in telling the stories in social change but may not have the resources or the desire to promote the film or educate the public. Most often, the people who see those movies are already into social change.
So, what if we were to offer a packaged service? How can we use our PR experience to get those stories viewed by bigger audiences? It’s pretty new but I think that we are going to start seeing more organizations wanting that kind of support. To get people seeing these types of films and learning about the issues.
Switching gears a little- during a previous conversation, you mentioned that women need to be better at taking risks. What are the types of leaps you think women should take? What types of plans should they put in place when they want to take a risk, or should they just jump in head-first?
The thing that I have learned is to trust myself. There’s no shortage of external counsel from friends and family, experts, teachers, bosses, and coworkers, and I’m appreciative of the community that supports me... but It’s like the moral of the story of The Wizard of Oz: it’s always been with you and within you.
We need to listen to our bodies and intuition- if it doesn’t feel right to you, trust yourself, that whatever you are feeling is telling you what you need to know. That alone is taking a risk. What we should be doing is listening to ourselves. Imagine that you’ve got this great job offer but something feels weird about the organization. And others are saying,” are you crazy? You can make double what you want!” And then you take the job and you’re miserable.
Why do you think most women don’t take professional risks?
I never would have had such rich experiences if I hadn’t taken the risks. Well, I think that there’s a lot of chatter about where we should be at certain points in our lives, what it should look like. A lot of us have been brought up as girls with a certain vision of what the path of success looks like and we are following the route of the collective. When we don’t follow that, it’s like, “why is she doing that?” We assume that the backlash of taking the risk is more painful than the risk itself. Don’t be afraid. It’s okay if it doesn’t work out, that’s why we are here- to learn, to live. I feel like my life has been enriched with really exciting opportunities to cultivate new skills. I would not have gotten that in the halls of Morgan Stanley doing desktop technology.
What can people do to get more comfortable with risk-taking?
Start with little risks. Maybe it’s not dropping out of grad school in your last semester. Perhaps you always wanted to be a doctor, but you take some classes in creative writing because you secretly had that desire to write a book. Make healthy risks a part of your lifestyle.
What has been your most successful risk and why?
I think I’ve taken a lot of different kinds of risks but opening this business was one of them. I quit my job where I was successful and had a team that worked with me. I didn’t have one event planning or media contact. I didn’t know the proper processes or how to pitch the media or send press releases. Everything was based on what made sense to me. That’s risky but it worked for me. I was doing something risky but believed it was the right thing to do for me at that time. I would say when you’re taking a risk be open to it not working exactly as you wanted and surrender into it being better than what you planned. I had planned what I envisioned this business to look like. I thought I would plan weddings for luxury brides, and I had a public access show called The Wedding Coach. I didn’t know my legacy was going to be doing events and PR for organizations that are involved in social justice and making a difference.
Thank you so much for speaking with us today, Vanessa!
Vanessa Wakeman, is the founder of The Wakeman Agency, an award-winning event management and public relations firm that serves a national roster of nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and socially responsible companies. Known for acting upon their clients’ pressing issues as if they were their own, the Wakeman Agency helps build awareness in the social impact sphere.
By Victoria Crispo