September 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of B2B.

How is it that Midlands Choice has come to make an investment in, of all things, a ballerina?

Sure, the bottom line of any insurance entity is driven by risk management—the investing of premium revenues to hedge against claims.

But taking stock in Claire Goodwillie, a company dancer with Ballet Nebraska?

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Erika Overturff

The Midlands Choice example is repeated all across the metro as area businesses support a broad array of arts nonprofits, ones that dwell in everything from tutus to tempura.

And the table is set for a new era of collaboration between business and the arts  because philanthropic giving in America has finally returned to pre-recession levels.

Contributions, which totaled $358 billion in 2014, surpassed 2007’s pre-recession level of $355 billion. Additionally, giving was up from all major sources—individuals, corporations, foundations and bequests—according to Giving USA, an annual report compiled by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the Giving USA Foundation of Chicago.

“Eight out of nine types of charitable organizations we measure saw increased contributions, and that’s good news for the philanthropic sector as a whole,” W. Keith Curtis told Omaha Magazine in an email. Curtis is chair of Giving USA Foundation and president of the nonprofit consulting firm The Curtis Group. “The 60-year high for charitable giving in 2014 is a great story about resilience and perseverance.”

Themes of resilience and perseverance define the Ballet Nebraska story.

Erika Overturff was 27 years old when the ballet company of which she was a dancer and resident choreographer appeared doomed. She had no money. She had no business acumen.

That was 2009. Flash forward to 2015 and Overturff, now 33, founder and artistic director of Ballet Nebraska, is leading the region’s only professional dance company into its sixth season.

In a city known for its “can-do” spirit, this story could be about almost any local arts nonprofit, but the unlikely saga of Ballet Nebraska is told here because it is perhaps the most improbable of tales, one that best reveals what a business community and the arts can do when they share a common vision.

Like settling into your seat with a program before the lights dim at any performing arts venue, it’s probably best to start by reviewing the cast of characters:

The Connector

Hal Daub knows people. Especially in a city of six degrees of separation that is, in reality, much more like two or three degrees, the former Omaha mayor (1995-2001) and U.S. Congressman (1981-1989) who has served on countless nonprofit boards and is now a partner at Husch Blackwell…knows people.

“When I was first introduced to Hal and he offered to help,” Overturff says, “I assumed that meant he was going to maybe make a few calls and do a little name-dropping.” Daub, it turned out, would become a key player in the often delicate pas de deux that is the coupling of business and the arts. “He not only made those calls, but he set up the appointments…and then he came along to personally introduce me and stand by my side in front of those who would become some of the most generous funders of Ballet Nebraska.”

“The reason I am so fascinated by what Erika has done,” says Daub, “is that Omaha is a city that has clearly evolved to become a place that is not just metropolitan, but truly cosmopolitan.” And investing in the arts, Daub believes, makes good business sense. “The social environment of a city—its arts and entertainment—is critical in attracting and retaining the best workforce. Ballet Nebraska, Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, Omaha Performing Arts…those and so many others are the organizations that help keep the best talent in Omaha.”

The Advocate

Michelle Clark is Union Pacific’s general director of information technologies, which means she probably knows more than a little about computer viruses. As a three-year board member of Ballet Nebraska, she’s also seen how supporting the arts can go viral.

“Employee generosity is furthered by the use of the company’s matching gifts program,” Clark explains. “This creates a sense of pride for employees, and Union Pacific is supportive of the communities in which we live and work. The employees of Union Pacific are very generous and have supported fundraising drives not only for Ballet Nebraska, but a number of organizations such as the Women’s Center for Advancement and JDRF.”

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Employees should never underestimate their power to play a key role in advocating for nonprofits within their organizations.

“I am passionate about the art of dance, especially ballet and Ballet Nebraska,” Clark says. “Dance inspires my creativity and provides insights to see beyond the obvious. My hope is that by providing individuals with the awareness of opportunities to experience and support the art of dance they will find their own inspiration to apply to their own life.”

And just as stubborn computer viruses are often cloyingly messy to eradicate once discovered, Union Pacific’s relationship with Ballet Nebraska has a “stickiness” of its own. Clark was preceded on the Ballet Nebraska board by Gayla Thal, the company’s senior vice president and general counsel.

The Bulldog

Don’t let the gentle demeanor of Midlands Choice vice president Greta Vaught fool you. Supporting the arts is often a visceral experience, and Vaught’s passion for dance exerted itself on multiple levels in the early stages of growth at Ballet Nebraska.

“Midlands Choice has always been supportive of my work in the community,” says the board chair of Ballet Nebraska.

“We like to listen to our people when making such decisions,” says Midlands Choice President and CEO Thomas E. Press. ”It is important for us to know that our giving has real meaning for them, their families, and their communities.”

“I looked at what Erika was trying to do,” Vaught continues, “and I thought it was brave, but impossible. But all along the way I just kept going back to the thought that if one of my daughters [Mia, now 15, and Hannah, now 19] wanted to try something so bold one day that”…insert long pause…“I’m sorry, this is making me cry. I would just hope that people with experience and connections and dollars would shepherd my daughters along like so many people have done with Erika and Ballet Nebraska.”

Okay, so maybe “The Bulldog” wasn’t such a great character name for this role after all.

The Artist

“I had to do a lot of on-the-job learning when I decided to try to launch a dance company,” Overturff says. “We were lucky in that we got our nonprofit status right away, but I didn’t know anything about the business side of things, and really nothing about raising funds. I was moved by every $5 check that came in, but it took a lot of mentoring, advice, and counsel to get us to where we are today as a fully funded, professional performance company.”

Ballet Nebraska now has a paid staff of 22, including nine salaries paid to company dancers. Today, Overturff’s once-nonexistent business connections run deep. Personal contributions from the likes of philanthropists Richard Holland, and Fred and Eve Simon, further fuel the growth of ballet in Omaha. Foundations also play a major role in funding. A recent gift of $124,000 from the Iowa West Foundation is the largest in Ballet Nebraska history.

“Talented professionals from all over the world that have trained their whole lives to pursue a career in dance now come to Omaha in the hopes of performing with Ballet Nebraska as we serve the state and western Iowa in performances, education, outreach, and more” she says. “A ballet company—any performing arts company, any arts organization—is about its people…the artists, the staff, and hardworking, selfless volunteers. But it is the people of Omaha, from the smallest donations to the relationships we have with such great businesses, that makes it all happen.”

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