Ellen Katz and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation: positioned to make a difference

Ellen Katz. Photo by Tina Gutierrez

Ellen Katz (Photos by Tina Gutierrez)

By John Faherty

There is calm and focused, and then there is preternaturally calm and focused.

On a rainy day in April, Ellen Katz, the president/CEO of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, sat in her living room for an interview. Contractors and window cleaners buzzed around her Hyde Park home, preparing it for her wedding three days later to David Giles, vice president, deputy general counsel and chief ethics officer of the E.W. Scripps Co.

Still Katz sat, entirely at ease, talking about the needs of this region, how people here love to give and her plans to align those two things.

Cincinnati has been her home for decades. After growing up in Connecticut, Katz moved here at age 24, then earned a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Cincinnati and an MBA from Xavier University. Now 50, she raised her two sons here. Cincinnati matters to Katz, and she is at the right place to make a difference.

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation began as an idea in the early 1960s when members of the region’s business community realized they could be more efficient in effecting change by pooling their resources.

At the same time, a long-existing charitable foundation realized its mission had become obsolete. The Fresh Air and Convalescent Aid Society formed in 1884 to take women and children from crowded – and often unhealthy – tenements out to the country for two weeks of fresh air and recreation.

To their credit, the society’s board realized its mission had become less vital. So the society took its money and connected with the business leaders who were looking for better ways to give. In 1963, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation was formed.

The Fresh Air Society endowment of $600,000 became the GCF’s first unrestricted fund.

But this is not just a history lesson. For Katz it is a guiding principle. She knows her organization must stay current with the needs of the area and be willing to change. Katz believes it is her responsibility to help people give in ways that matter to the recipient and to the giver.

“People love this community. They want to give. They want to help,” Katz said. “And they believe in fairness. The opportunity gap is something that matters to people.”

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, through gifts and bequests and donor funds, now has more than $530 million in assets.

Much of that money is dispersed in seven areas:

  • Cultural vibrancy
  • Economic opportunity
  • Educational success
  • Environmental stewardship
  • Health and wellness
  • Job creation
  • Strong communities

First, Katz said, the foundation needs to know the needs of the community and where they are most urgent. Then the organization needs to determine the best way to help.

“We have the broadest-based knowledge of the community,” she said. “We have a unique, bird’s-eye view.”

After that, the foundation needs to learn what its donors are passionate about. “They want advice and education,” she said. “Our job is to bring people together to align interests with needs.”

This takes a lot of meetings and listening. But it makes a big difference. “We have an ability to develop very close relationships with our donors,” Katz said. “Sometimes we learn a person cares deeply about the environment or economic self-sufficiency for women. For others, it is arts and culture.”

But once you can connect the right people with the right cause, change happens.

Dianne Rosenberg, chair of the foundation’s Governing Board, said Katz’s work ethic and her knowledge of the community will change this city. “She is fabulous. She is strategic, she is warm and personable,” Rosenberg said. “She cares about people and is going to create huge opportunities for people in the region.”

Within the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, donors establish funds to carry out their charitable goals. The foundation’s Governing Board manages the funds by investing in ways to protect them and let them grow. Then it helps people give in the ways that make the most sense.

And that approach is working.

In January, the foundation announced that 2015 was a year of record generosity and the foundation distributed more than $100 million in gifts.

At the time, Rosenberg said, “It’s an extraordinary result. It’s another example of the incredible generosity of this region and its long heritage of giving and volunteering.”

Before joining the foundation, Katz served as president/CEO of the Children’s Home of Cincinnati, which helped 7,000 vulnerable children overcome social, behavioral and learning challenges.

Clearly, helping people who need assistance is in her blood. “It is who she is. We are lucky to have a woman like this at the foundation,” Rosenberg said.

And Katz is up to the task of making sure the foundation stays current and willing to adapt, which is important because Greater Cincinnati is seeing a change in how it gives. Some of the most generous supporters of the arts and human services have passed on in the last decade.

Some in the next generation want to give a bit differently. The days of cutting a big check and walking away are over.  Today’s donors want to know about those they are giving to. They want to see results. It is akin to investing in a cause. Katz welcomes that change.

“It is good for everybody,” she said, as her contractor came in from the back porch and her phone kept buzzing.

“People should expect their giving to have impact. And people are more inclined to invest more when they feel involved. They want to be able to say, ‘I built that.’”

Dick Rosenthal is a longtime philanthropist – a word he dislikes – and an advocate for change in how people give. He has done it the “old” way, and thinks the “new” way of giving is better for many people. He also believes Katz is the right person to usher in this change.

“She is strategic, and she is smart. She is ambitious in a really good way,” Rosenthal said. “I think she might be out there a little bit ahead of the city and will help us use muscles in ways that will allow people to continue to give in new ways.”

One of Katz’s bigger goals is best described as a meta-goal. She knows there are divisions here. She knows high school allegiances and neighborhood loyalties can feel like barriers.

But she understands the importance of the alma mater, the “nurturing mother.”  What she wants is for people to feel that connection to the entire region.

“People love this community. There is a concept of alma mater that I think we can capitalize on,” Katz said. “Our entire community is the ‘nurturing mother.’ Cincinnati is your nurturing mother just as much as any school where you went. When we all feel that way, our entire community will be stronger.”

John Faherty is executive director of The Mercantile Library and a former reporter for Enquirer Media.


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