Jennifer Loeb stirs ‘secret sauce’ of success at Ronald McDonald House

In her 25 years as chief executive officer at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati, Jennifer Loeb has overseen the house’s expansion from just 20 rooms when she started to 177 today, making it the second largest of the 380 McDonald Houses worldwide. She’s helped grow the annual budget from $600,000 to $10.5 million. 

Jennifer Loeb Ronald McDonald House Cincinnati by Helen Adams for Movers & Makers
Jennifer Loeb, CEO of Ronald McDonald House Cincinnati, in front of the donor wall at the house.
(Photo by Helen Adams for Movers & Makers)

Throughout her tenure, she’s also worked to build a culture where staff and volunteers love coming to work. They’ve helped meet the needs of thousands of families – 34,091, to be exact – while their critically ill children receive care.

Although she’s undoubtedly helped the organization, it hasn’t been a one-way street. 

“This career here has shaped the person I’ve become,” Loeb said. “I’ve grown up in this job and became the person I am because of all the people I’ve met here and how they’ve impacted me.”

‘Life changes in an instant’

Loeb cites losing her father to an embolism when she was 5 years old as a much earlier formative experience. 

“What it taught me was that life changes in an instant … and the only way you get through that is the love and support of your family and friends,” the Wyoming resident said. “And it gave me the mindset that even when something tragic happens, life is still beautiful and worth living.”

That perspective dovetails with what she sees at Ronald McDonald House every day. 

“I’ve seen tens of thousands of families come through here, and I just watch the strength of these parents when you have no choice but to be brave and to face what’s ahead of you and to figure it out,” she said. 

The house seeks to make figuring it out a little easier for families, providing the comforts of home for days, weeks, months or even years while a child is undergoing treatment. Although the average stay is only about a month, families can reside in the house for up to two years, Loeb said. 

“The beauty of this house is it gives families a place to land, and it allows parents and other caregivers and siblings to get a good night’s rest and really take care of themselves so they, in turn, can be their best selves at the hospital for their kids,” she said.

Path to the house

 The born-and-raised Cincinnatian earned her bachelor’s in journalism and theater at Miami University, followed by a master’s in journalism and health education at Ohio State. After she finished school, she and her then-husband joined the Peace Corps. Her experience in Morocco wasn’t quite what she expected, and parasites sent her home early. However, working in maternal and child health there “definitely informed my future career and my desire to work in nonprofits,” she said. 

On returning to Cincinnati, that’s what she did. After briefly serving as grants manager for Welcome House of Northern Kentucky, she spent  more than 3 years as administration and development director at First Step Home.

She was only 28 when she applied for the CEO (then “executive director”) position at Ronald McDonald House.

Mike Sewell was board chair back then. Two things stood out to him when Loeb interviewed: Her communication skills and that she had “fire in the belly.”

“She didn’t seem like someone who was going to come in and just be a caretaker,” said Sewell, who is chief financial officer/executive vice president and treasurer at Cincinnati Financial Corporation and a 30-year board member at Ronald McDonald House. “You could tell she had a passion … (she had) the fire in the belly to want to improve things.”

Loeb was attracted to a role that harkened back to her work with children and families in Morocco, and she felt drawn in by the mission – which became even more compelling when, three years into her tenure, she had her first child. 

“Once you do that mental shift and can put yourself in that family’s shoes, it just brings a whole different perspective to what they’re going through and what they need,” she said. 

Loeb has three children, ages 22, 20 and 12. They occupy much of her time away from the house, along with working in her yard, reading, traveling and spending time with her close-knit group of nonprofit friends. She also has “some slightly eccentric hobbies” – twirling a fire baton, for one. She’d been a majorette in high school and took it back up some 20 years later as a midlife crisis, “mostly to embarrass my kids,” she joked. 

A quarter century of ripple effects

Even with her passion for the mission, Loeb never expected to be in her role for a quarter century. She figured she’d stay for five years or so and then see what was next. 

Instead, she steered the house through three expansions (and two capital campaigns) to expand its capacity from 20 bedrooms to 48 then to 78 to 177 today (with a waitlist). Demand for rooms has increased over the years as Cincinnati Children’s has grown in size and reputation, she said.

The Cincinnati house has done so well that Loeb is often called upon to share Cincinnati’s successes with other Ronald McDonald Houses around the world.

