Edward Downes, an associate professor of public relations, teaches a course in nonprofit PR. Photo by Katherine Taylor

Edward Downes on the pros of a nonprofit PR career

By Mara Sassoon

Although Edward Downes has climbed the corporate ladder, even spent time on Capitol Hill, when he looks back on his career in PR, it’s his work for two nonprofits—a child welfare organization and food trade association—that has brought him a lot of satisfaction. It’s a lesson that Downes, an associate professor of public relations, brings to COM students through a course he designed on nonprofit PR. He shared the pros of a nonprofit career with COMtalk.

  1. Find fulfillment: Downes says that because many nonprofits do humanistic and social services, the work is often very fulfilling. “In the nonprofit arena, you have an opportunity to explore communication management differently and oftentimes find great purpose in what you’re doing.” Many people are drawn to nonprofit PR, he says, because they are looking to further causes that are important to them. “Your life’s work can address the issue—equal rights, hunger, poverty, and more—in which you believe deeply.”
  2. Gain valuable experience: Downes says that working in the nonprofit sector imparts valuable, often transferable skills. “At many nonprofits, you can get a lot of experience at a young age so you then have a broad set of skills that you can draw from.” He recalls his own experience working for the nonprofit the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association early in his career. “I was in my mid-20s, and already I was giving speeches before large groups, I was giving radio interviews, I was helping produce videos and I even helped testify before Congress.” Downes says that some of his students who eventually went into nonprofit PR gained a breadth of skills early on—honing their writing skills, managing extensive databases, working on strategic plans—that they then brought to subsequent positions at corporations.
  3. Shape your community: “PR professionals working in the nonprofit sector play a vital role in shaping communities’—and the world’s—economic, political, social and cultural climates,” says Downes. He gives students in his class a taste of the diverse communities they can reach by partnering with different nonprofits for case studies and site visits, including Women’s Lunch Place, a Boston-area organization that provides a daytime shelter and meals to women in need; Boston Health Care for the Homeless, a program that works to provide quality healthcare to homeless individuals and families in the Boston area; and Konbit Sante, a Maine-based organization working to help develop a sustainable healthcare system in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti. “Through your work at nonprofits, you are helping to lift up people in your community who are in need.”

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  1. I lead Creative + Brand for Media Cause, a marketing/advertising agency that only works with nonprofits (one of our HQs is in Boston, and we have several other COM alum there, too!). While I spent the first 15+ years of my career in the for-profit consumer world, these last 2.5 years at Media Cause have been some of the most rewarding of all. I’ve worked on projects to protect voting rights, protect domestic and wild animals, keep museums open, rebuild our environment, recruit teachers, fund cancer and heart transplant research, and countless other issues that are so critical to our communities and societies as a whole. Mara, if you or Professor Downes, or any BU students ever want to connect and learn, I’m here to share my knowledge and experience. The nonprofit world needs more excellent folks like the ones who come from COM.

    Amy Small / COM ’03
    SVP, Creative + Brand, Media Cause

  2. This thoughtful article a tantalizing temptation to take a look at nonprofits as an alternative career choice. Nicely done, Prof. Edward Downes.

  3. Professor Downes was certainly critical to many of our outreach functions in DC adding his wisdom and charm to our Congressional approaches.

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