Tag Archives: Biz + Giving

Community First

September 17, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

First National Bank is known for “putting customers first.” Part and parcel of that commitment is reinvesting in the communities their customers call home.  

“Our success as a company is dependent upon the success of the communities that we operate in…so the purpose of our community work is to contribute to the success of the communities in which we operate in and serve,” says Alec Gorynski, vice president of Community Development and Corporate Philanthropy at First National Bank.

First National partners with nonprofit organizations across its seven-state footprint—Nebraska, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, and Texas—to support local communities with reinvestments that channel through nonprofit partners. The bank reinvests by direct philanthropy, impact investment, and volunteerism, and chooses its nonprofit partners based on their alignment with First National initiatives, history and track record of success, and potential for impact. 

While philanthropy and community development are not new concepts at First National, Gorynski says that in 2016 the bank specifically committed to reinvesting $85 million and 100,000 volunteer hours back into its communities by 2020. According to First National’s 2017 Impact Report, their two-year totals at the close of 2017 were at $56 million and 76,000 volunteer hours.

While Gorynski acknowledges there is lots of need and many excellent potential partner organizations, First National strategically aligns its community investments with organizations that are working to foster success in eight specific areas: strong local economies, stable housing, vibrant neighborhoods, an educated workforce, good health, community cohesion, access to culture, and sustained environment. Of those eight areas, First National focuses the majority of its efforts on an educated workforce, a strong local economy, and stable housing, each of which can act as essential building blocks to foster success in the other five areas.    

“Success is a wide net when we think about helping our communities succeed, so we think about success from the economic standpoint,” says Gorynski. “We want to help our communities, and the individuals in our communities, move above a certain economic threshold. Certainly it’s a spectrum, but there’s an economic line at which people are more likely to be more active in the economy and more independently prosperous. What we’re really focused on is helping move people above that economic line.”

In service of that goal, Gorynski elaborates, an educated workforce is fostered by education and
job training that helps individuals attain the skills and tools necessary to achieve economic success, often through avenues like youth and adult education, or vocational training. Similarly, their strong economy initiative is buoyed by investments in nonprofits that support small business development, and stable housing is achieved by investments in organizations that work to provide quality, affordable housing opportunities. 

“We believe that home ownership is a means to gain wealth and a pathway to economic stability and prosperity, so we want to invest in programs that help people own a home as a means to building wealth,” says Gorynski. “At the same time, we want to invest in programs that help low-income individuals get quality affordable housing, even if it is rental housing, because we know that housing should never take up more than 30 percent of your income and we want to ensure that people can get housing that’s affordable, but also quality.”

Amanda Brewer, CEO at Habitat for Humanity of Omaha, a prominent community partner of the bank, says the bank provides crucial support to her organization.  

“First National Bank is an incredible partner of Habitat for Humanity. In addition to sponsoring a house and having hundreds of team members volunteer each year, First National has helped by investing in our loan pool, servicing Habitat loans, leading budgeting workshops for our homeowners, and providing countless hours of technical expertise,” says Brewer. “They’ve helped more families realize the dream of homeownership through Habitat and helped us transform neighborhoods.”  

Not only does First National encourage employees to volunteer, they have a time-off policy that allows each employee eight hours paid time off annually to use for volunteering in their community. Gorynski says it all goes back to one of the bank’s guiding mantras: “When our communities are successful, we are successful.” 

For Gorynski, it is a privilege to help set the strategy and tone for First National Bank’s community development and corporate philanthropy efforts, while also leading the team that “puts our financial and human capital to work in alignment with that strategy.” He is quick to praise his team and the Lauritzen family’s ownership and leadership as drivers in making these efforts successful. 

“It’s truly an honor and a privilege to do this work for a company that has a 160-year history of being so committed to Omaha and to all of the communities in which it operates and serves,” says Gorynski. “The team does meaningful work developing really genuine, meaningful partnerships with nonprofit organizations. We have boots on the ground in Omaha and in every community in which we operate who are out there getting to know the communities we serve, getting to know the organizations that are addressing the needs in our communities, and finding meaningful ways for us to support the work of those organizations. It’s because of [the team] that we’re able to get to know the right nonprofit organizations, make meaningful investments in those organizations, and ultimately, realize our goal of successful communities.”


Visit firstnational.com/community to learn more about First National Bank’s community development and philanthropy efforts.

This article was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Woodmen of the World

August 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Woodmen name has graced a downtown Omaha skyscraper for nearly 50 years, but the organization behind it, WoodmenLife, also stands tall with nearly $11 billion in assets, $38.5 billion of life insurance in force, and an A-plus/superior rating by the independent agency A.M. Best. Since its 19th-century beginnings, WoodmenLife has also built a towering history of philanthropy and service to the community. 

“WoodmenLife was founded in 1890 to provide financial security for families while making a difference in their community. As a not-for-profit fraternal organization, we’re able to offer competitive life insurance and cash-accumulating products,” President and CEO Pat Dees says. “When I say, ‘fraternal,’ it’s a not-so-common word, but it’s a description of our business model. My modern definition of ‘fraternal’ is ‘to find an unmet need in the community and purpose yourself to find a way to meet it.’ That’s the guidance that we give our individual local chapters throughout the U.S.”

Brook Bench is director of City of Omaha Parks, Recreation, and Public Property, which has benefitted from Woodmen’s beneficence through the donation of American flags. Woodmen has donated more than 3 million American flags to parks, schools, churches, and other civic organizations.

