February 22, 2024 | Staff

Staying the Path

Unbound’s president and CEO, Ashley Hufft, continues to answer the call to fight poverty

By Kati Burns Mallows

Ashley Hufft was standing at the precipice of a career-defining moment in the field of law in 2005 when something called out to her.

In her early 30s at the time, the Texas native and Harvard Law School graduate was several years into her legal career at New York City law firm Alston & Bird. She was practicing mergers and acquisitions law on Wall Street and was about to make partner when one day she casually picked up a new book.

Written by the American economist Jeffrey Sachs, “The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time” had quickly topped the New York Times bestseller list shortly after publication that year. In the book, Sachs uses his decades of experience in economics, academics, public policy and sustainable development to present his vision of the steps that could transform impoverished countries into prosperous ones.

As Hufft turned the last page of the book, something came to life inside her.

It was that something that had always been part of her since childhood — a dreaming and longing to be a part of something purposeful — and it had been subconsciously guiding her steps to this moment.

“It [the book] inspired me and sparked a realization in me that ‘I’m not doing what I’m meant to be doing' as a corporate lawyer,” Hufft said.

Through friends, Hufft was introduced to the author, Sachs, and she asked him how she could lend her expertise to help his cause. From that point, Hufft’s career trajectory shifted.

Now, almost 20 years after joining the fight to eradicate poverty, Hufft’s calling has guided her to lead Unbound, which last year surpassed 1 million children, youth and elders sponsored since its founding as an international development nonprofit in 1981.


Hufft (center) collaborates with Unbound Kansas City staff members, Andie Ewing (left), chief operating officer, and Dan Pearson, chief program officer, while visiting the location of an Agents of Change initiative on an Unbound staff awareness trip to El Salvador in 2022.

Seeing beyond her world

In August 2023, Hufft stepped into the role of interim president and CEO following the retirement of Scott Wasserman, who spent 25 years serving Unbound, the first 15 on the governing board and the last 10 as president and CEO.

Hufft originally joined Unbound in May 2022 as chief strategy officer and general counsel, but readily accepted the request to lead the organization on an interim basis while the governing board conducted a nationwide search for the organization’s next president and CEO. Hufft’s appointment by the board in February 2024 makes her the first woman to hold the title of Unbound president and CEO in the organization’s more than 40-year history.

Though the altering yet again of her professional pathway might have been a bit sudden and unexpected, Hufft hasn’t hesitated to meet this new challenge head-on, the same as she has with most opportunities in her life — with energy, curiosity, optimism and vision.

And, while she’s been part of the Unbound community for less than two years, her understanding of and love for the organization is already undeniable.

“Looking at our teams as a whole, from our headquarters in Kansas City across project offices in 17 countries, every aspect of the organization is authentic,” Hufft said. “When we say we’re listening to the families [who are participating in our programs] and letting them lead, I see it time and time again; it’s not just a slogan or something we say because it sounds good. We really do show it, beginning with letting each family decide for themselves how they will use the sponsorship funds that are transferred directly to their bank or mobile accounts every month.”

One could say that the concept of authenticity is something that was ingrained in the fiber of Hufft’s being since childhood.

Born in San Angelo, Texas, Hufft grew up in southwest Missouri in what she described as a conservative community, with little diversity. Her late father was an orthopedic surgeon, and at one time, a captain and general medical officer in the United States Air Force. Her mother was an elementary school teacher before leaving education to raise her three children full time. Her parents’ love of learning, people and cultures shaped who Hufft would become.

“My parents really emphasized seeing beyond our own backyard,” Hufft said. “It was important to them that we see the world, accept others and give back. Acceptance and service, those were driving words in our family.”


As Unbound interim president and CEO in early 2024, Hufft traveled to the Philippines during a sponsor awareness trip to witness what sponsors experience from the field. Above, Hufft tries a frozen coffee in a pouch, created by the family of a sponsored member, during a “livelihood exhibit” at Unbound’s Quezon program. 

The family traveled extensively, both within the U.S. and abroad. Trips to the southwest U.S. awakened Hufft’s love of archaeology and anthropology, while trips to Thailand and Indonesia opened her up to different cultures early on.

Along the way, she developed a deep passion for Africa and as a teenager, she had dreams of one day living and working in Africa.

