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Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.
Always act with integrity, be fair to everyone and do everything with intention. That’s the credo Donna Jones Baker has operated by over the course of her four-decade-long leadership career, most recently capped off by a 15-year run as President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio, a position she only just retired from in 2019.
“You don’t just do things – you have to have intention to create or to solve or to initiate. You have to have a reason for being and that’s my motto, if I’ve got one,” said Donna. “I like to think of myself in social justice, as strengthening the community, and you do that by strengthening institutions that strengthen the community, and so that’s how I saw myself.”
That path of intentionality started in 1989, in Baltimore, when Donna became executive director of the Associated Black Charities of Baltimore.
“That was my first big job, and I loved it,” she said. “It was Associated Black Charities of Baltimore – a half million dollar organization with one funder and three staff when I started and when I left, it was Associated Black Charities of Maryland – a twenty five million dollar organization, numerous funders and 50 staff. We were the little engine that could.”
When Donna took over leadership, she recalls the board chair telling her the organization was like a typical two-year-old that had to be raised correctly. By the time she left, the organization had given over $60 million in grants. Donna did much the same at the Urban League, going from a staff of 20 to 75 employees. Also under her leadership, the organization became the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio after merging with the Dayton Urban League.
Born in Paducah, Kentucky. Donna earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the Murray State University, the first person in her immediate family to go college. Her mother told her all along she could do it.
“She let me know that I could do anything that I wanted to do, and so that really came from her, that nudging, that encouragement, that firm belief that I am somebody,” Donna said.
She also earned her MBA from the University of Baltimore, where she was honored with an Outstanding Alumnus Award.
“I got the MBA because I wanted to be the person who made the decisions,” she said. “I felt that I could be a really good leader and when I looked around at those leading organizations, they had MBAs. That one decision, I believe, helped me throughout my career and was pivotal in my work.”
Donna cares deeply about the constituents the Urban League serves, speaking at graduations for programs like SOAR (Solid Opportunities for Advancement and Retention) and staying in touch with mentees. Among her most valued accomplishments at the Urban League are the creation of the Business Development and Entrepreneurship division, the merger with the Dayton Urban League and the publication of two significant Urban League regional reports, “The State of Black Cincinnati” and “The State of Black Dayton”.
Among many other civic endeavors, Donna has also served on several boards, including 13 years on the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber Board, which named her Woman of the Year – Nonprofit in 2014. She is currently on the board of Xavier University and Advocates for Youth Education and is a member of the Cincinnati chapter of the Links, Incorporated and of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
In July of 2020, Donna underwent a rare dual heart and kidney transplant at University Hospital. She is currently focusing on her health recovery, grateful for her home base of Cincinnati.
“I am not a native, and the city has embraced me,” she said. “I am now a Cincinnatian.”
Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization