Siana Austin Hunt, president and CEO, Make-a-Wish Hawaii
Between overseeing the largest wish-granting Make-A-Wish chapter in the country, helping run her family’s cattle ranch and raising two teenagers, Siana Austin Hunt should be three people. But she’s got a secret to successful multitasking: good old-fashioned grit. A fifth-generation local girl raised on Moloka‘i, Hunt was helping her dad on the ranch from the time she could lift a shovel. After her parents made Honolulu their primary residence, she was split between two worlds—attending Punahou in the big city during the week and spending weekends working on fence line or mucking horse stalls at Kapualei Ranch. “When you think you’re having a tough day, you can get out there and work with your hands and really experience what tough means,” Hunt says.
After graduating from Pepperdine University with an elementary education degree, Hunt began a teaching career in California’s Bay Area before moving back home with her husband and teaching at her alma mater. When her children were born, she decided to be a stay-at-home mom and, in the family tradition, devote her time to the historic preservation side of the nonprofit sector through fundraising and event planning. But Hunt found her higher purpose when she got a call from an organization known for granting wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. They were looking for new leadership and a new direction. “I told them, ‘Honestly, I don’t know a thing about Make-A-Wish Hawaii,’ to which they replied, ‘That’s our challenge,’” Hunt says. “They were doing good things, but just didn’t have a very visible footprint in the community. I saw so much opportunity to help change that.”
Her goals were clear from day one: grow local exposure and build capacity to make more wishes come true. Her strategy was to treat the nonprofit like an entrepreneurial startup. “We took a 30-year-old organization and turned it on its ear,” Hunt says. “The systems and infrastructure in place had to be completely upended.” And it worked. In her five years as president and CEO, she’s grown Make-A-Wish Hawaii’s staff from three to 30, its operating budget from $700,000 to $4.5 million and its wish-granting capacity from 35 to 100 local children. Today, the Make-A-Wish Hawaii team and 800 volunteers also help fulfill wishes for 1,200 out-of-state children through the organization’s Wish Assist program, in which they work with mainland chapters to customize wishes that involve traveling to Hawai‘i’—the second-most popular request among Make-A-Wish chapters across the country.
Since Make-A-Wish Hawaii is 100 percent privately funded, Hunt is tasked with growing local donor relationships, recruiting sponsors and planning fundraising events. Last year alone, she worked with the hospitality industry to secure $15 million in donated goods and services. But her favorite part of the job is seeing the impact of wish fulfillment up close. On any given day, she’s sitting in on wish-granting committee meetings, visiting families in their homes or hospitals, or speaking with doctors about the best timing for making wishes come true. With wishes that range from becoming a volcanologist to surfing with Bethany Hamilton, Hunt is granting wishes left and right with help from a community guided by the aloha spirit. “Behind every door is the satisfaction of making a wish happen, and that’s a powerful motivator,” Hunt says. “All we have to do is say, ‘Let me tell you about this child,’ and our community comes out in droves. It’s really magical.”
Hunt is a big believer in using a group mindset to achieve goals, and all ideas are welcome. “I loved to do puzzles as a kid,” Hunt says. “I think that’s all I’m doing now, finding pieces of the community to fit [together].” Right now her team is engineering a backyard waterpark for a little boy with brittle bone disease on the Big Island. “It takes an entire community to answer these calls,” Hunt continues. “I don’t know how to build a radio-controlled car track or how to create the perfect fairy tale with an entire cast of storytellers and princesses—but let me learn about it and talk to people who do.”
A lot of the decisions Hunt makes today serve the bigger goal of building a sustainable future for Make-A-Wish Hawaii. That means supporting its explosive growth by backfilling the organization so it can maintain capacity over the long term. One avenue to sustainability is engaging the next generation in giving back. In 2015, Hunt launched a board of 25 young professionals who fundraise and serve as brand ambassadors, putting them in a prime position for impacting the community. “Our hope is that they fall in love with our mission and learn to become the board of directors of tomorrow, whether it’s with Make-A-Wish or another nonprofit,” Hunt says. “If we can give people an experience to serve in a nonprofit, we are doing the community a great service.”
Balancing her professional role with humble ranch work with her family, it’s not uncommon for Hunt to board a plane bound for Moloka‘i on a Friday wearing high heels and slipping into jeans and boots as soon as she lands. Hunt says her greatest calling is making sure her kids live out their role as stewards of Hawai‘i’s communities. “I hope they recognize that this place has been transformational in who they are and see they have a responsibility to give back,” Hunt says. “They’ve gotten to see all of my bumps and bruises of leadership along the way and the immense rewards that came with them. I want them to know that they have a mom who didn’t shy away from anything.”