COLUMN: How this CEO plans to help our region

COLUMN: How this CEO plans to help our region
Posted at 9:22 AM, Oct 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-16 09:22:13-04

CINCINNATI – The Greater Cincinnati Foundation has a new CEO, and this is why you should care:

Ellen Katz, who took over the top job in May, is taking a new approach to helping local philanthropists tackle some of the region's most pressing problems.

"We have a donor who said, 'I'm just really concerned about the violence in the city. I can't be the only one. Can we sit down and talk about that?'" Katz told me this week. "We'll bring some leaders on that issue together with some donors to just kind of open everybody's eyes to an issue people might want to address."

It seems like a smart approach, right?

Greater Cincinnati has generous people with money who care about our region and want to help. And it has others working on the front lines of violence, poverty and other problems that are standing in the way of our progress.

Here's how the money part works: Donors establish funds at the foundation, with financial gifts while they are alive or after they die, to carry out their charitable goals. The foundation's governing board and community experts manage the funds by investing the money to make sure the amount increases over time. At the end of 2014, the foundation had assets of more than $542 million, making it one of the largest community foundations in the nation.

Katz sees the foundation as a "convener" that can bring those people together so money can flow to targeted strategies to, for example, reduce violence and poverty.

Working to reduce child poverty, specifically, is an important part of the foundation's ongoing work through The Women's Fund and beyond.

Related: COLUMN: Here's the key to helping our poor kids

"We have a black eye, and we need to not hide from it," she said. "And GCF needs to pay a role because we know our donors really care about kids and the state of the community."

Katz called poverty "a huge economic disrupter" in the region.

"The economic vitality of this region is crucial to everyone," she said. "And as long as there's a substantial presence of poverty, we have to address it. It's an indictor that we can't be a vibrant, vital community because we have a huge drag."

This certainly isn't the first time the foundation has worked to help during times of community crisis.

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation was instrumental in the work to heal the city after the 2001 riots. And the organization brought funders together during the financial crisis in 2009 for its Weathering the Economic Storm initiative to funnel extra money to local charitable organizations that were overflowing with people who suddenly needed their help.

But Katz wants the foundation to do the work of bringing people together more routinely.

Exercising More Muscle

For example, she's trying to schedule a conversation with donors and community leaders in Northern Kentucky to discuss the smartest ways to invest in efforts to help that part of the region.

"I don't want our convening muscle to only be exercised in crisis," she said. 

Katz became the community foundation's CEO in May, after the retirement of Kathryn Merchant, who had been the CEO there for more than 18 years.

Kathryn Merchant

Merchant helped put The Greater Cincinnati Foundation on the map, leveraging its powerful network of civic-minded donors to help address the region's most pressing problems and ongoing needs.

Katz had plenty of CEO experience herself before she got this job.

She was CEO of The Children's Home of Cincinnati for nearly 10 of the 25 years she worked there. In that role, she oversaw a $22 million operating budget and 300 employees for an organization that encompasses 11 buildings on 40 acres.

Ellen Katz

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation is much smaller – with a $5 million operating budget and 40 staff members in one Downtown building on West Fourth Street.

But the work of the foundation is, in many ways, much bigger.

"What we're here for is to inspire philanthropy to transform the community and make it better for people," she said. "The focus on inspiring people to give back to the community that they love is very different and pretty profound."

Katz, who recently turned 50, sees the foundation as a community asset that can make an even bigger difference in making Greater Cincinnati a better place to live and work.

To do that, she wants to help people understand what the foundation is, what it does and create ways for people from all walks of life to become donors and help guide the organization's work.

"When you give to The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, you don't give to GCF so GCF can do something," she said. "It's really giving to the community."

And right now, our community needs help.

To learn more about the foundation and its work, click here or go to

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO this year.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to To reach her, email Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.