In a career of giving that covered more than 32 years, Jean Tehan may be finding that her most difficult challenge yet is walking away from it all.
Tehan retired as president and CEO of the Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin at the end of August. She joined the foundation at its outset in 1988, when it consisted of a staff of … her.
1987 went to fund community projects including job training for area Hmong. The Community Foundation, which consisted only of a board, needed at least one part-time staff member.
“Jim Lundberg knew me from my work at the Chamber,” Tehan recalled of the retired Wausau Insurance executive who was thenchairman of the foundation board. “He sat me down and said, ‘You’re going to do this, right?’ That was my whole interview.”
Things started as “very part time” but quickly snowballed, according to Tehan. She advanced through various roles and served as the foundation’s leader, in one form or another, for about 25 years.
The Community Foundation’s stated mission is to “enhance the quality of life in northcentral Wisconsin.”
This means connecting philanthropists to worthy causes around the area through community enhancement grants and various scholarships. The foundation reports $67 million in assets while managing 431 funds. It took in $6.3 million from donors in 2019 while distributing $5.8 million to nonprofits throughout the area.
There was rarely a dull moment for Tehan, an energetic sort who drew as much from those around her as she strived to give.
“I’ve always been a people person,” said Tehan, who has a masters in counseling and guidance from the University of Wisconsin. “Listening is the most important thing we can do. When I’m able to talk to donors, I ask them, ‘How do you want to be remembered?’”
Managing those relationships allowed one success to lead to another, also drawing likeminded people into the organization to contribute to the mission.
“Imagine having a job where every single day you were surrounded by people who wanted to work to make a difference in the community,” she said. “It’s so inspiring to be in such a positive environment.”
Imagine having a job where every single day you were surrounded by people who wanted to work to make a difference in the community.
— Jean Tehan, retired president and CEO,
of North Central Wisconsin
Tehan’s ebullience was a necessary virtue in those early days, as she sought to sway skeptics and build a reputation for an entity that had no real body of work yet to showcase.
“Our biggest challenge is getting people to understand what a community foundation is and does,” she said. “And (early on) to assure professional advisers — financial, attorneys. It takes time to develop trust. You tell by doing.”
Tehan credits the boards she’s had over the years, particularly those early years when building rapport was so crucial.
“Board members would sponsor small gatherings at their homes,” she said. “ ‘Here’s what we’re all about.’ People enjoyed being with their peers. We kept presentations short so they could enjoy their time together.”
That was in an era when phones were still connected to walls and the “information superhighway” was more like a dirt path.
“I still have a Rolodex I’ve kept as a souvenir,” Tehan said. She added with a chuckle that even office furniture didn’t always cooperate. “My nylons would be shredded from the underside of the chairs.”
Hosiery hangups couldn’t dampen Tehan’s altruistic spirit, as she went on over the years to serve in a variety of capacities on a host of community initiatives:
• Charter trustee, Greenheck Foundation
• Member/president, Wausau Noon Rotary Club
• Faculty, Leadership Wausau
• Admissions committee, Medical College of Wisconsin
• Co-chair, Parish Council at St. Michael’s Catholic Church
• Helped form Kids Voting USA The list goes on, but Tehan kept her involvement brief in most organizations, to stave off any appearances of conflicts while she was in a position to influence grants with the foundation.
While the foundation has weathered its share of storms, none presented the gale force of COVID-19 during the past year.
“It really challenged us to find new ways to communicate,” Tehan said. “There’s something about face-to-face meetings where you can read each other’s eyes and body language. It’s all part of the trust equation.
“Now, we write little notes, we’ve had meetings with people in their garage to sign papers.”
Tim Parker, a Michigan native with a long career in connecting people, capital, and worthwhile projects, became president and CEO of the Community Foundation in October. While Tehan lauds Parker’s leadership, she knows it will take some time to adjust to retirement.
“It’s been fun to check in with them from time to time,” she said of her former staff. “I’ve just told them to let Tim establish himself. I said, ‘I believe in him and in you 100 percent.’”