Purpose, Growth and Balance: Chicago Pros Share Advice on Careers in Non-Profit PR

Non-profit PR pros Padraic Swanton, Laura Jacobs and Kaylee Ip
By Andrew Cook

For many public relations professionals, having the flexibility to craft a career path based on interests or career needs is an incredible benefit. While life at an agency can provide fast paced growth, and going in-house can provide desired financial stability, many see the benefit of non-profit work being the fulfillment of putting your skills to good use in advancing a cause or initiative. But within the non-profit sector, there is more to be gained than just “feeling good” and students or young professionals should also consider it as a viable option as they begin their careers.

Diving deeper into the value of non-profit PR, the PRSA Chicago Young Professionals Network recently hosted a non-profit panel featuring three local professionals. The panel featured:

  • Kaylee Ip, Communications Manager, American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons
  • Laura Jacobs, Director, Medical Science Marketing and Communications, Alzheimer’s Association
  • Padraic Swanton, Account Supervisor, Greentarget

Here are a few key lessons the panelists shared from their experience in the world of doing good:

Be Prepared to Wear Many Different Hats

The panel was in agreement that non-profit work provides a great environment to develop a wide range of abilities and can be a great fit for those looking to drive their own growth while also fulfilling their passions and personal sense of purpose.

“My day is never the same,” Ip said. She described her work with a list of typical regular tasks that included work such as creating the Academy’s annual report, handling media requests and connecting journalists to association members who are industry experts and can speak as subject matter experts.

Ip’s organization, American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, is a membership association and she highlighted the opportunities for added creativity and unique growth that come from the challenges of having a constantly shifting leadership body and a diverse group of physicians as stakeholders. As part of her role as a manager, Ip has embraced the opportunity to build a lean, agile scrappy communications team that can deliver for leadership, memberships, donors and the public on a tightened budget.

Non-Profit Provides Balance and Commodity of Trust

For Laura Jacobs, the switch from agency life to non-profit provided a much-needed adjustment to her work/life balance. After stints at Weber Shandwick and Ketchum, Jacobs said the breaking point came when she was pregnant with twins and realized that she couldn’t be putting out fires for clients at all hours of the day.

“My day-to-day is now more predictable than it was in the past,” Jacobs said. “It was a very conscious decision.”

In addition to giving one’s personal life balance, non-profits also provide an essential element of balance within society. For Jacobs, another special element of non-profit work is the trust the public places in a non-profit to be an advocate for those they help and speak out as an unbiased voice and can keep business and government in check. At the Alzheimer’s Organization, Jacobs feels a responsibility to help the organization speak truth to power when corporations in the healthcare industry confuse the priorities of patients versus profit. That trust, she says, is a special commodity and an organization must work to use its voice to build and maintain this identity and the confidence entrusted to it by the public.

Accelerate Personal Growth Through Organizational Need and Opportunity

Swanton cut his non-profit chops working for the Lincoln Park chamber of commerce and found the experience to be a unique opportunity to help a key community player redevelop its voice within the Chicago community. One of his most fulfilling experiences was to help the Chamber re-envision its role and execute an overhaul after a discussion with his boss that was initially limited to the topic of designing a new website. Swanton highlighted the fact that as a non-profit, the organization was able to redevelop not only its website, but mission and programming in a 1.5-year process that allowed him to further his professional development while also advancing the organization at the same time.

Though now working at agency, Swanton still stays connected to the non-profit space by running the pro-bono work at Greentarget and says that this piece is a vital element of the agency’s identity. All employees at Greenspan, from top to bottom, stay up to speed on the work being done and it helps to create a stronger sense of citizenship and positive identity. Contributing to local causes through pro-bono work also creates a variety of opportunities for the firm to showcase its strategic and tactical expertise and remain fulfilled in what they do. “We try to vet out our partners to ensure that the type of PR that we do well aligns with the goals that each organization has,” Swanton said. “We like to have a balance between clients that need real strategic thinking or message development with those that might just be needing a fundraiser.”

Quick Hit Advice to New Pro’s:

“Read as much as you can. Listen to podcasts and network outside of your age-group and experience. Get involved with causes that matter and be sure to have a good side hustle. If it won’t matter in 5 months, then don’t spend more than 5 minutes worry about it.” – Laura Jacobs

“Have a growth mindset. Find what you love to do and be passionate.” -Kaylee Ip

“The best way to shut down a bad idea is with evidence. But you can still be human and show empathy, especially if you work to find common ground.” -Padraic Swanton

The meeting was hosted by Spectrum and sponsored by Astellas Pharma. Christine Spasoff, an Account Supervisor for Spectrum, moderated the panel.

  Andrew Cook is past national president of Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). After beginning his professional career at Edelman, Andrew recently accepted a new position as Associate, Client Experience for Weber Shandwick in Seattle. 

5 thoughts on “Purpose, Growth and Balance: Chicago Pros Share Advice on Careers in Non-Profit PR

  1. I know it’s becoming more common but it aggravates me when I can’t “like” or “recommend” a post without commenting. The only option is comment or share–and yes, I understand that IS the end-goal, sometimes I just want to indicate I was here and read it (thus, the ‘like’). Regardless, I do read most of your posts, Ron! Now you know. 🙂 😊

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Tressa. Since I promote each post on the Culpwrit Twitter and Facebook pages, which is where I see most of the LIKES. But you make a good point that I’ll share with “my IT department.”

    2. You ask and you receive: My “IT Department” just added a LIKE button to each blog post. For technical reasons the number of likes don’t appear on the post, but they are sent to WordPress where I’ll check them weekly. Thanks for your faithful reading of this blog.

  2. Hello,
    I am a student at Southeast Missouri State University and I am interested in non-profit PR. I know there are many positives to non-profit PR, but what is the most challenging part of a career in this field? Is this a growing field?

    Thank you!

    1. Few PR jobs are more fulfilling than those that are tied directly to a cause you care about. Unfortunately, most nonprofit organizations must spend much of their time on fund raising. Miss a key funding goal and staffs must be downsized. So, the PR functions are both critical to the success of the organization, but they also become expendable if times get tough. On the positive side, top tier nonprofits are managed well and your job certainty is more clear. Nonprofit jobs continue to increase at a rapid rate, driven by formation of new causes that weren’t even on our radar a few years ago. And salaries are becoming more competitive.

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