AHP Connect Member Profile - Jason Huff
Foundation Optimization and Administration
Mercy Health Foundation
AHP member since 2008
How did you get started in health care philanthropy?
I really stumbled into a career in philanthropy when I was in college. I was working within the university, and a position was open with the development department. I had no idea what development meant at the time, but I was fortunate enough to get hired into that position. It was an assistant position where I helped all the gifts officers, so I really got a broad sense of what fundraising was all about. It was around the time I was getting ready to graduate, and so I decided to look at fundraising as a potential career path.
I spent some time working with small social service agencies, and then I was fortunate enough to be hired on at Mercy Health Foundation in St. Louis to do corporate relations, and now I’ve been in health care philanthropy seven of the last 10 years. I had a brief stint away where I pursued some other opportunities in higher education, but other than that, it’s been my path for the past decade.
Do you have a personal connection to Mercy Health?
My family had been Mercy patients for many years before I worked there. My youngest son was born seven weeks early and spent two weeks in the Mercy Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I spent a lot of time at the hospital during those weeks. I remember distinctly being impressed with the organization overall. When I would step away and take a walk through the hospital to clear my head, I walked past the foundation office and immediately thought that would be something I’d be interested in doing someday.
It was about a year later that I ended up getting a position and working there.
How does that personal connection enhance your work with Mercy?
It’s sometimes difficult to retain the day-to-day connection to what’s happening on the floors and in the patient rooms throughout all of our hospitals. Having that personal connection is something I can always recall. I have pictures of my son when he was in the NICU. That’s a very vivid memory. It gives me a story that allows me to better connect with others. One of my responsibilities is to provide training to our fundraisers. I always tell them to not be afraid to share their own story to make connections with individuals. That’s something that continually has been a source of motivation and a practical tool I’ve been able to bring to my work.
As someone who trains fundraisers, what’s some advice that you give them to help them enhance their work?
One of the most important lessons is the impact of bringing your authentic and vulnerable self into your work. I think fundraisers, especially early in their careers, oftentimes feel pressured to have the exact right phrasing or the exact right words to fit what they perceive the donor’s expectations are. I advise them to be honest and vulnerable in that space. If you’re nervous, it’s okay to share that with a donor. It can be disarming at times and it can really bring people back to the human connection.
I also teach the five “why” trick. If you ask the question “why?” five times when you’re trying to figure out why an individual is supporting your organization – it never takes more than that to get down to their real reason. If you just keep asking, at some point you will likely find that there is a very personal reason behind their giving – because their parent had a cancer diagnosis and had nowhere to go, or they had a child who had an illness or disease and they appreciated the care and compassion they received.
It’s not something people think to bring to a conversation. You have to ask them. That’s the easiest way I’ve found to go deep into a donor’s motivations.
That’s a great tactic. In your 40 Under 40 profile, you talk about being excited when you don’t see a clear path forward – when it’s not opening up for you. How do you approach situations like that with your team?
I approach those situations like a puzzle. That’s where I think people can flex their creativity in their work. It’s really exciting when I can find solutions that might be grounded in some other disciplines. For example, I was reading a book about how public policy is devised and what goes into getting the support around an initiative to be able to move legislation. The relevance for fundraising was so obvious for me. Being able to build support and raise awareness around an issue, whether political or philanthropic, has a lot in common. I believe you can really get the best out of people when they have the encouragement to go a little bit outside of their comfort zone and learn from others outside of the fundraising world.
When someone or some team has a problem to work out, we go through the process and examine all possibilities and all options. We are encouraged to put forth the crazy ideas without judgement. We also have to be willing to challenge one another and we need the freedom to talk through why our ideas might not work. I believe that the best ideas should be able to stand up to scrutiny. You shouldn’t back down from people questioning it or trying to disprove it – that’s making the idea so much stronger if it’s able to stand against any possible flaws. I encourage my team to tell me why this won’t work, and if we do figure out a valid reason as to why it won’t work, then we won’t pursue that solution.
As part of our inaugural class of 40 Under 40, what has this meant for you and what have you experienced since being a part of that list?
It was obviously quite an honor. I know there are many professionals doing incredible work to advance health care through philanthropy. To be recognized as one of those leaders was very humbling for me and something I’ve very proud of. The response from other AHP members has been fantastic. A lot of people who I had never known before reached out and congratulated me. An announcement was made within our system and I received some very nice notes from fellow coworkers.
Since receiving this recognition, I’ve gotten more involved with AHP. I am honored to serve on the AHP Board Governance and Leadership Committee. I’ve also been exploring other ways to be more involved, either through presenting at conferences or mentoring or serving in some sort of volunteer capacity.
What advice would you give to someone who hopes to be on that list this year?
I feel I benefited the most from being willing to serve in different capacities as a volunteer. I was and remain involved with AFP. That willingness to volunteer and offer insights and raise your hand when there’s an opportunity to give back has really connected me with a lot of people who have taught me and pushed me to be better. It’s important be very open-minded. Be a sponge for knowledge. Be someone who isn’t afraid to ask a lot of questions, or to reach out and ask for advice or mentorship, or to connect with other professionals who you find interesting, even if it’s just to have a have a cup of coffee or a 15-minute phone call. If there’s a professional in your field who inspires you, or you think their job is interesting, just reach out to them. Fundraisers in general are very social and are very giving people by nature, so they’re very willing to help out.
I see on your 40 Under 40 profile that you’ve done some amateur standup comedy! Tell me about that.
It was something I was doing in my early 20s. I was honestly tricked into doing it by a friend who signed me up for an open mic night without me knowing and I found out about two minutes before I was about to go on stage. I was scared to death but I also enjoyed it and so I started doing that fairly regularly for a little over a year. I would just do different amateur-type comedy nights whenever I could. I’ve thought about going back to it sometimes just for fun, but I haven’t done that yet.