A moment with: Jennifer Nicely, CFRE

Photo of Jennifer Nicely and partner.

Jennifer Nicely, CFRE is the Chief Development Officer and President of the CHI Memorial Foundation in Chattanooga, Tenn. She joined the foundation nearly 22 years ago when it was still a one-person office.

At CommonSpirit Health’s Philanthropy Education Summit earlier this year, CHI Memorial Foundation was the recipient of the Model Stewardship Award and Jennifer was personally recognized with the Philanthropic Values Award. This award was created to honor a philanthropy staff member who embodies CommonSpirit’s values in both their daily interactions and in life.

Philanthropy is …
Philanthropy is the most amazing opportunity to connect individuals with need. I have been fortunate to witness, and be a part of, amazing instances where that happened in ways that would bring tears to your eyes. I always tell people that I have the best job at the hospital. I get to connect people who want to give back to a need that we have and to let them see, often firsthand, what they're doing and who they're impacting.

Can you tell us about your background and how you came to Memorial?
I went to Vanderbilt University and after graduation worked in Atlanta for a bank in their management training program. I ended up in their marketing department and stayed there for a couple years until my husband and I got married and moved to Chattanooga, where he is from.

I'm old enough that I “fell into philanthropy.” People now study it and plan for it but that didn't exist back in the late 90’s. Memorial’s foundation was a one-person shop at the time, doing a big event and needing help. I had nothing but time on my hands and I knew nobody in town, except my husband's family, so I helped the foundation do sponsorships and planning for the event. Here I am these many years later. I did leave for two years to run a development program at Siskin Children's Institute. I needed to leave to gain a different perspective and to be seen a bit differently by folks who had known me since I joined the organization. I was hired back in 2008 in my current role.

What advice would you give to someone entering the field of philanthropy?
I'd say it's all about the relationships. That is what makes this job so meaningful, what makes it rewarding and what makes you want to come back every day. I’d say keep that top of mind always. It comes back to building and nurturing those relationships. That's what’s going to take you far.

Is there a donor story that stands out to you?
The one that immediately comes to mind is an older couple. They came to us through an unusual situation. I got a call from a local electrical company who said that one of their electricians had received a call from the parents of a good friend who had just passed away. They knew he was on a job site at the hospital and wanted his opinion about if this was a place that he would want money given in his memory.

We did a little research and discovered that there was significant wealth there. The first time I met them it was me, our CEO, the head of the electrical company and the electrician who was friends with the couple’s son. We let them talk to us about their son and what they were wanting to do to honor his memory. They were in their 80’s and he was their only child and never married or had children of his own. He died of cancer and so we started talking about the dreams we had to enhance our cancer center. They said, “that sounds great. How much would it cost to name it for him?”

They made a $3 million gift to name the center and to honor their son and have included us in their estate planning to continue their support into the future. They have become unbelievably special friends. They call when they need something, when they want to talk or when they run into somebody at the grocery store who's been in the cancer center and made a comment to them about how wonderful it is that they've done this in their son's name. I think the pride that they have and what they have been able to do for so many has brought them some closure.

What do you love most about your job?
Most days I get to see that I've accomplished something that has impacted other people's lives in a positive way. Our hospital has a huge mobile oncology screening program. For every mobile coach we have, the foundation funds a lot of their upkeep and makes sure people receive free screenings on them. Knowing that they are there, every day, helping people because of something we've done … it’s those kinds of stories.

What did the foundation’s Philly award, and your own recognition, mean to you?
It meant more to me for my team to be recognized. We were absolutely shocked. It was an amazing honor for a group of people who work really, really hard and work extremely well together. This is the best team I’ve ever worked with. There is never anything that happens that folks are not offering to jump in and help support each other and that's a huge reason that we have been successful. I'm so proud of everybody and the personal honor … I was overwhelmed.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I thought I would be a lawyer. I married one instead and I got to have a much better job.

What’s something that might surprise others about you?
Two years ago I went through a bout with cancer. It was definitely a life-changing experience. I'd been raising money at Memorial for 20 years and a lot of that around our oncology programs. I got to flip sides and be the patient and sit on the other side. It brought a whole new perspective to my work. I was able to go back and say thank you to our donors from personal experience.

What does relaxation look like for you?
My family loves to be outdoors. We love to hike. We live at the foothills of the smoky mountains so there’s lots of great hiking and outdoor opportunities around us. We also really enjoy visiting national parks. We've been to a lot of the parks in California, Utah and Wyoming.