Marcia Haaff considers herself the ultimate optimist.
Her job as CEO for The Lutheran Foundation is probably a perfect match.
“I always see the good in everything,” said Haaff, who on Oct. 2 celebrated her 25th anniversary as the foundation’s top executive – the first and only person to hold that job.
Mental health often draws more attention during the holidays when some people are lonely, grieving loved ones who have died or trying to cope with other issues – including this year’s global coronavirus pandemic.
But Haaff has not wavered in her intent to effect change.
The Lutheran Foundation she leads is a nonprofit that serves northeast Indiana with a faith-based goal to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. The foundation gives about 60% of its funds to Lutheran congregations, schools and ministries and about 40% to the local community.
Haaff is credited with being instrumental in the foundation’s investing of more than $179 million in the Fort Wayne area since 1996.
The CEO uses the virtual world 2020 has forced upon us as a safe place for her staff to express individual feelings and discuss how to support one another. Haaff uses staff meetings to assess mental wellness, asking staff members how they are. Staff can respond with a thumbs-up if they are OK, a thumb sideways if they are not too great and a thumbs-down if they are not OK.
“Without mental health, you cannot have spiritual and physical health,” Haaff said.
Cheryl Taylor, the former president and CEO of the Foellinger Foundation, said she and Haaff have been walking in parallel steps for 25 years.
“One of the wonderful opportunities Marcia has is being the first and only CEO of the Lutheran Foundation,” Taylor said. “Anytime a person has an opportunity to take on a position that no one has ever had before, that presents both a challenge and a chance.”
Taylor said the challenge is how to lead in a way that sets a standard. The chance is to “strike out boldly” and do something good in the community.
“One of Marcia’s greatest gifts is that she appreciates that balance and she took that chance,” Taylor said.
Mayor Tom Henry also commented on Haaff’s influence.
“I appreciate and value the important role that Marcia has in our community and the positive difference she is helping lead,” he said in a statement. “Her leadership and tenacity, particularly in the areas of mental health and proactive substance abuse treatments and care, have been instrumental in helping individuals and families in need.”
“The Lutheran Foundation is a tremendous asset and under Marcia’s direction is a vital part of Fort Wayne being a caring and giving city that cares about one another,” he added.
Haaff said she loves being the face of the foundation, which has 13 staff members, but she also takes pride in being a connector.
She has spent a large portion of her time with the foundation building relationships within the Fort Wayne community, including with teachers and police officers.
“Marcia is very cognizant of (the value of) that connection,” Taylor said.
Other local leaders agree. Haaff was named Community Partner of the Year in 2019. The award is given by the Allen County Department of Health.
Haaff marvels that despite 1 in 5 people dealing with mental illness, there is still a stigma, including in faith organizations.
Often a congregation will rally to cook casseroles when someone is physically injured, but there is not as much understanding with mental issues, an invisible illness, she said.
Haaff and her team conducted a survey in 2019 and learned that people didn’t know where to go or how to access resources when faced with mental illness. The Lutheran Foundation launched LookUpIndiana.org, which was funded by a grant from the Division of Mental Health and Addiction. The website provides information about mental/behavioral health and wellness.
The first “Look Up Faith Conference on Mental Health” was in 2019 with the goal of raising awareness in a safe environment. About 700 people attended, and a conference is in the works for 2022 with the hope to further education within congregations on mental illness.
The needs of 92 congregations, 19 schools and various ministries are always among the foundation’s top priorities for 2021.
“Our work,” she said, “will continue on.”
As featured in the Journal Gazette Dec. 29, 2020.