Debbie Brant: 2021 Volunteer of the Year

Leading with a balance of optimism, patience and hope

By Cindy Starr 

Debbie Brant knows how to lead. The 2021 National Philanthropy Day Volunteer of the Year can lead from the top, and she’s willing to toil in the trenches. Kind, calm and skilled, she is a board chair who listens first, then builds consensus. 

And she seems to be everywhere at once. A real-life superwoman, she has been asked more than once where she stores her cape.

Debbie Brant, Volunteer of the Year
Debbie Brant, Volunteer of the Year

The timing of Brant’s honor could not be better. For more than two decades she has been a steadfast volunteer within Cincinnati’s Jewish community, which is celebrating its bicentennial this year. She is the board chair of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary. And as a long-time Cincinnati Ballet trustee, she is one of six volunteers who raised the $30 million needed to build the stunning new Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance. 

“It’s great timing, with the bicentennial and the opening of the Ballet building,” said Brant, who co-chaired the Valentine Center’s unveiling gala with Rhonda Sheakley in September. “And I’m happy for the volunteer organizations to get some credit as well.” 

The honor, said Sheakley, is well deserved. “I’ve watched Debbie Brant in our community for 15 years, always rising to the top of every organization. She is totally committed to the projects she engages in, with a tenacious energy and a contagious spirit to get the job done. Her leadership style is thoughtful, organized and respected. She is young and has so much more to give the city of Cincinnati.”

Brant also is a board member of Most Valuable Kids, which provides underserved children with tickets to cultural and sporting events. She served on the Mayerson Jewish Community Center’s board and fundraising committee in 2005 during the successful capital campaign for its facility in Amberley Village, and she served as board chair from 2012 to 2015. 

“To know Debbie on paper is one thing, but to know her in person is an honor,” wrote Danielle Minson, president of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, in her nomination of Brant for Volunteer of the Year. “Her gentle, unassuming manner makes her relatable to everyone. She treats all people with the same respect and is genuinely interested in your personal story and connection to the community. Her commitment to Cincinnati is authentic and not at all tied to personal gain.”

Wrote Sarah Weiss, CEO of the Holocaust & Humanity Center: “Debbie is one of those volunteers that we all dream about, but rarely find. Not only is she a strategic thinker who understands operations, fundraising and budgets, she will also get her hands dirty and get involved on the ground level of projects.”

‘A passion for the cause’

When Brant is asked what has made her a successful leader, she pauses. “First, you have to have a passion for the cause,” she said. “And second, I’m not looking to dominate the conversation. I’m looking to push the conversation forward and move the organization forward, so it’s never about me. 

“I think I’ve had quite a few tricky situations during each of my tenures as chair, and I think those CEOs would tell you that I’m a great partner to them, and I will not let anyone take advantage of these nonprofits. The actions we take must be in the best interest of the community.”

Brant’s commitment goes beyond the norm. As a past board chair and, most recently, a member of Cincinnati Ballet’s capital campaign committee, her work, in the words of Ballet CEO Scott Altman and Artistic Director Victoria Morgan, “served as an extension of Cincinnati Ballet’s development department” and was “that of a full-time employee.” 

Brant grew up in Akron, Ohio, one of two children in a family that regularly attended artistic performances and museums. She began taking ballet lessons around age 9 and continued to dance through high school. “I just loved the art form; I loved the movement of it,” she said. 

Her family was also very involved in Akron’s Jewish community; her grandfather led Jewish Family Service of Akron. 

For Brant, the desire to serve was intuitive. “I just imbibed it from my parents and grandparents,” she said. “I cannot remember a specific instance where I was told, ‘You need to do this. This is what we do. We give back.’ It was more learning by example.”

Brant earned her bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and went on to build a thriving consulting business in fundraising. Over the years she perfected the art of matching donors with causes that moved them deeply. As she noted during her inclusion as a 2016 Cincinnati Enquirer Woman of the Year: “The person who is giving the gift should feel fabulous.”

Brant met her husband, Joel “Jody” Brant, in Washington, D.C., and after stints in Washington and New York, they moved to Cincinnati in 1998. They chose Cincinnati, Brant said, because “we both wanted to be in a place where we knew we could be involved and have a bigger impact.” 

The talent of asking for money

Her first call after moving to Cincinnati was to Jewish Family Service. “I asked what can I do to help?” she recalls. “They had me stuffing envelopes and then realized I was a professional fundraiser. They said, ‘You ask people for money? We have lots more important things for you to do!’” 

Leadership roles soon followed, and Brant eventually discontinued her consulting business as she transitioned to full-time volunteer work. Her most satisfying roles include her work with the Jewish Community Center. The new facility includes everything from preschool to programs for seniors. “It is really the heart of the community, and our community knows what it means to not have it,” Brant said. “Everyone is welcome at the JCC.”

Also front and center is her work at the Jewish Federation, which throughout its history has been a bulwark of support for elderly Jewish persons, Holocaust survivors and Russian immigrants. While some of those populations have dwindled, other needs have arisen. “The Jewish community is ever-changing and we can never rest on our laurels,” Brant said. “The Federation is the one organization in our Jewish community that enables all the other organizations to mobilize into collective action.”

Brant was elected president of the board just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Under her leadership the Federation moved quickly to serve people who were now increasingly isolated or suddenly jobless. “There are a lot of people who are one catastrophe away from not being able to provide for their families or themselves,” Brant said. 

The Federation leveraged additional support for the full-service Heldman Food Pantry (now located in Clifton), which provided not only staples but also access to social workers and Jewish Vocational Services. In partnership with the Jewish Foundation, the Federation also established a COVID relief fund to help people with basic needs. Mental health services also became a priority, Brant said, as the pandemic amplified the effects of social isolation and financial stress, especially for seniors.

Working to resist hate

Under her leadership, the Federation remains vigilant in its mission to combat anti-Semitism, a scourge that has been exacerbated by political fracturing around the world. Ohio reported a record 580 hate crimes in 2020. 

“We help people who have been targeted, victims of anti-Semitism, and we also spend a great deal of time on education and coalition-building – education about anti-Semitism and how to respond,” Brant said. “When one group is attacked, we know it’s packaged with hate against other groups as well.”

Brant also serves on the executive committee of a new organization, Leaders in Light, which seeks to empower influential members of the community to more effectively combat hate, whatever form it takes.

Despite the challenges, Brant lives and works in a state of equipoise, a balance of optimism, patience and hope. She has learned “not to react in the second.” If needed, she takes a deep breath. Or a walk. 

She and her husband, a tax attorney and CEO of Katz Teller, continue to be leaders in organizations their family supports. Jody Brant has served as chair of Jewish Vocational Services, Easterseals and Cincinnati Country Day School. 

“I am an optimist for Cincinnati,” Brant said. “I’m so fortunate to live here and be able to have an impact. I have a lot more to go.”

The NPD 2021 Honorees

Philanthropists of the Year: Rosemary & Mark Schlachter

Volunteer of the Year: Debbie Brant

Lifetime Achievement in Fundraising: Suzy Dorward

Organization of the Year: Legacy Foundations of Louis & Louise Nippert

Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy: Mitch Stone (in memoriam)

Innovator of the Year: United Way’s Champions of Change

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