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Pediatrician sees fundraising as caring

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By Rob Neufeld

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — One of the key ingredients in a foundation’s strategic plan is the telling of its story, says Dr. Olson Huff, consultant to Mission Healthcare Foundation.

That story will be critical as Mission Children’s Hospital Endowment in Asheville works to raise $50 million over the next five years for facilities, staffing and services.

Huff is intimately familiar with the story:  For nearly three decades, he has been a force behind improvements in pediatrics in the region.

In 1987, Huff was put in charge of the Center for Child Development at Thoms Rehabilitation Hospital in Asheville.

“My driving interest,” he says, “was to see that children throughout western North Carolina had access to the same level of health care and medical expertise as children in other parts of the state and country.”

Huff’s work at Thoms led to Mission Hospital’s selecting him in 1994 as director of the Ruth and Billy Graham Children’s Health Center, renamed Mission Children’s Hospital in 1999.

At that time, Asheville-area children were still being taken from their families and sent to hospitals in the eastern part of the state for serious conditions ranging from cancer to trauma.

During Huff’s tenure at Mission, the number of pediatric specialists in the region increased to 25 from three.

In his honor, the child development program at Thoms Hospital was renamed the Olson Huff Center for Child Development, now part of Mission Children’s Hospital.

“He didn’t give money, and he wasn’t dead,” quips Huff’s wife, Marylyn, about the dedication.

Huff once asked the mother of a child with cerebral palsy, “What’s most important to you and your family in the provision of care?”

“First,” she replied, “is knowing that the person seeing your child is knowledgeable.  Second is having all kinds of services available in one place.  Third is having a uniform way of paying for those services.”

Such conversations are part of Huff’s way of developing the story behind the need for better healthcare for children.

Dr. Olson Huff

Born: Krypton, Ky., August 6, 1936

Parents: Father, Albert Huff, coal miner, railroad worker, farmer; mother, Manda Huff, farmer, factory worker, mother of six

Education: B.A., chemistry, University of Kentucky; M.D., University of Louisville

Early career:  Internship and active service in Air Force; medical training, Charlotte Memorial Hospital; began private pediatric practice at Charlotte Children’s Development Center, 1968; moved to Asheville in 1980, continued general practice through 2001

Family: Wife, Marylyn; three sons, four grandchildren

Inspirations: His mother, who moved the family from coal-mining Kentucky to the foothills so her children could get a good education; high school chemistry teacher, who nurtured interest in medicine

Hobbies: Gardening, running, writing.

Currently reading: “In the Wake of the Plague,” by Norman Cantor; “His Excellency: George Washington,” by Joseph J. Ellis

“What I’m doing is not simply going out and trying to ask people for money,” he says.  “I’m giving people the opportunity to contribute to their own community…So I have not found it difficult to ask people for money.”

Not all donors give thousands of dollars: Some give lesser amounts with great feeling and regularity, he says.

Huff has created a special designation for them: “Signal givers.”

It’s not a term used for public recognition, he says, but an expression of private thanks.

About four years ago, Huff co-chaired the “Windows of Childhood” campaign, which raised $11 million for the construction of the Mission Reuter Children’s Outpatient Center, completed last April.

One of Huff’s givers in that campaign was a man from Texas who had given $132 each quarter for a number of years.

Huff called to thank him.

“A personal contact is something we try very hard to do,” Huff says. “Relationships are built through these things.”

One of the most important elements in a fundraising campaign is developing trust, says Huff.

His years in fundraising also taught him that successful campaigns require the creation of a team of community leaders and development of deep and broad mailing and donor lists, often formed through branching personal connections.

Seeking grants is another art, in which the mission of the grantor and grantee are wedded.

And yet another important process is talking with people of means who, in the latter years of their lives, wish to make a difference.

When Huff started in pediatrics, which he practiced for about 35 years, he didn’t think of himself as a fundraiser, he says.

“By the same token, it was obvious to me, because I have also done a lot of advocacy work for children and children’s families…that funding for all sorts of expand to meet the needs,” he says.  “It was not difficult for me to programs for children was essential if those programs were to shift some of my thinking to embrace the idea of fundraising.”

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