Connecting Passion to Mission

 Connecting Passion to Mission

Cathy Ponitz knows motivation drives change.

Natasha Baker

From an early age, Cathy Ponitz, executive director of the CareSource Foundatuion, knew what it meant to be curious about the world. She understood the importance of being able to motivate people to affect change. She even learned to be fearless. Of course, with parents like David and Doris Ponitz, how could you not?

And So It Begins

Originally from Ann Arbor, Mich., Ponitz was born the daughter of a college president and a schoolteacher. At the age of four, she was expected to open the door and greet the many diverse and educated guests of her parents’ annual holiday parties. She credits this responsibility with giving her confidence. “It also taught me to be fearless and curious,” Ponitz says. “I lived in a very diverse and adult world and that impacted me greatly.”

In addition to her home life, Ponitz developed her worldview thanks to her own education. “I went to a large high school filled with diverse people from around the world,” Ponitz reminisces. “I thought that was what the world looked like.”

Taking a Leap

After moving to Dayton, she continued to learn from her dad and his big ideas. Taking over the helm at Sinclair Community College, David Ponitz became a household name for the thousands of students that came through its doors. He was known for his strolls through campus, talking to students and giving them direction both to buildings on campus and in life decisions. 

“I hear stories about my dad all the time,” Ponitz says. “People want to share their experience with him because he made such an impact. He made one on me as well.”

While the outside world had big expectations for Ponitz and her brother, her dad just wanted them to find what they loved and commit to it fully. He often advised her to “find your own definition of fun, because if you aren’t having fun why would you keep doing what you’re doing.”

Ponitz says her mom became a professional volunteer after having children and developed a philosophy—that it is possible to change the world for a lot of people by bringing together the right people for the job. She says her mom was always busy, and moved mountains with her work with the Bosnian peace efforts and Girl Scouts of America. Doris Ponitz continues to stay involved with the organizations she is passionate about even today. 

After high school, her parents encouraged her to follow her passion of going into retail and becoming a buyer for a major department store. She received a bachelor’s degree in business and consumer science from Miami University and spent six years with the Rike’s organization in Detroit opening new stores, but it was a trip home for Christmas that made her rethink this dream. 

“We opened gifts, had Christmas brunch and then I had to get back for the big after-Christmas sales. I sat on the plane thinking about all of the birthdays, holidays and family events I had missed over the years and thought ‘Is this all there is?’”

Moving back to Dayton, she worked in marketing for a while and eventually landed at Reynolds & Reynolds, becoming the company’s community relations director. She knew then that she could do something more. She could follow her passion by helping others—a mission her parents could understand and fully support. 

A Caring Foundation

When Ponitz joined CareSource nearly 10 years ago, the possibility of starting the CareSource Foundation from the ground up was thrilling. She believes the key to any company’s successful giving program comes in aligning philanthropy with the corporate mission. 

“At CareSource, we have created a giving program that directly aligns with our mission focusing on the needs of humanity—food, shelter, health and hope. We invest in community partners across Ohio who can help lift barriers to success for low-income families.”

Has the strategy been successful? The numbers speak for themselves. The foundation has given more than 800 grants totaling $10.5 million to innovative long-term approaches to impacting critical health issues. Programs like Camp Joy, CultureWorks’ “power2give” initiative, and a partnership with Children’s Hunger Alliance providing access to free breakfast for children in Cleveland’s lowest income school districts have all benefited from CareSource’s generosity. 

Ponitz says her favorite part of her job is “whipping people into a frenzy over something that matters.” It’s a mission she learned early thanks to the work of her parents.

A Philanthropic Outlook

Ask most nonprofit organizations in Dayton and they will tell you that the community is dealing with some huge challenges. The loss of large corporations has impacted not only unemployment, but also the number of corporate donations NPOs received. Many are forced to rely on individual donors who have higher personal debt and are not as involved in the civic community, but Ponitz believes there are great opportunities available. 

“We are seeing a renaissance and a growing sense of optimism. Over the next 50 years, we will see the largest private, intergenerational wealth transfer in human history and this younger generation has a passion for connection—just look at social media.”

Ponitz says that in order for NPOs to engage that younger audience they have to be willing to change their development model. “These new donors want to see their dollars benefit people not organizations. The most successful formulas now are shorter in term, include thank yous and can prove something good will happen.”

During her time as corporate community relations director at Reynolds & Reynolds, Ponitz created what is now known as the Corporate Community Roundtable. At the time, she was looking for advice on starting her career in community relations, seeking out some of the brightest minds in development in the community—Mary Karr of NCR, Kathy Strawn of Mead Corporation and Mary Sue Kessler of National City Bank. After just a few lunches, the group realized they had discovered something and decided to expand and make their lunches into a regular event.

At their most recent meeting, Ponitz asked the expanded group how they believed the Dayton philanthropic community was doing. Their resounding response was that it is stabilizing. Ponitz thinks that is a good sign. 

“What makes Dayton thrive where other cities may struggle is that we work so well together. We like each other. I believe there are tons of opportunities behind doors that we just have to find the keys to and those keys are hiding in plain sight.”