This is the team that plans the premier parties for TV Land’s Younger or VH1’s Candidly Nicole or Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. The ones who organize the channel upfronts or set up a memorable experience to rep Spike’s Bar Rescue at the Nightclub and Bar show. They handle employee parties and client weekends. Festivals and concerts.
They are Viacom’s Special Events group, part crack logistical team, part improvisational wizards. If wind is blowing napkins about at an outdoor affair, they’ll commandeer seashells from a local beach to act as decoration and paperweight. If clients are stuck at an airport due to a taxi blockade, they’ll find a way to transport them to the event.
The skillset necessary to put on a good event, it turns out, is also ideal for organizing pro-social events, and these are as important to the group’s mission and sense of identity as any televised red carpet extravaganza.
“This is why our group is so well-suited for Viacommunity,” says Gary Pagano, a vice president in the group, referring to Viacom’s social responsibility initiative. “We go to these places that don’t have the tools that they need. We know how to get it done, because we’re used to going in and working in adverse situations. Logistics are what we do.”
At the heart of the team’s Viacommunity core sit Pagano and Jane Volpe, also a VP in the group, who have worked together for more than two decades, uniting the department on tasks as varied as the industry events they plan. They sort pantries. They paint play areas. They assemble furniture. When the inevitable fiasco strikes – say, they forget the paint, as happened one year – the team is well-equipped to improvise.
Often, they serve lunch at soup kitchens. They travel to Chinatown, The Bronx, the West Village or elsewhere, where they bake cookies and serve food. For the holidays, they purchase hats, gloves and socks and give them out at the pantries as gifts. For some people, it’s the only present they receive that year.
“We go to these places that don’t have the tools that they need. We know how to get it done, because we’re used to going in and working in adverse situations. Logistics are what we do.” – Gary Pagano, Viacom Special Events
But their most frequent departmental focus has been on United Neighborhood Houses (UNH) in New York City, a membership organization of settlement houses and community centers. At their inaugural event, they worked in a sectioned-off fenced area stuffed behind a house that was ostensibly part of an after-school program in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. They transformed a place that hadn’t been touched in years into a hydrangea- and perennial-filled children’s play space. The team’s unique mix of on- and off-the-job skills – Volpe is an avid gardener; Pagano’s father was a brick mason – proved to be ideal for the project.
“Some people, they’ll say ‘Oh, we’ll put in a garden,’ but it’s more than just bending down and putting in plants,” says Pagano. “There were shovels and chopping, and we were doing all the work.”
A senior Viacom executive, who happened to also be on UNH’s board, noticed the team’s effort, work ethic, and organization on that project. Impressed, he invited them to participate in a UNH college scholarship competition. The team read essays from students who had maintained high academic standards in spite of lives wracked by absent or sick parents and burdened with outside work, helping the executive determine the winners.
When the foundation lost its funding in the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn, the team convinced Viacom to sustain the program. The company continues to support UNH through this annual donation and other efforts. Pagano now serves on the board.
“It was so awesome for Viacommunity to make that initial connection to UNH,” said Pagano. “And to support us afterward was really incredible.”
The results of this investment have been tangible. One scholarship recipient, disturbed by the relentless string of fast-food restaurants on her Harlem block and the metronomic deaths striking her church from diet-based lifestyle diseases, began researching nutrition and raw food. She opened a booth promoting a healthier lifestyle that eventually evolved into a small farmers market and a partnership with the local UNH hosting nutrition classes. As a result of her efforts, one woman lost 97 pounds. More community gardens are going in.
One common denominator for all of these events: the whole department is present whenever possible, not an easy task for the far-ranging events team, who constantly undertake events across the world. Even during their busy December holiday period, the team finds time to tend to the elderly. “The Special Events team is a little community within ourselves, like a big family, and it’s nice for us to do something together, that is giving outside of our day-to-day jobs,” notes Volpe.
While these events often take place during normal business hours, Pagano sees this as good strategy. “It’s smart for a company – if you want to really reach out and touch a demographic, it’s not just about programming or your marketing,” he says. “It really is about going out and working in the community and reaching them that way. I think that is really cool and you don’t see it with a lot of companies. We feel good to work at a company that doesn’t just talk about this kind of stuff, they do it.”
Now in its 20th year Viacommunity, our social responsibility umbrella, has become more than just something we do – it is part of who we are, a core value of our company. To underscore how deeply embedded giving back is to our identity, the Viacom blog is profiling 20 employees who embody the Viacommunity spirit in their everyday lives.