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Vanessa Thomas-Smith

"The nonprofit bug bit me..."


I came to YPTC in 2011 with an unusual background. I’ve been a dancer since the age of 4 and got my undergraduate degree in fine arts. I danced at Walt Disney World and in Philadelphia’s PHILADANCO professional dance company before taking my talents literally into a whole new arena – the circus. I traveled the country and the world with Ringling Bros. and, later, the nonprofit Big Apple Circus while I worked on my master’s degree in arts management.

The nonprofit bug bit me and I couldn’t shake it. When I wasn’t performing I was working at the circus in marketing and development, learning about finance, and coming to understand grant writing and major gifts and connecting with donors and sponsors.

Like a boomerang, I found myself back in Philadelphia and returned to PHILADANCO, this time as the managing director. I’d talk regularly with the President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I thought I’d hit the jackpot: here was this Philly girl who’d performed at the Academy of Music and in the circus at Lincoln Center and who was now a buddy with the President of the Kennedy Center.

But my position was eliminated and it was shocking to be out of a job. I thought it was going to be my career there in arts management. However, it gave me time for introspection to figure out what I really wanted.

Change is difficult but change is good. When you can identify what you really want to do and then get to do it, it’s pretty special. I’ve been blessed to be able to do what I really love doing, and even do it several times: a lot of people never get that chance. I mean, how many kids can actually say that they worked at Disney World, or ran away to join the circus?

We had hired YPTC at PHILADANCO, and I saw Eric at a Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance meeting. He suggested I come to work for Your Part-Time Controller. I wasn’t an accountant so I wasn’t sure what I would do at YPTC. I was hired as the Business Manager and I had an amazing three months being mentored by my predecessor, Nancy Newbold, who taught me the inner workings of the company. I was amazed at how they find the right people to match up with the right nonprofits. It’s like fitting pieces of a puzzle together perfectly. It was like the circus.

Today, it’s still amazing to see the process of new people getting hired and watching how they acclimate to the freedoms they have here that they didn’t experience in another organization. When you hear staff tell war stories about the other companies they worked for, it’s scary.

When the clients start telling you how much you’re helping them it’s instant and spontaneous gratification. It’s like being on stage at the Academy or in the circus. And we get it again every year when we find out once more that we’re a Best Place to Work. It’s a wow factor. It’s magic.

It’s amazing to be on an e-mail thread when someone has a question. I’ve never seen when no one, or only one person, answers. Usually it’s 10 to 15 people. No one here is biting each other’s hand or holding something back to get a bartering point later on. The openness starts with the leadership at the top. Companies that want to grow and have the people within the organization grow with them give their knowledge happily, and that’s what happens here. It’s a special place.

My mom is 85. She’d stop in when she was downtown and everyone was very accommodating with her. More important, she felt comfortable enough to come here and feel like it was OK. My mom said to me, ‘That place you work at is so wonderful. The people there are so, so nice.’ If my mom likes it I know it’s good. I just can’t imagine that there’s a nicer place to work.

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