Vanessa Wakeman, Founder & CEO, of The Wakeman Agency, a social change firm providing strategic communications support to nonprofits and socially responsible companies, discusses how brands can start integrating social justice into their messaging in an authentic way. She dives into the agency’s Louder than Words initiative, which was developed to help correct pervasive funding inequities in the social change sector, through the first ever directory of BIPOC led nonprofits. The directory will provide pathways for socially responsible companies to identify and partner with nonprofits led by people of color. Vanessa also emphasizes the power of language and the need to evaluate and adjust the use of certain phrases that do not reflect or create a sense of belonging for all.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: VANESSA WAKEMAN
DOUG: So, how do brands who haven’t been engaged on social issues, haven’t been vocal about that, if they decide they need to, how do they get started in a way that will seem authentic?
VANESSA: Well, first, I think they need to do some listening, and sort of understand what the issues are. We saw last year a lot of organizations sort of jump in without being fully up to speed on some of the issues that were brought to the forefront. And so, taking the moment, not feeling like you need to be part of the cool kids group or the popular kids and sort of doing what everyone else does, but really thinking about what are the values of the organization and what issues do we want to align ourselves with. I think previously we didn’t talk about sort of social issues in the workplace. That was left for people to sort of grapple with or support on their own time. And we’ve seen a shift right, where employees want to work with organizations that are committed to certain causes or care about certain things. Consumers want the same, shareholders in some cases are looking for that. And so, really thinking about what an organization stands for, who do you want to be. So, I find that right now, or at least over the last year, organizations have had to some degree, an identity crisis, sort of like,” who are we? What should we be?” And so, the opportunity here is to sort of think about who do we want to be. Wherever we were 10 years ago doesn’t necessarily sort of serve our purpose right now and thinking about the issues that they really care about so that it can be embedded into the culture, rather than appearing to be performative or sort of reactive to pressure.
DOUG: And you talk about being performative and reactive. It’s very difficult for a corporation that needs to sort of make a change when they’ve been one way for a long time. When they’re going about that change, how do they communicate it best to internal stakeholders?
VANESSA: Well, I think that what’s important is to get in conversation with the employees. If I’m working for a company, I’d like to believe that I have some say or an ability to sort of raise any issues, or suggestions, or recommendations about what things are in alignment. Because you really want the entire organization to be behind whatever it is. And you also want it to be a longer-term commitment versus responding in a moment. And so, thinking about “is this a cause that is connected to the communities that we may be working with or that our locations geographically may be in?” “Are there sort of support that we’ve done for organizations previously that now this makes sense for us to deepen our commitment?” And I think having those conversations with staff members, even looking at some of the employee giving, a lot of companies have got matching programs that you can see where your employees are spending their funds and thinking about where do we want to put our money and our leadership and support over the next X number of years and being realistic about what that commitment means. And the other part of it that’s really important is supporting those organizations or those causes in a way where you’re not coming in with the assumption that you know better because you’re the bigger, stronger, more influential sort of player in the room, but sort of giving the opportunity for your circle of influence to be yielded in a way that provides power to the organizations that you’re trying to help.
DOUG: And a key part of that is corporations continue to align, as part of their CSR, with non-profit groups. How do they go about finding non-profit groups that may be led by people of color? I believe your organization is sort of taking steps forward to make that information accessible.
VANESSA: Yes. So, we found… we did some research, and we found that non-profit organizations that are led by Black and Brown people receive significantly less financial support than their white counterparts. And then we talk to corporations. We hear that sometimes they have challenges, or they don’t know any non-profit organizations that are led by Black and Brown people. They only know maybe some of the larger organizations. So, we created something called ‘Louder Than Words.’ It is a directory that has a listing of non-profits that are led by people of color, and the goal is for corporations to use the resource to identify organizations that they’d like to align themselves with. And we’re asking corporations to consider making unrestricted gifts to those organizations directly. We have nothing to do with that. We’re just providing the data. I’m really wanting to sort of start shifting the way philanthropy and corporate giving is thought about. There’s incredibly long grant applications, a lot of the smaller grassroots community organizations are often kept out, and so wanting to sort of create some equity in this process and an opportunity to really create solutions to problems that can be solved with the proper resources.
