As we begin a new year together, we want to take the time to introduce you to our team – starting with our fearless leader (and Director), Jessica Barnes!

Tell us a little bit about yourself ????

I was born and raised in Mechanicsville, Virginia—right outside of Richmond. Growing up, I loved the outdoors—Virginia is a great place for that since a short drive can take you to the mountains or the beach and I spent a lot of time in both! If you ask anyone in Richmond where they go to get away, they’ll all say OBX, so I’ve been coming here since I was two or three years old with my family and later with friends. 

Jess – far right – with her friends from Hollins University in Ocracoke, 2011

I completed my undergraduate degree at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where I studied Business with a concentration in Communications and double minored in Economics and Sociology. I later started looking at MBA programs and stumbled across a few Master’s programs that were specific to nonprofits—I didn’t know they had those! I ended up heading west in 2011 to the University of San Diego to get my Master’s in Nonprofit Management and Leadership. 

Since I love the outdoors, one thing I did when I still lived in Richmond was to get certified (with my dad!) to be a Virginia Master Naturalist. It’s a volunteer program where you learn about the ecology, biology and geology of Virginia and then do citizen science and education projects in your community.  

How did you get your start in the nonprofit sector? What do you enjoy most about working with nonprofits?  

My connection to the nonprofit sector started in college when I became Chair of the community service club on campus. We helped connect students to volunteer opportunities with local nonprofits in Roanoke and I saw the amazing work they were doing.

When I graduated, my first job was in the advertising department at Circuit City, whose corporate headquarters was in Richmond at the time. I knew within the first week that it was not the place for me so I started thinking back to what I loved doing in college—it dawned on me that at least some of those people at the nonprofits I worked with actually got paid! So, I started looking at nonprofit jobs in Richmond. I ended up getting an internship with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team-In-Training program, where I was first introduced to fundraising and event planning.

About a year later, I was offered my first full time nonprofit job at the Richmond affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. I was one of three staff and really got thrown in headfirst to nonprofit fundraising and marketing by helping them manage year-round fundraising and overseeing their Race for the Cure 5k, which had 10,000 participants and hundreds of volunteers. I never looked back! I had the opportunity to work at nonprofits in both the environment and youth leadership areas while in San Diego. When I was ready to come back east, I happened upon the world of nonprofits that support our national parks 🙂 Before moving to OBX, I lived in Charlottesville, VA and worked at the Shenandoah National Park Trust as their Director of Philanthropy.

What I love most about working at nonprofits is the people. Whether they are volunteers, donors or the people who receive services – I get to interact with interesting, passionate people every day. It still amazes me how generous people will be with their time and money when they are truly passionate about something. 

Why is philanthropy important to you? 

To me, philanthropy is about more than just giving money – it’s about connecting to causes you care about and sharing your time and energy with people who have similar passions. Philanthropy plays an important role in our society, but it’s also very personal – each of us has to decide what is most important to us.

One of the things I love about working in fundraising is helping people figure out where they want to direct their time, energy and money. Sometimes, that’s with the nonprofit I work for, like Outer Banks Forever, and sometimes it’s not. It’s important for nonprofits to find their people—the people who are truly passionate about our OBX national parks for example—and realize that our mission won’t connect with everyone. But those it does connect with have so much to offer our parks! 

What do you want people to understand about Outer Banks Forever and their OBX national parks 

Hiking at Glacier National Park in 2018 for the Friends Alliance Conference – a yearly gathering of national park partners from around the country.

There are over 400 National Park Service sites around the country and today, nearly half of them have nonprofit partners like Outer Banks Forever (also known as “friends groups”) who support them through fundraising, volunteerism, education programming and more. I was so surprised to learn that our OBX national parks didn’t have a friends group! It is unique for a community our size to have three national parksThe three parks are unique and offer both locals and visitors three very different experiences. Through our partnership with the National Park Service, we are the only nonprofit authorized to raise funds to support these important places. 

Outer Banks Forever is a branch of a much larger nonprofit, Eastern National, whose mission is to promote the public’s understanding and support of America’s national parks and other public trust partners by providing quality educational experiences, products, and services. For over 70 years, we’ve been a dedicated supporter of America’s public lands, giving back more than $156 million to provide quality educational experiences for park visitors.

In 2016, Eastern National implemented a new strategic plan that included exploring how we could better support the parks we work with through philanthropy. We saw a great opportunity here in the Outer Banks, so Outer Banks Forever is the pilot philanthropic branch. As we grow, we will start to look at replicating this model to help other parks Eastern National works with that don’t have their own friends group, or who have a friends group that could benefit from sharing resources with us. 

How can people get involved in Outer Banks Forever’s mission?  

As a new organization, we have a lot of ways for people to get involved! We are going to be announcing the 2020 projects we’re working on with the parks in the coming weeks, so there will be plenty of opportunities for people to donate to support all of the projects, or a specific one they’re interested in. They range from projects to create more access in the parks (i.e., new multi-use paths) to new education projects in your parks to an exciting new program celebrating the arts in our parks. 

We’re also always looking for volunteers—specifically office volunteers and volunteers to help at our tables at OBX community events, which we usually participate in alongside our national park staff.  

If you’d like to get even more involved, we’re looking to expand our Board of Directors this year as well. We have a founding Board of six dedicated community leaders and are looking to expand that to add Board members that live around the region (North Carolina, Virginia and beyond!) that have a passion for our parks and can represent the views and insights of OBX visitors.

Questions for Jess? Email her any time at 🙂