April 21, 2021

Six Reflections with Christena Huntsman Durham

Executive Vice President: Huntsman Foundation

What life experiences shaped where, how and why you give?

Regarding our family foundation, it all started with my father [Jon Huntsman Sr.]. He didn’t have much growing up, so when it came to philanthropy he started by helping the poor and the needy. Then, after he began his battle with cancer, he became increasingly focused on healthcare, specifically cancer research and treatment. 

Literally on the way to his first cancer surgery, he stopped by The Road Home and dropped off a $1 million check. He realized that the families staying there could so easily be our family. 

Really, the where, how and why of giving is hard. It’s tough when you set up a foundation to decide where to give. What is important to me is not necessarily going to be important to others. I like to start by asking: What in my heart do I feel passionate about? And, what can I get others excited about?


"I like to start by asking: What in my heart do I feel passionate about? And, what can I get others excited about?"

What led to the Huntsman Foundation selecting mental health as a significant focus area? 

When my father passed away, he told my generation,”Do something big. I’m leaving a good size foundation, and I want you to do something great.” 

I lost my sister and my best friend to a drug overdose, so the issue of mental health is very personal for me. We started as a family by reflecting on the question: What is the thing causing the greatest suffering? We quickly settled on mental health. It is an immense problem that nobody talks about, the stigma is so strong. 

My siblings and I thought, maybe if we start sharing our stories, people will feel comfortable seeking the help they need. The outpouring has been staggering and has now led to the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. This facility will conduct cutting-edge research and help redefine how we provide mental health services. 

My parents dedicated themselves to fighting cancer. For myself and my siblings, it is mental health.

"Maybe if we start sharing our stories, people will feel comfortable seeking the help they need."

Can you share more about how you make giving decisions as a family?

When my dad was alive, my siblings and I were all on the board, but he made all of the decisions. When he passed away, all board members now had an equal vote. It went from one person making all the decisions to a nine member vote. That was a big transition.

We decided, if there was something with dad’s name on it, that it likely was really important to him and we should continue giving to it. We were lucky that he left enough resources to honor his legacy and for us kids to begin exploring things that matter to us.

Could you share a few organizations or community leaders doing exceptional work that are perhaps off many donor’s radar?

The University of Utah’s Penelope Program is an initiative that is very close to me. They specialize in solving complex medical cases for children with rare and undiagnosed conditions. The National Ability Center is another fantastic organization. My parents helped start the organization almost 30 years ago and I currently serve on the board. My grandson actually started horse therapy up there to help him walk. Clearly, organizations that support children are big for me. 

In terms of leaders, I wish I could clone Michelle Flynn. She is absolutely incredible and leads The Road Home exceptionally well. Becky Pickle is the new board president at The Road Home. She started with nothing and now is an owner of several Chick-Fil-A franchises. The first thing she wants to do is give back. She always seems to be dropping off meals to students, service providers and those in need. 

Representative Steve Eliason has passed some amazing bills on mental health and suicide prevention. He has a daughter with special needs and he helped start the SafeUT Crisis and Tip app.

Laura Warburton is also incredible. She lost her daughter to suicide and now runs Live Hannah’s Hope which strives to empower youth and reduce suicide through research, education, awareness and advocacy.

What is something you wish you knew when you were beginning your philanthropic journey?  

It's hard because you want to give to so many organizations, and every dollar is important. Everyone thinks their cause is the most important and it should be your cause. It gets even harder when you like the person, on a personal level, who is requesting funding. 

When deciding where to give, especially to places where I have a personal relationship with a member of the organization, a good question to ask is: “If that person wasn’t there, would I still give to that organization?”

I would also advise donors starting out to focus on your end goal. What is your money achieving? It’s okay to take the time and do your homework and see where your money is going. Generally, it's a good sign if organizations have demonstrated longevity.

"A good question to ask is: “If that person wasn’t there, would I still give to that organization?”"

How do you define success when it comes to your giving? 

If you can relieve the suffering of someone, you’ve been a success. Making someone’s life better, one individual at a time, that is making a difference. 

A favorite saying in our family is: “In life, we are either picking someone up, or being lifted up by someone else.”