Sharing My Nonprofit Journey

6 minute read

Jeanne Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits

"The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning you did not even think to ask!" –180° South

Serving as the Chief Executive of the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits for these past seven years has, in many ways, been the culmination of my work in the nonprofit sector over a span of almost 50 years. In truth, my first job with a nonprofit was as a 12-year-old, volunteer camp counselor at Camp Willow in Belmont, MA, the town in which I grew up. I continued to volunteer there each of the next three summers. My heart was touched by the special needs campers, one of which was my younger brother, Walter.

Volunteering at Camp Willow paved my way to multiple volunteer roles throughout high school. Our family was incredibly involved in all the Special Olympics in which Walter participated. My parents joined the Belmont Association for Developmental Disabilities (then called the ARC) and modeled for me ways that I could be involved in community programs. I formed a Teen Association and encouraged other high schoolers to volunteer to help students with developmental challenges. Early on, I learned what it meant to be a leader, to participate and encourage others to bring their best selves to volunteer in helping others. Through these experiences, I learned to appreciate the differing abilities that we all have and to respect both the differences and the common humanity we share with others. I did not know at the time how much these early adolescent and high school years would shape my life.

Those early experiences helped me meet other people with whom I could share my values and helped me stay out of trouble as a teenager! While working my way through college at UMass Boston, I became a group home counselor for adolescents and within a couple of years, I was asked to be a director. That was an interesting role to play as I joined the staff when I was only 21 – not much older than the residents themselves. Over the eight years that I was there, I progressed from a single site director to a multi-site director and was soon in the central office overseeing program development and connecting program leaders across the nonprofit network.

While there, I learned how public policies, public agencies, and philanthropy intersect to create an infrastructure of support for nonprofits, and the key role that nonprofits can play in any community connecting those in need with those who want to help. Often, the designated helpers were the ones gaining so much – sometimes more – than those they sought to help. This lesson served me well as I went on to form and manage a nonprofit that fully depended on volunteers and philanthropy.

I became increasingly interested in the intersection of public policy, philanthropy, and community caring institutions, such as community-based nonprofits. This interest brought me to North Carolina and Duke University. In considering Duke, I recognized that the cost would be unaffordable. Fortunately, I learned about the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation fellowship program. I applied and was accepted, and this helped close the financial gap, making it possible for me to attend. I learned firsthand how philanthropy can make a difference in an individual’s life to reach new experiences and access resources that might otherwise be unreachable.

The only request made by ZSR was to share my Duke experience with their program officers and to commit that I would work to help benefit our state, which was fast becoming my new home. I so appreciated the opportunity this gave me that I became more committed to working in the nonprofit sector. As I reflect on my work over these years, I believe I have fulfilled the ZSR commitment and hope they feel they made a good investment!

Fast forward, my husband and I moved to Raleigh and began our family. I was in a process of discernment, trying to figure out life balance challenges – how to raise our children and keep my finger on my career, what to do, how to do it, when to do it. The questions kept coming!

I had some ideas about areas in which I felt I could work and benefit, with all intention of remaining as a volunteer. I had developed a strong interest in real estate and housing and was inclined to develop these skills to support our family while I found my niche in the community to volunteer. With the support of my faith community, St. Francis of Assisi, we formed what is now known as Passage Home. With this launch into community development and housing work, we formed this organization as a faith-based community development corporation in partnership with an African American Pentecostal Church, Lincoln Park Holiness, in southeast Raleigh.

Our primary focus was on housing, helping families transition from homelessness and breaking the cycle of poverty. Our vision was to form an organization that was community based, whose board, staff, and volunteers reflected the community we served. It was during this time that I was fortunate to meet African American community development leaders (Fannie Corbett, Sue Perry Cole, Joyce Dickens, Abdul Rasheed to name just a few) who understood the importance of this work and became statewide and national leaders. At the time, North Carolina was recognized nationally for its innovative community development work, and they embraced the work that Passage Home was doing. 

Beginning as a volunteer, I helped build Passage Home from a volunteer organization with a budget of less than $1000, with lots of support from the interracial and interdenominational faith community network. While thinking that I would simply help it form and begin, then continue to work as a volunteer board member, it became a lifetime career commitment. We proceeded to establish a key Raleigh/Wake County community organization that continues to thrive today in addressing the needs of the most fragile in our community who are housing insecure and seeking a better life for themselves and their families. 

As the co-founder of Passage Home, along with many from our faith communities of St. Francis and Lincoln Park Holiness Church, I learned so much about philanthropy, community development, managing and sustaining a nonprofit, servant leadership, partnerships, and collaboration. We grew Passage Home from an emerging organization to one that provides a continuum of services for affordable housing, family empowerment services, job training to break the cycle of poverty. Looking back, it was quite a journey. Laughingly, I often say that I learned from so many mistakes and experiences and survived. 

Early on, I thought I could combine my professional interest in real estate and development, and in my volunteer life I would help others. My faith informs me that God had other plans for me and as I listened, I found myself following this path of integrating my interests into my community development work. I integrated my interest in real estate by helping develop affordable housing and helping others find their way home. Retrospectively, as I look back, I recognize that this work has enriched my life. I was able to make a living while touching so many lives, and learned from so many of varied backgrounds who have truly touched mine. 

All of this and many other related experiences brought me to that moment in 2017 when I joined the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits as President and CEO. As I assumed this role, I knew from the ground up what it takes to develop and sustain a nonprofit. My experiences in founding, building, and sustaining a community-based organization provided me with the needed practitioner perspective to step into this role as successor to the Center’s founder. I could relate to other nonprofit leaders seeking to make a difference in their communities. More importantly, they could relate to me and know that I would understand their work. I understood by experience the challenges that many of our nonprofit members are facing.

There are many reasons I have really enjoyed working at the Center – the team we built, the resources we offer, the policies we advocated in support of nonprofits, and the stronger relationships we formed with nonprofits across our state. I have been able to bring my lived experiences into the Center’s mission to educate, connect, and advocate for nonprofits and those who work and volunteer with them. 

Having been a professional for 40+ years in the nonprofit sector, I appreciate the dedication that people bring to their work and the commitment they make to their communities. Having had the honor of working with so many, I can only say thank you to the volunteers, the workers, and the leaders that I have been privileged to work with along the way. As I retire, I know that the Center is well positioned to build upon its foundation and live into our vision of a North Carolina where nonprofits are intentional in their commitment to build healthy, equitable organizations, and center racial equity to strengthen communities.

Partnerships & Collaboration