For Tanuja Dehne, who on September 9 became the fourth president and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, giving back to her community has been a defining theme in her life — from Girl Scout projects and prison tutoring, to pro bono work representing people suffering from disabilities and terminal illnesses, and finally to being a representative on nonprofit boards.
Looking back on a lifetime of giving back, Dehne reflects on what she has gained: “I learned that I received so much more than I ever gave. I learned to have empathy and be an empathic listener, to cultivate compassion and kindness, and the importance of our shared humanity.”
In her new role at the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, established in 1974, Dehne, a West Windsor resident, will be part of an organization that in itself focuses on giving back, through its mission of “supporting arts, education, environment, informed communities, and poetry to connect communities and influence social change to achieve an equitable New Jersey.” Dehne succeeds Cynthia Evans, chief financial officer, who assumed the role of interim president following the retirement of Chris Daggett last September.
The foundation, Dehne says, “is empowering communities to take action that makes sense for their community.”
Sustainable Jersey, which started as a Dodge initiative in 2006 and is now a separate entity, is an example of the community-driven decision-making that the foundation fosters. This organization, which Dodge continues to support, has created a statewide infrastructure to enable grassroots change via local green teams. Hundreds of municipalities are pursuing a Sustainable Jersey certification through teams that include mayors, town council members, business people, and residents working together to improve their communities.
Dehne moved to West Windsor in 2002 with her husband Phillip Dehne, professor and associate chair of the history department at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, and her five children.
She is the daughter of immigrants. Her father, Professor Shyamal Majumdar, left his home in India to work at a rubber research institute in Malaysia. There, he met Dehne’s mother in the local Bengali community. In 1964, when Majumdar got the opportunity to earn his doctorate in botany at the University of Kentucky, he moved to the U.S., leaving his wife and two young daughters behind to join him later.
In 1969 her father joined the faculty of Lafayette College, and her family moved to Easton, Pennsylvania, where she and her younger brother were born. Her parents and two of her siblings remain in the Lehigh Valley.
Because her parents came early in the migration of South Asians to the United States, they were one of very few Indian families in Easton. “Our family of six was close because we did not have grandparents or cousins or a larger familial community,” she writes.
“We had a good life, a modest life,” Dehne says. “My parents focused on making sure we all did the right thing and got a good education and we all went to college.”
Her parents, she says, “were relentlessly focused on our education.” Like her father, her mother was an educator, teaching in a preschool. But her mother also was a personal example of the value the family placed on education.
“My mother went to college at night taking one, maybe two classes a semester over the course of 15 years to earn her undergraduate degree two weeks before I received my high school diploma,” Dehne writes, adding that she and her siblings all graduated from college.
As an undergraduate student at Lafayette College, Dehne studied international relations, anthropology, and sociology because, she says, “I was very interested in South Asian studies and in governance and governments across the globe.”
She also worked as a prison tutor, teaching math to help prisoners earn their GEDs. “I would help women who were about my age, from the same county, in some cases from the same high school — but who, through bad luck and/or bad decisions, were serving time in prison.”
“I’m not sure how much math I actually taught these women because we spent most of our time just talking, sharing stories and hopes and dreams,” Dehne adds.
After graduating in 1993, she matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania, with the idea of becoming a college professor. She received a master’s degree in political science in 1994 through the Center for Advanced Study of India.
“I thought I was going down a career path to be a college professor, but I realized quickly that it was not for me. I needed to give back in some way, and law school seemed like the logical next step,” Dehne says.
As her first clerkship while working on a JD, which she earned from Syracuse University College of Law in 1998, Dehne worked for Legal Services of Central New York in Syracuse, where she gathered information individuals with traumatic brain injuries and their families, who sought support and benefits stemming from their injuries.
Her second clerkship was with Saul Ewing, an influential Philadelphia law firm, who offered her a position at summer’s end as a corporate associate in the firm’s business department.
“When I started my professional life as a lawyer, what really made my heart sing was the pro bono work I was doing and giving back in my community,” Dehne says.
She worked with Social Security’s disability determination services for terminal illness cases, which not only gave her an opportunity to work in front of administrative judges, something she didn’t do in her corporate job, but, she says, “I was also having humanizing client contact with real individuals who had real issues and no one to help them.”
Dehne left Saul Ewing in 2004 and joined NRG Energy in Princeton as general counsel and corporate secretary. She worked her way up to chief of staff before leaving in 2016.
Dehne says that NRG Energy has three broad focuses that drive its business: bold sustainability goals; a focus on employees and talent; and a commitment to global giving and giving back to the community. In line with these focuses, the corporation encouraged Dehne to serve on nonprofit boards and also to “become a community leader in New Jersey, marrying leadership, corporate and legal, with philanthropy.”
“At NRG the biggest lesson was tapping into me being a purpose-driven person,” she says.
As a trustee at the Dodge Foundation, Dehne was most recently chair of the governance and strategic planning committees, but she resigned to apply for her new position — “following good governance practices,” she says.
Support for good governance has in fact been a leitmotif of her career, in her work in corporations and in nonprofits.
While working at Saul Ewing, in addition to responsibilities regarding corporations to forming their corporate entities and raising equity and debt, she also supported them in creating the governance infrastructure, which she defines as “the rules, processes and practices by which an organization is controlled.” Another role she enjoyed was advising for-profit boards and nonprofit boards of trustees on their fiduciary duties and their role vis-a-vis their management teams.
Dehne’s pro bono work with nonprofits led her to her first nonprofit board seat with United Way of Greater Mercer County, which led to several others: Young Audiences of New Jersey; HomeFront; Sustainable Jersey; Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; and today New York Public Radio and Lafayette College. This experience stood her in good stead when she later joined corporate boards for publicly traded companies as a director.
As corporations are becoming more purpose driven, with increasing focus on their stakeholders — their communities, consumers, employees as well as shareholders — Dehne has advised boards to prioritize environmental, social, and governance factors on their agendas, she says, “integrating such factors in long-term strategy and ensuring diversity in boardrooms and in C-suite talent pipelines.”
Dehne speaks and writes regularly about bringing environmental social governance into the boardroom. “What this means,” she says, “is ensuring that an organization takes in factors, on the governmental and social side — ensuring diversity in the boardroom and work force; having fair pay and human resources practices and policies, and on the environmental side, taking into account climate change as a disrupter in their business.” She urges directors to “take all those factors into decisions to create value for the long term.”
She adds that “building strong governance in nonprofits is critical, and also an opportunity as nonprofits take on a larger role in society as government policy and regulations continue to roll back on social services.”
For Dehne, the strengths she brings to her new position at Dodge reflect both the values she imbibed from her parents growing up and her experiences as an adult.
“My father is strong, vocal, and independent and taught us to be disciplined, to work hard, and to be extremely respectful of education, our elders, and particularly teachers. My mother is nurturing, compassionate, and loving, and she is the most courageous and determined person I know. She juggled, balanced, stood her ground, and continues to hug and love fiercely.”
As Dehne accumulated new skills over time, she was able to use them to “really give back and make a difference.”
“My story is not of a person who was born and knew I was going to be in philanthropy. I am someone who grew into it, as small steps became bigger, as I developed skills, experience, and networks.”