Photo: Director, Jess Barnes, on her first day of a six day solo backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park.

Please 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 say the Outer Banks, so I’ve been coming here since I was two or three years old with my family and later with friends which made it even more exciting when I got the opportunity to move here full time. 

I went to 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 and ended up heading out west 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 the Outer Banks, I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, 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, 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 Outer Banks 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 enjoy doing outside of work? 

I enjoy anything outdoors, both here in the Outer Banks and traveling whenever I can. I still go to Virginia a lot to hike and backpack, and you’ll find me in Nags Head Woods a lot when I need a trail fix closer to home. I also love taking my kayak out on the sound, and even though I work with the national parks they are still places I like to spend my off time. I go camping at Oregon Inlet or on Ocracoke Island whenever I can, and since I live in Kill Devil Hills I also run or take walks to Wright Brothers National Memorial to catch a beautiful sunset. 

What do you want people to understand about Outer Banks Forever and our Outer Banks national parks?   

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”) that support them through fundraising, volunteerism, educational programming, and more. I was so surprised to learn that our Outer Banks national parks didn’t have a friends group prior to 2019! It is unique for a community our size to have three national parks. The 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, Eastern National has been a dedicated supporter of America’s public lands, giving back more than $156 million to provide quality educational experiences for park visitors. 

Since we launched in 2019, we’ve completed projects like the first designated, mobility-friendly kayak launch at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and getting a webcam up on the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse so people can enjoy the view from wherever they are. We’ve also helped our community and visitors better understand our parks and the important stories and environment that they protect. Protecting our parks is about more than just raising money – it’s about connecting people to these amazing places where they can rest, learn, and be inspired. 

Questions for Jess? Email her any time at