Student’s public relations firm highlights nonprofits, plans 10-act concert

Media Credit: Graeme Sloan | Hatchet Photographer

Jeffrey Peterson, a junior majoring in political communication, launched a Memphis, Tenn.-based public relations firm called The Social Exchange.

In just three months, a student quickly added co-founder of a nonprofit to his resume and is now planning a large scale music festival for charity.

Jeffrey Peterson, a junior majoring in political communication, launched a Memphis, Tenn.-based public relations firm for nonprofits, called The Social Exchange, in January. The group – which fundraises, hosts events and boosts awareness for nonprofits nationwide – will host their first charity concert in Memphis this April, bringing together 10 local artists.

“I’ve always been the type of person who likes to give back, to be selfless in nature, to contribute something to something bigger than myself,” he said. “The Social Exchange will absolutely give me the platform to be able to enact change in communities around the country.”

The firm is planning the concert in collaboration with Rhodes College’s Kinney Program, a volunteer outreach organization, and the Bridge Street Paper, a student-run nonprofit newspaper featuring content from writers and artists who experience homelessness in Memphis. Peterson said he expects an audience of more than a thousand people at the show.

The Social Exchange has set out to raise $50,000 for Bridge Street Paper through the concert and their other work to increase visibility to issues affecting the homeless community, bridging the gap “between the sheltered and homeless.”

“It’s our goal to help the stories of people who don’t always have their stories heard, who need that extra help, who need that extra boost,” Peterson said. “And we’re providing that for them.”

The April 7 concert is their largest event so far. On top of live music, the event will have vendors who will sell local art, food and drinks. The free concert will be hosted at the Levitt Shell Amphitheater in Memphis, but a suggested $10 donation will go toward Bridge Street Paper.

“We’re not in it for the money. Any of us,” Peterson said. “I think that each one of us come from a place of wanting to have the best outcomes for the people that we’re working with and that’s really what the core value is.”

The Social Exchange is run by a team of 20 people – including Peterson and hometown friend Gillian Wenhold – and is composed of mostly college students and freelancers. The two first met working on a Vermont gubernatorial campaign, where they got their first taste promoting causes.

This desire to enact social change led Wenhold and Peterson to launch the PR firm over winter break. In its first week, The Social Exchange raised more than $23,000 for its clients from big donors.

“It was kind of sudden, unexpected. We didn’t go into it with a detailed plan per se,” Peterson said. “But we’ve been taking every new turn with an open mind and having our mission of enacting change at the core of what we do.”

Though Peterson and Wenhold first focused on fundraising and handling promotion for local nonprofits such as GW Dance Marathon, they now represent larger organizations like Alex’s Lemonade Stand – which raises money nationally for pediatric cancer research.

The Social Exchange’s headquarters are in Memphis, where Wenhold is a senior at Rhodes College. Alongside other college students and charity-minded freelancers, the team works at the headquarters along with remote operations of workers in New York, D.C. and Philadelphia. Members communicate daily via Facetime, text and hold weekly conference calls.

“A lot of our membership for our team at the beginning came from who we knew – our professional connections, our friends, that type of stuff,” Peterson said. “And since it’s grown, we’ve had people come to us asking how they can be involved.”

Peterson said his time as a student at the School of Media and Public Affairs prepared him for the field of public relations, and he sees himself continuing this work after graduation.

“It’s a really cool way to apply what we’re learning in class: how to effectively communicate with publics to enact change – not just within the political realm but outside as well,” he said.

As a career, Peterson is getting an early start as he still has a year left at school. But he considers The Social Exchange as a passion rather than a burden.

“As a student it can be very difficult to balance academic life, social life and work,” he said. “But if you’re busy doing something you’re passionate about, that makes things much easier.”

The Social Exchange has plans to expand globally and partner for more fundraisers in the year, but for now it will work toward benefitting local organizations in Memphis. Peterson will continue operations mainly out of Memphis over the summer, and at a career fair at Rhodes, they offered summer internships to students interested in volunteering.

Ultimately, Peterson looks forward to the future of The Social Exchange as it expands globally. No matter the size of a client, however, Peterson said he still aims for one goal: to raise awareness for those who cannot.

“Our mission is to enact change and to connect storytellers,” he said. “We’re all part of a bigger story and we’re all hoping to be part of a story worth telling.”

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