Kathy Antoniotti

Bob Kulinski knew exactly the personality he was looking for to fill a senior vice president spot at the United Way of Summit County three years ago.

The agency’s president told people he wanted a consensus builder — someone who was well regarded and had already developed deep connections with people in the community.

Specifically, Kulinski told people he wanted to bring in someone just like Donae Ceja, then vice president of community investment at the Akron Community Foundation.

He didn’t know at the time that Ceja herself was interested.

Ceja, a Lorain native who grew up in a blue-collar, working-class family, had scaled the upper echelons of Miami’s financial industry. She was a protege of Kris Hudak, one of the youngest and only female chief financial officers at a large bank in the country at the time.

When Ceja returned to the area, armed with the knowledge she learned in the powerful business of banking, she made an abrupt about-face. She volunteered at the foundation and discovered her true passion in philanthropy.

For the next 10 years, she used skills honed in the business world and discovered “the mission absorbed me.”

“Coming from a field that was very forward on efficiency and delivery in services, it hit me I can really make a difference,” she said.

Kulinski, who is retiring Monday after nearly 40 years with the agency and 15 as its head, named Ceja as an Akron-area leader for the skills he found most desirable when hiring her as head of community impact at the United Way in 2011.

“Donae has an innate skill and charisma in bringing people together. She has an uncanny ability to connect them with one another,” Kulinski said.

In her new role, Ceja was put in charge of determining how money donated to the United Way is allocated to social service agencies that request funding for their programs.

She was instrumental in expanding an evidence-based allocation process that brought new agencies under the United Way umbrella, forced some agencies to rethink the way they perform in the business of helping people and caused other agencies that had been receiving grants to pull out of the application process completely.

“We took a wholesale relook at the community, those that might be on the cusp in the past, and gave them the opportunity to get funding,” Ceja said.

“The money raised by the United Way is not only used to support social agencies but can be additionally leveraged to get organizations to work together or change something to make it more systemic,” she said.

Ceja is a finalist for the 2015 Athena Award, given annually to a person who embodies the highest level of professional excellence in her or his profession, improved the quality of life for others and helps women realize their leadership potential.

If anything, Ceja says, she sees herself as a “connector,” using her leadership role to urge social service agencies to see themselves not as competitors but as collaborators working toward the same goals.

“Collaboration is different than command control,” she said. “Silos of work are not going to be effective for systematic change. If you think about poverty, it’s about addressing the system rather than the symptom.”

Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow on Twitter at: @KathyAntoniotti and on facebook: www.facebook.com/KathyAntoniotti.