100 years

Hawai‘i Community Foundation
Meet Our Team

Full Color

Meet Mary Leong Saunders

In January, the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation welcomed Mary Leong Saunders as our new vice president of philanthropy. Leong Saunders comes to HCF from Catholic Charities Hawaiʻi, where she was also vice president of philanthropy. In her new role, Leong Saunders will oversee HCF’s development and donor relations, and planned giving. We sat down with Mary to learn more about her career, and her perspective on working in philanthropy.

Mary Leong-Saunders

Q: What brought you into a career in nonprofit work?

A: I sort of happened into the philanthropic world accidentally. I was at the Rotary Club of Honolulu as their executive director and several of their board members were involved with Family Promise of Hawaiʻi, which is a shelter for families facing homelessness. I had not worked in the field of homelessness before, so it was a huge learning curve, in terms of understanding the working poor and generational poverty. We were mainly serving Hawaiʻi’s ALICE population, and I have never met more inspiring, hard-working people. It was an incredible experience and I was forever changed by their tenacity and hopefulness.

Q: At Family Promise of Hawaiʻi, you were focused on a single issue—helping keep families in stable housing. You then moved to Catholic Charities Hawaiʻi, which offers a broad range of services, from kūpuna support to foster placement to immigrant advocacy. And of course you’re now with HCF, which also works in many different sectors. Did you have to change how you connect with donors? Is it more complex to message a broad range of missions?

A: So much in philanthropy comes down to relationship building, which is the part I love the most. Stewarding and engaging donors is so rewarding. You’re building genuine, authentic relationships with people; you really care about what they want to do, and what kind of legacy they want to leave, what kind of impact they want to make. When you have more options to present, as we do across the CHANGE Framework sectors, it’s easier, because one of those initiatives is bound to match with someone’s passions. I do think people look to us to identify where the needs are within the community, and share that with them. I think they really value the work that we do to strengthen the community.

Q: Over the course of your career, you’ve worked for several organizations with long histories: Catholic Charities Hawaiʻi, 76 years old, Rotary Club of Honolulu, 107 years old, Hawaiʻi Community Foundation, 106 years old. Are there any benefits or challenges in leading organizations with extensive legacies?

A: Having a long history is always beneficial. Your reputation has been built. But I think the exciting thing is to see the progression of an organization. Because the community doesn’t stay the same; the world doesn’t stay the same. You have to be willing to change and respond to the needs of the community. If you can’t evolve, if you keep doing the same thing you did 100 years ago, you’re probably not going to be around another 100 years.

HCF is a perfect example of what progression can look like: establishing the CHANGE Framework, and studying what the needs are in our community today. We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow or 10 years from now; it could look very different, and it probably will. But I know for sure that HCF is going to evolve along with it and stay relevant.

Q: Speaking of evolution, over the course of your career, what changes or trends in the world of philanthropy have you seen?

A: I’ve noticed a big shift toward recognizing the importance of collaborations and working together, as opposed to operating in silos. There’s been a realization that, if we really want to make significant change and have a greater impact, we must work together. Being able to share resources, share information, share the load, is helpful. And I think organizations are starting to think bigger and outside the box about who they can partner with. For those of us in the nonprofit world, a lot of our missions do align with each other, so, while maybe partnerships aren’t always obvious, they can be incredibly beneficial.

Q: What advice would you give to a young person interested in the kind of career you’ve put together?

A: The first thing that comes to mind is to be open to what life presents to you. Don’t be scared if you don’t have a clearly laid out path for yourself. That’s okay; it’s how you learn. One of my first jobs, right out of college, was as an executive assistant to the owner of Lion Coffee. I learned a lot about coffee and the challenges that happen when a company is rapidly expanding. Who could have predicted back then that I’d end up taking a turn into nonprofit work? Sometimes you have to try different things to find what you really love to do.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?

A: I love being in the ocean and at the beach reading. It’s the perfect combo. I’ll always bring a book. I am always juggling two to three books. Right now I am reading A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and The Big Fix by Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis about practical ways to save the planet. We often go to the beach as a family, so if the grandkids are there, I don’t always get to read, but that's what I love to do. The beach is my calming, happy place

This conversation took place in February 2023.