DOUG: That’s really impactful if you can help make that change and create that awareness and provide access. But for non-profits, potentially, there’s been a risk to their own authenticity. If they’re partnering with corporations, maybe from the non-profit side, how do they have a role in picking better partners if they can? Obviously, their need for financial support is so important, and how do you navigate when you are working with a corporate partner to make that most effective for both the outcomes they’re looking for, for their own organization and for the corporation clearly as part of the whole process?
VANESSA: That’s a great question. So, one of the biggest challenges that I find that non-profits have when it comes to corporate partnerships is the fear of losing the money. And so, there’s often this standard that we have to do everything that the corporate partner wants, even if it doesn’t serve us, because we know that they can take their money elsewhere. And that’s real, and I’ve seen it happen. So, organizations who are underfunded sometimes are having the conversations about “would it be OK? Like this partner isn’t directly aligned or not as aligned as we’d like, but they can write us a six-figure check which will really help to accelerate progress on the issues we care about. What do we do? And I find that most of them really are sort of doubling down on their sort of authenticity around who they are and what they stand for. So, I think the opportunity here is not so much for the nonprofits, but for the corporations to rethink and reimagine what their role could be, and sort of how they want to have those relationships, where they want to feel their power, where they want to sort of have shared power in relationships and also being clear about what you want. And so, sometimes an organization will say, “hey, we want to write an organization a check for $100,000, and then twice a year we’re going to send out volunteers down to help paint the school or do this thing.” Painting school and having 500 people there that is unruly and unmanageable is not really helpful. So, asking, “how can we help? What do you need from us?” And for non-profits to hopefully be positioned to be able to say ‘no, thank you’ when things just don’t make sense for their organizations.
DOUG: And it’s also different than a pop in, pop out. It probably makes more sense if a corporation is going to support a nonprofit, to think in terms of at least it’s a three-year plan. How are we going to help them this year, next year and in the future, versus a little bit to this one, a little bit to another and then another on to the next year where you keep changing. So, it really does need to match what the goals of the corporation and non-profit are both about.
VANESSA: Yeah, there’s a lot of ‘sing for your supper’ relationships where an organization would be funded one year and then they have to go and reapply and go through this arduous process again year after year. And there are some organizations that give multi-year grants, but overall, there is a lot of work that goes into the process of identifying resources for financial and professional development of the leadership. And I think that over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of interesting conversations about how philanthropy needs to shift. And so, I’m hoping that the outcomes from some of that will be some changes and relaxation of rules around how organizations are selected for funding opportunities.
DOUG: Vanessa, you like talking about the importance of the power of the language that we use and how that’s evolving. Can you share some of your thoughts on that as we start to wrap up the conversation?
VANESSA: Sure. So, as a communicator, I think that I personally have a responsibility for the language that I use, and my organization is using. A lot of our work is with the non-profit sector, and so there has been this sort of interest in for many years in poverty borne. Like how can we tell the sort of like saddest stories to really gauge interest and tap into emotions? And we’re trying to shift away from that. So, terms like ‘impoverished’, and ‘the poorest communities’ and ‘marginalized people,’ really trying to represent opportunities where there are not so deficit focused, but more really focused on the agency and humanity in the people and the opportunities and possibilities. So, we’ve been working with organizations on the non-profit and corporate side to consider development of a lexicon for their individual organization that reflects the language that they want to use. So, that can be as simple as ‘what does diversity, equity and inclusion mean in our organization?’ Because that can vary from person to person. To, you know, changing language about donations and charity to investment, thinking about how we want to talk about people, places and things. So, that’s been a really exciting opportunity on the backdrop of the racial reckoning we’ve had, really helping people to be responsible for how we’re talking about things, and how we want to, again, sort of recognize the power that’s inherent in language, and how we want to yield that power.
DOUG: That’s great, and we’re going to link to the ‘Louder Than Words’ directory site to help brands, organizations really find partners led by people of color that can make a difference both to the organization and to the businesses. Thanks so much Vanessa for sharing your time with us. Great insights.
VANESSA: Thanks for having me.