“We’ve really become a catalyst for great things happening globally,” said board chair Kelly Janszen, who met Loeb about 10 years ago when she first started volunteering at the house.

“That ripple effect is kind of immeasurable,” said Loeb’s sister, Meghan Cummings. “She’s inspired so many people to do their work in a best-in-class way.”

Cummings should know about Loeb’s ripple effect. “I’ve been in nonprofits my whole career thanks to Jenn,” she said. “By watching her in her career, it really inspired me to pursue a similar path.” (Today, Cummings is senior vice president at CF Leads, following a 13-year stint at Greater Cincinnati Foundation.)

Their shared professional path has broadened their relationship beyond a typical sibling bond.

“There’s not a Christmas or Thanksgiving that goes by where we’re not talking shop,” said Cummings, who described her sister’s personality as magnetic. “She’s the first person I call for ideas … I get so much energy and guidance from her.” 

Cummings, Janszen and Sewell all cited Loeb’s thoughtfulness and her ability to build relationships as a big contributor to her (and the house’s) success. 

“She makes you feel heard and important,” Janszen said. 

So it makes sense that beyond physically growing the house, Loeb’s other major focus over the years has been creating a culture where “staff and volunteers love coming to work and being part of this team.”

It’s a sizable team: 73 employees, 300 guest services volunteers and about 4,000 meals and activities volunteers support Ronald McDonald House each year. 

“As a nonprofit, the most important factors in your success are being able to fund the mission and having the right people in place to carry out the mission,” Loeb said. “We have a real focus here on hiring the best and most talented people for these roles and then helping them feel challenged and supported and fulfilled as they develop their careers here.”

Loeb said a common misconception about RMH is that it’s fully funded by McDonald’s or that it’s part of Cincinnati Children’s. In reality, each Ronald McDonald House is a separate 501(c)(3) with its own board; McDonald’s and its customers provide 5% of the Cincinnati house’s annual operating budget, she said. “Our doors are kept open by individuals, companies and foundations primarily in this very generous community.” 

As evidence of Loeb’s success in culture-building, Sewell cites low employee turnover and high marks on family surveys. Cummings experienced the house’s culture firsthand during her 15 years volunteering there.

“In (Loeb’s) teams, there’s such a sense of camaraderie and love for their jobs,” Cummings said. “I think that’s the secret sauce there, and that’s something she’s helped create. 

“She’s really ambitious, but for all the right reasons,” Cummings added. “It’s never an ambition for her to get recognition or be seen as this leader in the community, which she is. She really pushes herself to accomplish more for the families, and I really admire that.”

‘A magical place’

“One thing that strikes me about (Loeb) is just how hopeful and positive she is,” Janszen said. “She lights up a room when she walks in; she’s always got a smile on her face.”

Loeb shows that positivity when friends and family ask whether it’s sad to work around sick children. “What I tell them is, it’s actually a very happy and hopeful house. There’s so much hope that these children will get better and go home,” she said, noting that most do. 

Jennifer Loeb Ronald McDonald House Cincinnati by Helen Adams for Movers & Makers
Jennifer Loeb with children on the playground at Ronald McDonald House Cincinnati
(Photo by Helen Adams for Movers & Makers)

Loeb loves seeing the resiliency of children going through surgeries or cancer treatments but who still get excited about making new friends going through something similar. “There’s so much acceptance and love and normalcy here,” she said.

Parents, too, bond over their children’s shared diagnosis or a doctor they have in common. “We have parents who become lifelong friends with people they meet here,” Loeb said.

“This is a magical place,” she added. “Once you walk through the doors, you feel it.”

Loeb encourages everyone to visit the house or sign up to make a meal to experience it for themselves.

“It’s really the best side of humanity,” she said. “It’s what we all hope for – if you have a tragedy or challenge in your life, that people will be there to help catch you when you fall. That’s what happens here every single day.”

“We have an incredible group of dedicated people – the staff, volunteers, the guest families you meet and the board. I can’t imagine being happier anywhere else,” she said. “I’m very lucky.” 

Once again, it’s a two-way street. “Our board is behind her 100 percent because she has proven how successful she is and what a fantastic leader she is,” Janszen said. “She just truly dedicates her whole self to the mission. I think it’s amazing that after 25 years, she continues every day, every year, to have a fresh perspective.”

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