Feeding her sense of adventure, Hufft studied anthropology and archaeology at Harvard College as an undergraduate student and spent summers working on archaeological sites and conducting research in Israel and New Mexico. After college she taught first grade in Louisiana as a corps member for Teach for America before attending Harvard Law School to earn her law degree.

She had been practicing law in Atlanta and then New York and had just made partner at her firm when Jeffrey Sachs offered her an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.


During an Unbound sponsor awareness trip to the Philippines in early 2024, Hufft took the chance to experience what it was like to travel around the community by tricycle, a common mode of transportation in the country. Many families in the Unbound program earn their living driving a tricycle.

Chasing and catching dreams

Africa is a place that has fascinated Hufft her entire life.

Her father was an avid reader of National Geographic magazine, and she became captivated as a child by the lifestyles of women like anthropologist Jane Goodall and primatologist Dian Fossey. As an adult, she even went gorilla trekking in Rwanda, the same place where the late Fossey once studied the behavior of the endangered mountain gorilla.

In 2006, when Sachs offered her the opportunity to work on a foreign direct investment project in Kenya that he was heading up from the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Hufft accepted, took a sabbatical from her law firm and moved to Kenya. There, she found what she called “her life’s passion working in international development,” and she would spend more than a decade working across sub-Saharan Africa.

Hufft served as managing director and general counsel of the Millennium Promise (MP), the operational arm of the Millennium Villages Project, which was a collaboration that simultaneously addressed the challenges of extreme poverty in Africa in such overlapping areas as agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, gender equality and business development. She would eventually hold the title of general counsel and senior strategic adviser at the SDG Center for Africa, working on the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

It was early on during this time when she realized yet another of her dreams when she adopted her son, Maxwell Eyasu, then 11 months old, from Ethiopia.

When COVID-19 happened, Hufft, having just moved with her son to Dakar, Senegal, made the decision to move to Kansas City where her parents had retired and her brother is an architect. She wanted to “put down roots” so that Maxwell could grow up around his grandparents and cousins.

She had thought she would go back to practicing law full time, but fate, once again, had another plan for her, and it was called Unbound.


Hufft (left) walks with Unbound Nairobi social worker Jackline Kendi across a foot bridge constructed as part of an Agents of Change initiative to connect two communities while also keeping them safe from floodwaters during the rainy seasons.

Looking outward at innovative new avenues for Unbound

Hufft’s collaborative style of leadership is already making an impression on the Unbound community.

Conducting introductory small-group lunches with various departments at the Kansas City headquarters helped her to get a sense of the strengths of individual team members. She’s visited multiple Unbound projects in five countries thus far, meeting and listening to local staffs and sponsored families alike. Most recently, she traveled with a group of committed sponsors on an awareness trip to the Philippines.

She’s experienced many, as she calls them, “aha moments” while traveling with Unbound, including her realization of the power of the small-group model for families. “Sponsorship is the starting point. It provides much needed financial resources for families, scholars and elders. It then ignites an entire world of possibility for them, beginning with the small groups that they join.”

“The power of the small-group formation, mostly of mothers, sticks out in my mind,” Hufft said. “In Guatemala, I spent several hours listening to [mothers of sponsored children and young adults] describe the role that their mothers group plays in their lives in terms of support, encouragement, savings, microloans and entrepreneurship activities, looking after each other, holding each other accountable and leadership development.

“The moment for me was realizing the intangible intellectual property that Unbound has built up over 40 years of innovating across our projects. We are bringing families and whole communities together, and a lot of that is happening because of these small groups of women Unbound has helped form.”

One innovative strategy Unbound leadership is working on under Hufft is to leverage these mothers groups to expand funding options beyond the one-to-one sponsorship model.

“We are considering funding models that include allowing donors to support a group of 20-30 mothers with direct cash transfers and participation in the mothers groups,” said Hufft. “We think this could have significant impact on mothers’ empowerment in struggling communities, the development of the family and, ultimately, of the community as a whole.”


Hufft (front, kneeling in red cap) poses with other Unbound staff and the mothers of sponsored members during a staff formation trip to El Salvador in 2022. 

Among other visions Hufft has for Unbound: to expand the organization’s external knowledge sharing and impact, and to look for new partnership avenues.

