Championing Women in the Social Impact Sector

Interview: Vanessa Wakeman by Kelly Eisenhardt

Since launching The Wakeman Agency in 2003, Vanessa Wakeman has been recognized as a champion for nonprofits and progressive organizations at the forefront of innovation and social change. At the helm of an award-winning agency that produces high impact special events and public relations campaigns, Vanessa and her team help tell the stories of a diverse group of clients who want to make the world a better place. Ms. Wakeman has been featured and highlighted in media sources such as PR Week, The New York Daily News, ABC Eyewitness News, SmartMoney, Westchester, and Philanthropy Journal magazine—Kelly Eisenhardt

What do you see as the biggest challenges for women and for nonprofits these days?

I think the challenges that exist for women in corporate America are the same for those in the nonprofit sector. Women continue to deal with issues related to gender inequality. It's an issue that never seems to go away.

Through our work, I’ve observed that many women are often hesitant to step forward into a thought leadership position because they are afraid of sharing their ideas. They are concerned that they won’t be accepted or that they will be challenged extensively if they have an opinion that differs from the status quo.

Women are socialized as girls to be likeable, to get along and to fit in. Sharing radical new ideas to change the world can be uncomfortable and cast a shadow of vulnerability.

We encourage clients, specifically women, to develop a thought leadership platform. It is one of the least expensive and effective ways to attract new supporters to your cause. We encourage women to move the needle forward by sharing their great ideas and developing plans to make them happen.

The challenge for nonprofits starts and ends with the competition for supporting dollars. With more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, the pool of available funding becomes highly competitive and limited.

What statistics tell us that women are leading in the areas of social impact?

History tells us that women were always prominent in social change. Women, more often than not, are shown in supporting roles removed from big social change. With so many women in the social impact space, it is difficult to deny their contribution or cast a shadow on it. There are so many emerging voices and minds. They are ready to lead.

Are there any specific programs or initiatives you would like to highlight that are focused on women strengthening their position in the work world?

The YWCA of New York City launched a new initiative, #YWWomanKind which encourages intergenerational generosity. One of the components of the campaign focuses on women supporting women and standing for women in the workplace to create more leadership opportunities. The CEO is focused on a number of initiatives to engage women to be more collaborative in measurable ways for the greater good of all women. 

Another important nonprofit is the Grace Institute Grace Institute trains women reentering the workforce by providing free job training and placement assistance. Their goal is to place women in jobs with benefits, transforming the lives of a number of unemployed and underemployed women.

There are ample programs out in industry to help women transform their lives, careers, and families. Many address the gender pay gap, help build broader skills, and get women to the next steps of their ourney with new lives in a job sector. It is the shortage in funding that prevents most nonprofits from scaling bigger and helping more people.

How might the for-profit and nonprofit sector work together for change?

We are in a unique place in time where both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors can collaborate to create incredible opportunities for so many people.

For-profit companies want to create a philanthropic footprint and frequently reach out to nonprofits. They see the broader opportunities to connect the heart of their organization and employees to social programs.

The challenge I see is that most of the opportunities go to extremely large nonprofits.   This is a shame because there is also so much great work being done by the smaller organizations.

The most impactful transformation of communities often happen with help at the small to medium nonprofit level. Small and medium nonprofits do such tremendous work with less resources by sheer grit and determination.

Can you share an example of a smaller nonprofit having a powerful impact?

Yes, absolutely!

One of our early clients was the nonprofit organization, ROC-NY, started by former workers from “Windows on the World” who lost their jobs when 9/11 happened. It was started by two co-founders with the goal of finding jobs for those displaced restaurant workers in New York City, and it has grown since then to a national organization. They have opened restaurants, helped to change policy around tipped workers and advocated on behalf of restaurant workers. 

How will these programs and nonprofits help expand the roles of women in the future?

Speaking at colleges, I often hear students discussing their goals and dreams of working in the nonprofit sector so that they can positively impact change. There is so much room for women to grow in the social change space.

I’ve also observed a lack of patience in some of the millennials as they want change to happen more quickly than what usually occurs. It’s a challenge to redefine the existing nonprofit world’s operating procedures and structure, much of which is inherent to speeding up change. We can’t just throw out a model that has worked for decades, but we can change it from within and help draw more women to the sector by helping them initiate their own programs, businesses, and nonprofits.

How can people learn more about your organization?

To learn more about The Wakeman Agency, visit

Kelly Eisenhardt is Managing Director, BlueCircle Advisors.