“WoodmenLife’s American flag donations have enhanced our parks for years. We are so fortunate to have brand-new American flags we can display in our parks to honor veterans and show patriotism towards our country,” Bench says.

Although the range of activities is too extensive to enumerate, Dees says WoodmenLife focuses its support in three primary areas: family, community, and patriotic endeavors.  

One example of supporting family is the WoodmenLife Focus Forward Scholarship program for WoodmenLife members and families. Applicants who meet basic eligibility criteria are considered for awards based on factors including volunteer activity, work history, career goals, and patriotism. 

“We created this two years ago to support their futures and a chance to get ahead,” he says. “This is one of the unique benefits of being a member of WoodmenLife that extends to families.”

One community-oriented activity specific to Omaha was providing funding to the Omaha Police Department Mounted Patrol. 

“WoodmenLife has generously donated funding to be used towards the purchase of new horses for the Omaha Police Mounted Patrol Unit,” says Sgt. Joseph Svacina of the OPD Mounted Patrol. “Several horses have been retired, creating a need for quality replacements. The Omaha Police Department welcomes and appreciates this relationship and financial support from our partners at WoodmenLife. This level of corporate support is invaluable in our growing city, particularly our evolving downtown riverfront area and entertainment district. We look forward to growing this relationship, as well as maintaining a highly professional mounted patrol unit.”

“We adopted a focus on a national scale to fight hunger,” he says. “One of the more powerful things we can offer is, that, because we have nearly 700,000 members throughout the country, we mobilize them for volunteer efforts in local food pantries, or to raise funds, or to have canned food drives to support food pantries. In just the last few years [since 2015] we have collected 627,337 pounds of food and donated $1,117,120 for community food banks.”

Even after more than a century of giving, the people of WoodmenLife continue to look for ways of serving others, Dees says. Because like a tall building, WoodmenLife was built on a strong foundation—of giving, Dees says. 

“There are so many ways we connect with the community. It’s part of our founding principles,” he says. “It is who we are.”


Visit woodmenlife.org for more information.

This article was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B.

Pat Dees, president and CEO of WoodmenLife

Omaha by Design

July 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When a new West Omaha Wal-Mart was being proposed in 2000, Connie Spellman remembers, someone questioned the difference between its uninspired, big-box design and a Wal-Mart with gabled parapets, lots of windows, and other visual details seen in Fort Collins, Colorado. An attorney responded that the Colorado community had adopted a set of design standards, sparking a conversation that eventually led to the 2001 establishment of Omaha by Design as an initiative of the Omaha Community Foundation.

“Omaha by Design was founded by three leading business owners in the community: Bruce Lauritzen, Ken Stinson, and John Gottschalk. They had the foresight to see that Omaha needed this capacity,” says Julie Reilly, who has been Omaha by Design’s executive director since 2015. “Without their leadership we would not have started down the path when we did and the way we did.”

Omaha by Design, now an independent nonprofit, works to improve the physical places in the community, using urban design principles and best practices as tools to address the issues of revitalization, development, environmental sustainability, and mobility while encouraging the creation of engaging and attractive places. Their projects range from the Benson-Ames Alliance, on which Omaha by Design serves as the project manager, to Public Art Omaha’s website and app.

“You need to have that voice that brings together the community, the city, developers, artists, the passionate environmental people,” says Spellman, Omaha by Design’s initial executive director. “It’s all about collaboration, engagement, and working together.”

In the beginning, it took “faith and patience,” she adds. At the time, there were no urban design professionals in city government.

“We were able to work with the community, and the developers, and everyday citizens, and the city [government] to create an urban design for the entire city,” she says.

That was the easy part.

“We learned you have to change the existing codes to implement the master plan…this is where it became more difficult. But after two years of constant negotiation, especially with the development community, the citizenry, and the city—who were wonderful—we passed all of the zoning codes and the urban design plan unanimously,” Spellman says.

Zoning code changes ultimately adopted via City Council approval were widespread. For instance, requirements for tree planting on new streets and individual lots became more stringent. A new designation, Area of Civic Importance, was created to allow for special guidelines protecting these designated areas and governing their development, from site layout to landscaping of access roads and parking. Another designation, mixed-zone, made possible walkable neighborhoods that connect to pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use centers at major intersections.

“We thought we would be lucky if we would see changes in 20 years,” Spellman says. “Well, we started seeing changes in two years.”

Since 2001, Omaha has seen neighborhoods revitalize and business districts resurrect or develop, and the people of the community now not only understand the term “urban design,” they see it firsthand, Reilly says.

“Looking at what Omaha by Design has done over the years, I think the most important thing is contributing to the concepts of urban design and policy, becoming part of the conversation for our city,” she explains. “The actual citizens and residents understand what urban design and policy best practice can bring to making their lives better in Omaha.”

The current membership of the board of directors and advisory committee represents more sectors of the community than ever, Reilly says. As a new nonprofit, “We’re still finding our way to a recipe that will allow our board of directors and our advisory committee to have the best impact for the organization but also be conscious of their volunteer contributions in terms of time and energy,” she explains. “We’re bringing people together from different sectors to discuss issues that are ultimately common between those sectors…We all want a better Omaha, a better greater metro area, a vibrant, livable city for all. Who wakes up every morning and thinks about the future of Omaha? We do.”

Visit omahabydesign.org for more information.

Julie Reilly

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.