Answering the Call and Finding a Calling

In discovering a knack for nonprofit leadership, Courtney Banatoski (’03, ’06 M.S.) listened to her heart that ached to make society better.
Written by: 
Erin Cristales

f she’d been at any other university, Courtney Banatoski (’03, ’06 M.S.) might never have raised her hand.

It was nearly 20 years ago that the then-undergrad sat amongst her fellow business majors in an entrepreneurship course, listening skeptically as the professor discussed how a business’ lack of growth means that it’s dying. Though the rest of the class seemed onboard with the concept, Banatoski didn’t try to quash the niggling voice in her head. In just her first few semesters at UNT, she’d already internalized the idea that she didn’t have to think like everyone else.

So up her hand went.

“Uncontrolled growth,” she said, “is also a cancer.”

The classroom fell silent. The professor chuckled. “I think you might be in the wrong program, he told her.

“He was right,” Banatoski says. “I thought that was my tribe, but it wasn’t.”

Courtney Banatoski (’03, ’06 M.S.)
Courtney Banatoski (’03, ’06 M.S.)

Because while she had an undeniable knack for numbers and technical writing and spreadsheets, she also had an insatiable desire to use those skills to serve the larger community. “I realized in that moment that I’m the champion of the underdog,” says Banatoski, who ultimately earned a B.B.A. in organizational behavior and an M.S. in economic and community development. After more than a decade spent in nonprofit management, she’s now putting her hard-earned skills to use as president and CEO of Denton-based Cumberland Presbyterian Children’s Home, which aims to help vulnerable children and families through its children’s residential program, family residential program, and counseling and treatment services.

Her realization came prior to UNT launching its nonprofit leadership studies program — now offered through the College of Health and Public Service — which meant Banatoski had to blaze her own trail. And in a place where traveling off the beaten path was not only supported but encouraged, she didn’t undertake her academic journey alone.

“The path to nonprofit management was illuminated for me by professors like Grant Miles, Donna Ledgerwood, Paul Leung, Terry Clower, Bud Weinstein and Don Lewis,” says Banatoski, who served as adjunct faculty in UNT’s nonprofit leadership studies program from 2008-2015. “When I would go check in with them, they would say, ‘This is where I see your strengths, and this is where I think you should do some exploration.’ They were willing to not only discuss the challenges I faced, but help me find solutions.”

Lewis, for example, helped her land a post-graduate internship at  Children’s Advocacy Center for Denton County, where she assisted with the organization’s capital campaign. That led to her first full-time position as a grant writer with Communities in Schools of North Texas, where she worked her way up to director of research development and grants. In 2010, Banatoski returned to UNT as director of research development, before becoming director of innovation and strategic partnerships.

A few fun facts:

  • Banatoski is married to fellow UNT alum Andrew Banatoski (’92), a Bruceling. The two met on Fry Street.
  • Her favorite UNT memory is the smell of Sage Hall, which was previously the business building. Sage, where she spent much of her undergraduate career working on group projects, smelled like “nervous sweat, coffee and brainpower,” she says.
  • To help pay for school, she worked at UNT as a student assistant and research assistant, and at The Limited and Waldenbooks in the Golden Triangle Mall.
  • Banatoski has been afraid of the squirrels on campus since her first day at UNT, when the student orientation leader (jokingly) advised the new crop of freshmen to always wear socks so the squirrels wouldn’t bite their ankles. “I’m still terrified of them,” she says.

But all of her previous work had been in child-related nonprofits, and she knew she eventually wanted to return to the frontlines of helping kids. After her 5-year-old daughter’s best friend lost her battle with leukemia, she realized it was time.

“Life is so short,” Banatoski says, “and I felt called to live very authentically and use my talents in ways that I thought they would be best employed.”

Though Banatoski is a Denton native, she says working at Cumberland was “never on my radar.” But Caroline Booth (’14 M.P.A), her longtime friend and former director of communications for UNT Libraries, prodded her to apply for the president and CEO position, which had become vacant in late 2017. Booth, who passed away last year, had previously worked as director of advancement for Cumberland.

“She worked on me for five months,” says Banatoski, who placed a framed picture of Booth on a bookshelf in her office. “I applied for the position in May, was hired in August and started in September 2018. I consider it divine intervention that I’m here.”

In her role, she builds integrative relationships between Cumberland and the greater Denton community — including making Cumberland a field site for students in UNT’s social work, family studies and counselor education programs. Additionally, she’s committed getting to know the children and teens who call Cumberland home, whether they’re in emergency or long-term placement.

“[UNT Dean of Students] Moe McGuinness always says, ‘Students aren’t a disruption to our work, they’re the reason for our work,’” Banatoski says. “It’s the same mantra that I practice here. Through events like kickball tournaments and barbecues, I get to plug in with our kids in ways that motivate me, that keep me compelled to do the work that I do.”

And for those looking to follow a similar path to nonprofit leadership, Banatoski says it’s all about keeping the mission in mind.

“Take the time to listen to your heart,” she says. “The difference between nonprofits and for-profits isn’t so much the practice as it is the perspective. There has to be a passion to serve and to answer the call to make your community better.”

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