When you call Your Part-Time Controller’s office, odds are that the gracious voice you’ll hear on the telephone is that of Vanessa Smith. While people come to the world of nonprofit accounting from a variety of backgrounds, Vanessa may be the only such person to get here by way of the circus — for which she’s been nationally recognized. And today, you might say that she serves as YPTC’s ringmaster.
Vanessa’s background includes sitting in an elephant’s mouth, throwing knives, walking on stilts, cracking a bullwhip, and becoming the first female African-American ringmaster in American circus history. She didn’t actually intend to run away from home to join the circus – it just happened after a first career as a dancer. And it fortuitously led her into her next career in nonprofit administration.
Having been a dancer since the age of 4 and graduating from Philadelphia’s esteemed Girls’ High School at 16 and Temple University at 20 with a degree in fine arts, Vanessa wasn’t sure what field of endeavor she wanted to go into. She was already dancing with PHILADANCO, a professional program celebrated for its innovation, creativity and preservation of predominantly African-American dance traditions. She already had three seasons of experience performing in the All American College Program and as an entertainment assistant at Walt Disney World, where she picked up a lifelong fondness for Mickey-and-Minnie memorabilia.
An early idea of becoming a movement therapist proved to be a false start, so in 1979 she took her dancing skills into an unexpected arena – the Ringling Bros. circus. She thought she would stay for a year until she figured out what she wanted to be… and 18 years later she was still performing in circus rings around the U.S.
She eventually left Ringling and migrated to other circuses, one of which was the Big Apple Circus, which performs seasonally in New York’s Lincoln Center and part of the year on the road. She appeared in two HBO specials and three movies. Between the circus and PHILADANCO, she worked with many people from other countries and had the opportunity to travel abroad to France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Hungary, Monaco, Switzerland, Poland, Austria, Korea, Israel, Kenya, Tanzania, Canada, and Mexico.
When she wasn’t performing, she took classes at New York University’s Gallatin School, working towards a master’s degree in arts management for which she’s still only three credits shy. She took coursework in public accounting, marketing and nonprofit management – subjects that would serve her well in later years. She interned in the circus’ main office in Manhattan. “This was really interesting for me,” she recalls. “I’d be on the road as a performer dealing with make-up, hair and costumes, but I also knew that there was an engine of administration that was enabling us to be in the ring.”
She wrote her thesis on African-American circus performers at the turn of the 20th century. “There weren’t a lot of us in those days,” she recalls. “Many were considered oddities in P.T. Barnum’s sideshows. Most people of color in the circuses were roustabouts, putting up tents, handling the animals and assisting trainers.”
She was having the time of her life. The circus took her to 48 states – “the only ones I missed were Alaska and Hawaii, and they’re still on my bucket list of places to visit,” she says. “It was really neat. I’d be in college – and then I’d go back on the road with my elephants.”
Performing acrobatics with elephants or on horseback taught her many valuable lessons. “I see my life as sort of like a circus ring. It has no beginning and no end, and your life always comes back to where you started,” she says. “And the performing teaches you to really focus: when an elephant is walking over you, you can’t be thinking about your grocery list.”
But she opted to leave the circus to return to Philadelphia. In 1998 she re-joined PHILADANCO, this time as Managing Director.
PHILADANCO introduced her to Your Part-Time Controller. A capacity-building grant in 2001 enabled the nonprofit to utilize YPTC to upgrade its financial systems. One of the associates assigned to the organization was Jerilyn Dressler, with whom Vanessa struck up an immediate rapport as both have dancing backgrounds. Associates took care of month-end bank reconciliations and check-writing, freeing Vanessa’s time for other administrative responsibilities. She participated in one of Eric Fraint’s nonprofit financial management workshops.
She proudly recalls YPTC’s services. “To be able to have financial records produced with clarity that funders could read was wonderful. Your Part-Time Controller helps nonprofits to get into a position to have an internal assessment and look at what they may or may not need with the personnel they have and how the organization is layered.”
She sees nonprofits much like a circus ring – a circle with a beginning mission statement and an end goal. YPTC fuses the beginning and end together so the leaders can sustain the organization for five, 10 or 25 years into the future. “We help nonprofits in that process. We’re sort of like an usher in church, showing you to your seat by holding your elbow and helping you along, guiding you firmly.”
Several years later, she was on a medical leave of absence from PHILADANCO. At an Arts Council event, she saw Eric Fraint again, who asked if she would ever be interested in working for YPTC. One thing led to another and when Nancy Newbold retired in 2011, Vanessa stepped in to take her place and use her skills set which she describes as “enjoying doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
Which is how she comes to serve as our ringmaster. On any given day she’s keeping track of more than 90 staff members, scheduling appointments, ordering supplies, answering the phones, staging events, composing letters of engagement for potential clients, and cracking the whip to keep everyone in their place.
“I like what I do here,” she says. “It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s like a jambalaya. Or maybe it’s like my grandmother’s clean-out-the-refrigerator soup. It was always a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and it was always delicious!”
To keep her hat in the ring, as it were, she is working today with a film company on a documentary about early African-American circus performers. She also sits on the Board of Advisors of Philadelphia’s School of Circus Arts, which offers training in aerials, juggling, unicycling, tightwire, and tumbling. And to maintain contact with her lifelong love of dancing, she teaches modern, ballet and Zumba.
Vanessa’s legacy as the first African-American female ringmaster in circus history has been recognized widely. In 2013, her ringmaster’s hat and costume were placed on exhibit in San Francisco’s African-American Art and Culture Complex. Vanessa wasn’t prepared for the response she encountered at the exhibit’s opening. “To see people oohing and aahing over something you wore and that was a part of your life was overwhelming,” she says.
Then in 2014, the Lawnside Education Foundation honored her for her contributions to the arts and entertainment both locally and nationally. The nonprofit foundation supports schools and stimulates a higher level of excellence for students in the historically black community of Lawnside, N.J. The land that would eventually become the borough was purchased by abolitionists for freed and escaped slaves and other African-Americans in 1840. Lawnside was again propelled into national prominence in 1926 as the first independent self-governing African-American community north of the Mason-Dixon line.
“I grew up having connections with Lawnside, as my father had a great friend who lived there, and we would spend summers enjoying the town’s great barbecue. To have people in a community that you feel connected to recognize you was a wonderful experience,” she says.
“YPTC is like a circus,” she says. “You have to be knowledgeable about the tasks you’re asked to perform. You have to be focused. And you have to be personable with the public. Most of our work is done outside the confined space of this office. We’re sending people out to represent us, so we have to have continual confidence in what our associates say and do. We get attached to each other like a family. And like circus performers, we also get gratification. When our clients call and tell us how wonderful their associate is, the affirmation is like the ‘ta-dah!’ moment in the ring.”