Linda Nunnallee: Helping people help themselves

Linda Nunnallee.

photograph by Juli Leonard

by Todd Cohen

Linda Nunnallee believes that building relationships is indispensable to serving people. The executive director of StepUp Raleigh, a nonprofit that helps adults and children build stable lives through jobs and life skills training, she says it’s a lesson she learned early: First at home, then in the advertising business, and finally in the nonprofit sector.

Today she credits solid relationships with helping her run an agency that provides low-income and homeless individuals in Wake County with job training and placement, vocational training, and life skills development. Last year, StepUp placed 380 unemployed, low-wage and homeless individuals in jobs ranging from food services and hospitality to automotive mechanics and fiber optics, with an average hourly wage of $10.64.

Nunnallee comes to the job with broad experience. A Florida native, she spent 12 years at an ad agency and worked for an accounting firm before becoming a fundraiser for SAFEchild, a Raleigh nonprofit that works to eliminate child abuse. She helped to launch SAFEChild as president of the Junior League, then served on its board before going to work for the agency.

She arrived with the knowledge that relationships were vital. As an advertising account executive, “I had to have a good relationship with the client, with the creative people, with the media people.” In nonprofits, too, she says, “it’s all about relationships – with the people who come through our program, our volunteers, board of directors, staff members, employers, donors, and the different churches that house our programs. It’s all about relationships.”

Good relationships need to get off on the right foot, and Nunnallee credits her parents with teaching her invaluable lessons about seeing the good in people.

“My dad said, ‘People are good. If you’re good to people, they’ll be good to you.’ He always looked for the good in people, and always found it.’ The lesson I learned from my mom is to always do it right. She would say, ‘Our reputation is who we are, and we need to do things the best we can, because if we do that, we’ll never have to second guess who we are.’ ”

To me, philanthropy means giving a piece of your heart to somebody or something that needs it more than you do.

At SAFEchild, we met people where they are and not where we want them to be. Without that understanding, you can’t reach people. I learned everything I know about development from Marjorie Menestres, executive director at SAFEchild. She was my mentor and still is.

Both SAFEchild and StepUp work to help people learn lessons that, for whatever reason, they have not learned on their own. At SAFEchild, it’s parenting. At StepUp, it’s how to prepare yourself for employment, to get a job, balance a budget, set goals and create a more stable environment for yourself and your family. Everybody comes to us from a different place, but almost everybody comes in crisis. And if we don’t have that compassion and understanding to meet people where they are, then we’re not going to be successful, nor will we be able to help people who need our help be successful.

Everybody wants to feel the validity of their life. I get so much joy out of watching, at StepUp, people who enter this program in such crisis, and leave this program with everything we have offered them, and are able to actually create a life and an environment that is stable and safe for themselves and their family.

I have a daughter, Claire, and a son, Andy. Claire is 29, a radiology technician at WakeMed. Andy is 27. He works at the business office at IMC Research Corp. in town.

The beauty of Raleigh is what has stayed the same. It’s a community of relationships. It’s like a big town. When people are in need, this community rallies around. It’s progressive but it honors tradition.

In Raleigh, I admire Danny Rosin, the founder of Band Together N.C., and his unwavering passion and tenacity to improve the community. He and a group of friends witnessed the destruction of 9/11 and through tears and passion decided they would do something about it. What they did was create events with live music and bands to support nonprofits in the community, making it a platform to do good and an agent for change.

I am reading Start with Why, by Simon Sinek. We can all talk about how we do things and what we do, but until we get to the why and the story behind it, it doesn’t really have a purpose.

I don’t like change for change’s sake, but I don’t want to ever sit still. I think there’s always room to grow. When I stop doing that and become idle is when the adrenaline
quits flowing.