“I’d like for us to have more of an external lens than in the past,” Hufft said. “We need to share our impact with the world. We have a lot of knowledge to contribute to the field of international development. At the same time, we need to think about how we’re continuing to meet the needs of new generations and diverse groups of potential sponsors and donors, who might expect to see direct impact or want to get involved in a different way. The trust that we’ve been able to build up in communities where we've worked for over 40 years is significant, and led by our project teams we are able to implement programs that have been developed through local innovations. I think this is unmatched compared to a lot of other organizations.”

Hufft said she believes her biggest role is to help Unbound prioritize among a lot of ideas in order to continue to evolve and tap into more growth. She wants to reach the next 1 million families in a fraction of the time.

Andie Ewing, Unbound’s chief operating officer, came to work at the organization around the same time as Hufft and said she has enjoyed working with Hufft to bring transformation to the way Unbound operates.

“It is truly a rare gift in your career when you get to work with a leader whom you admire,” Ewing said. “I am so lucky that I get to do that working with Ashley. Her leadership is transforming Unbound in so many ways.

“Early on, Ashley helped bring the leadership team together to identify organizational goals, and she has ensured that we stick to executing on our goals.”

Unbound Chief Financial Officer Martin Kraus said he’s been impressed with Hufft’s “all-in” attitude when it comes to her role.

“While planning for change, Ashley keeps the right balance between importance of our program (mission) and the administrative efforts of ’running the business,’” Kraus said. “Her passion for helping others is incredible. When she talks about the children, mothers and families in our Unbound program, she does it with undeniable compassion for their situation along with an intense desire to make a difference.”

The world, Kraus said, needs more people like Hufft in leadership roles.


 In Nairobi in 2023, Hufft visited the family of sponsored youth, Wycliff, to gain a deeper understanding of how the family’s grocery business has benefitted from Unbound Nairobi’s savings and loan program. Pictured is Hufft with Wycliff’s father, Jared, mother, Muthoni, and a sibling


Hufft stands next to Unbound Guatemala’s Francisco Chavajay as they prepare to shoot a video message expressing gratitude to sponsors for helping Unbound reach 1 million sponsored friends in the summer of 2023. One of Hufft’s long-term goals for Unbound is to craft a new five- to 10-year vision plan that will lead the organization to obtain 1 million more sponsorships in a quicker timeframe. 


Unbound Quezon program staff member Divine Grace Cabug-os (left) talks with sponsors Owen and Mary Geisz (seated left), Ashley Hufft (seated center) and sponsor Linda Roberts (right) about the importance of the Pambuhay Savings Loan Assistance Program to the community during an Unbound sponsor awareness trip to the Philippines in 2024.

Ashley is a compassionate leader with creativity and vision. She cares so deeply about the people in her life — including those from her work life — which is why people are inspired to go above and beyond when she asks. I have full confidence in her leadership and am blessed to get to work with her.

— Andie Ewing, Unbound Chief Operating Officer

An open door and a listening ear

The last six months have been a whirlwind of change, frequent travel and quick learning for Hufft. Nevertheless, she stays focused on what has always mattered most to her: family and connecting with others on a deeper level.

She and her son, Maxwell, now 13, spend their free time together biking, hiking, traveling and playing a lot of games. Though Maxwell’s love of sports and athleticism lead him to dream of one day being in the NBA, Hufft sees the makings of an empathetic and kind leader. Traveling with her to visit Unbound projects in Kenya last summer, he frequently introduced himself to community members and interacted with the local teams.

It's the same kind of leader she aims to be for Unbound.

“I want to present myself as someone who is accessible to our teams and supporters,” Hufft said. “I hope I, and Unbound in general, can be a place that’s always transparent and open, where we can continue to build our community by having a free flow of ideas.”

As a mother, Hufft makes a promise to her son to show up every day and to lead with bravery and courage, curiosity and an open mind, humility and gratitude, trust and empathy, and hope and optimism.

As president and CEO, it’s the same promise she’s making to the Unbound community, for as long as she leads.


Hufft and her son, Maxwell, are pictured in Kisumu, Kenya, in June 2023 with Lake Victoria in the background.  

I hope I, and Unbound in general, can be a place that’s always transparent and open, where we can continue to build our community by having a free flow of ideas.

— Ashley Hufft, Unbound president and CEO