Heidi McNiff Johnson ’84: Storytelling as a ‘a filter for goodness’

A decade of sharing inspiring “Actions Not Words” stories 

For the past 10 years, Heidi McNiff Johnson ’84 has been sharing stories—and inspiration—through her Charity Matters blog, which spotlights “extraordinary humans who are using their lives to serve others.” Since 2011, Heidi has profiled dozens of people she calls “nonprofit heroes”— the founders of organizations that are working to find solutions to all kinds of issues, from heart disease and homelessness to literacy and online bullying. 
“Almost a decade ago I had a dream that I was to help the helpers,” Heidi explains. “Since then, I have spent every spare moment trying to give voice to those who give their lives to serve those in need.”

And now, those voices come alive each week on her new Charity Matters podcast, which launched in January. “Each story is a gift, a lesson, and a reminder that people are good,” Heidi says. In this first season, Heidi shares the stories of 16 nonprofits, including two founded by Mayfield Senior School alums. In Episode 7, Heidi speaks with Ed & Mary Nally Ternan ’79 about their nonprofit, Song for Charlie, which is dedicated to warning young adults of the danger of the fentanyl poisoning that took their son’s life a year ago (see ‘Alums in Action’ below). And, in the latest installment, Episode 16, we meet Abeni Carr ’02, founder of Haven’s House Youth Services, which supports teens who are facing housing instability. 

As a co-founder of the Spiritual Care Guild at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, a faith-based nonprofit she launched in 2003, Heidi knows what it takes to build an organization that has an ongoing impact for those in need. Her Charity Matters project was born out of an urge to connect with and recognize others who were striving for the same “Actions Not Words” outcomes. 

Sparked by a recommendation from Angela Howell ’76, Heidi read Passionaries: Turning Compassion into Action by Barbara R. Metzler, a collection of profiles of volunteer leaders and their life-changing work. And it ignited a new passion—to tell as many of these kinds of stories as possible. 

“After being in the non-profit space for many years, I realized that I had a voice and could use it to help others tell their stories,” Heidi says. “I love learning how these amazing individuals have overcome enormous challenges and turned those challenges into nonprofit organizations or businesses that serve humanity.”

In the summer of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Heidi’s friends encouraged her  to spin off her blog into a podcast. A few months later, after researching sound equipment and production options—and recruiting fellow alum Emma Marcussen ’18 (USC ’22) as an editor—Heidi started recording in her home studio, aka the closet in her office! The first episode of the Charity Matters podcast aired in January 2021. 
Heidi’s drive to share these stories of hope and help, to be what she calls “a filter for goodness,” is boundless. She’s already working on a second season of the podcast, which is scheduled to launch in July to coincide with the official 10th birthday of her Charity Matters blog. Is there a Charity Matters TV show in the works? Don’t rule it out—it’s Heidi’s next dream. 

About Heidi McNiff Johnson ’84

Heidi is the Executive Director for The Association of Catholic Student Councils, a nonprofit Catholic leadership organization serving middle and high school students, and also serves as a trustee at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. She is a member of the Chancellor’s Advisory Board at Texas Christian University and is actively involved with Christ Child of Pasadena. Heidi is a former trustee of Mayfield Senior School and has also co-chaired the board at Verbum Dei High School in Watts. She has been honored for her nonprofit work with Mayfield Senior School’s Cornelian Award for alum of the year in 2011, Warrior Women in 2017 and the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles Cardinal’s Award in 2018. Heidi has been featured in numerous publications and on television, including KTLA and Thrive Global, and has spoken at the USC Annenberg Women’s Leadership Conference. She was Mayfield’s commencement speaker in 2016, sharing the stories of many of her nonprofit counterparts with our graduating seniors.  
After graduating from Mayfield Senior School in 1984, Heidi attended the University of Southern California. She lives in Pasadena with her husband Ron, and their three sons, Hunter, Henry and Ford.
Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.