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Amato to lead Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers

The Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers has announced the appointment of a new president, Celeste Amato, who will bring 18 years of city government and business development experience to the position when she steps in on Dec. 3.

Celeste Amato

ABAG aims to strengthen the city’s organized philanthropy by connecting the various players throughout the chain, and several people involved said Friday that Amato possesses the qualities and diverse experience necessary to do exactly that.

“We are so thrilled and delighted to have Celeste, because she really does have the perfect combination of what the association is looking for and what it needs in a leader in the future,” said Beth Harber, chair of ABAG’s board of directors and senior program officer of community development at the Abell Foundation, which addresses poverty and other social issues in Maryland.

Amato will succeed former President Betsy Nelson, who has led the organization for 22 years.

Nelson, who announced her retirement in April, said the position demands a technical knowledge of grant-writing, a nuanced understanding of community issues, and the ability to identify opportunities for diverse funding groups to work together.

“The days of an individual funder being the only one working on an initiative, that just doesn’t happen anymore,” Nelson said. “It needs to be collaboration within the sector, within philanthropies, and then cross-sector — between businesses and governments — if we’re going to have a real shot at solving some of the problems that we face in Baltimore city.”

Amato began her career working as a project manager for real estate development firms and the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development. In 1996, she joined the Baltimore Development Corp., where she held a variety of positions until the mayor’s office recruited her to help launch a new public outreach campaign, Cleaner Greener Baltimore, in 2007.

As director of the initiative, Amato was lauded for bringing together government officials, philanthropists, community activists and corporate executives to tackle far-reaching issues. In doing so, she helped orchestrate Baltimore’s conversion to single-stream recycling and a new curbside waste collection system implemented in 2009.

“It took a lot of talking with a lot of different groups,” she said. “It was this notion of creating a public-private partnership that would drive the message of being cleaner and more sustainable to citizens who hadn’t really heard about all that yet. … There’s very little government can do successfully without involving the private sector and the public in some way.”

That’s the sort of insight that won over ABAG’s board members, who selected Amato — in large part — because of her demonstrated success with Cleaner Greener, Harber said.

“ABAG has increasingly been working on policy issues,” Harber said. “So we’re really interested in her ability to bring multiple partners together, and are delighted with her background and experience in Baltimore city that we think will bring depth to the organization.”

For example, ABAG is coordinating Baltimore’s Integration Initiative, a three-year urban development project funded by Living Cities Inc., a national consortium of organizations working to improve the livability of communities across the country. Baltimore is one of five cities to receive the funding — $85 million in total.

It’s an ambitious project, Nelson said, that requires enormous teamwork from many partners — including universities, corporations, workforce development groups, charities and government agencies. They’re seeking to rejuvenate struggling neighborhoods, such as East Baltimore, by increasing job opportunities for residents, making targeted investments in infrastructure and expanding access to essential community services.

Nelson and Harber both said they’re eager to see the initiative advance under Amato’s leadership, and that her ability to facilitate effective collaboration will be critical in ensuring continued progress.

“[Amato] is bringing her experience of being in the public sector and having done projects like this,” Nelson said. “She understands what it means to try to tackle problems and make real strides in addressing those problems.”

To do that, Amato said she plans to maintain and build her extensive network of contacts. Relationships are everything, she said, especially in philanthropy.

“Nobody ever does anything alone,” she said. “They have a lot of partners, and I think that’s probably the biggest thing that I bring to the table.”