Greater Cincinnati Foundation CEO Ellen Katz discusses region's progress and potential

Although she’s not a native Cincinnatian, after more than 20 years spent here raising kids, earning degrees from both UC and Xavier and presiding over the Children’s Home of Cincinnati for a decade, it’s safe to say that Ellen Katz is a lifer.
In early 2015, Katz was named CEO of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, succeeding the organization’s longtime leader Kathryn Merchant and assuming the helm of a $500-plus million foundation that serves eight counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
It was an announcement that came with high praise from some of the region’s most recognizable figures. A year later, Katz reflects on the region’s progress and potential and highlights Northern Kentucky’s unique role in sustaining positive change for the region as a whole.

NKY Thrives: How prepared did you feel coming into this position a year ago?

Coming from a fundraising background, I had a perspective that was 10 miles deep and had to transition to one that’s 10 miles wide. Instead of raising funds, I got to watch how GCF assesses need, chooses projects and grants funding. When you’re in the service-providing space, you have specific goals and objectives, but it isn’t always apparent how all of the little pieces make up the bigger picture. Now that I’ve got more of that bird’s-eye view, I’m able to connect on levels I couldn’t have imagined before.

How did you get acclimated to that new way of looking at giving?
Initially, I allowed myself to almost passively experience the demands of the new role without trying to anticipate, 'Who’s going to call me? Who’s going to want attention? What groups will I be asked to join?' I chose to feel my way through and decide which priorities were important and strategic and which ones weren’t.
Of course, having been in the community for a long time, I have relationships I can lean on. Some of my closest colleagues in this role were also my closest colleagues in my previous role, people from the United Way and health organizations that I’ve been connected to for years. I can always ask them for help when I need it.

And that circle helps you stay current on need trends in the region?
It’s both those personal connections and being involved with multiple boards and task forces across the community that helps me sort through the tremendous variety of need in Greater Cincinnati. Our mission is not a particular emphasis in the community — it’s the community itself. When the stakeholder is the entire community, there can be a lot of resistance and differing interests. Having those connections is important to be sure we’re serving the community’s most critical needs.

What were the major projects or areas of focus when you came on board, and how have those evolved?
One big one is that, when I started last year, we were just starting to talk about tackling child poverty as a community. That was the ground level, before there was a Child Poverty Collaborative and before the mayor announced his support. Here, a year later, I sit on the steering committee for that collaborative. While I’m sure some still think not enough is being done, I’ve seen understanding of the issue grow so quickly. This is a long-term, multifaceted challenge and it’s been amazing to see how much brick has been laid in just a year’s time and how that momentum has spurred increased value of quality preschool and early childhood education.
Looking forward, one of our biggest and toughest projects will continue to be the preservation and revitalization of Music Hall. We’ve raised a lot of money and have a really exciting project in place, and that’s another example of a project that signifies so many different things for people on all sides of the plan.
There’s just really a lot to talk about in Cincinnati right now, and it shows in our amazing startup scene and just the sheer amount of national media coverage we’ve gotten recently.

From a community investment standpoint, how does Northern Kentucky fit into national conversations about our region?
One thing GCF has been very involved in is supporting relationships between organizations like Skyward and The Catalytic Fund and their collective work to improve Northern Kentucky. We have a big focus on the Catalytic Fund as recipients of impact investments, and of course Skyward is responsible for that momentum. The economic development that follows the path of those organizations is exciting.
Northern Kentucky is also setting benchmarks in education, especially in lower income areas. When the topic comes up on either side of the river, Glenn O. Swing Elementary is always one of the first schools mentioned. Every other school in the region is looking at them and trying to learn from the great things they’re doing.
Collectively, we’re all facing similar goals and challenges, but how we can go about it varies because of the different state lines and how each state structures legislation. Which leads me to another great thing Northern Kentucky is doing and that’s the Endow Kentucky tax-credit program. This is something that Ohio can’t seem to successfully write into its tax code, but it’s working out tremendously for Northern Kentucky donors, allowing them to contribute funds to approved community foundations — GCF being one — and do so with a generous tax deduction.

Kentucky just expanded the amount donors can give, so people are really taking advantage of that. GCF has quite a few endowments set up to manage funds from those donors to benefit projects specifically related to the betterment of Northern Kentucky.

Can you talk specifically about any such projects?
We are having conversations with leaders in Northern Kentucky about creating another fund that would inspire people to invest. GCF wants to provide an infrastructure that will support much more investment, allowing people to give more freely and funding more projects that will directly improve Northern Kentucky. There are a lot of good things happening to that end.
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