Tag Archives: Omaha Community Foundation

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.

Louder Together

June 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lauren Martin was a small-town farm girl from McCook, Nebraska. She loved country music and never expected she would one day lead Maha—Nebraska’s pre-eminent annual music festival.

On Aug. 19, Martin oversees one of Maha’s boldest lineups ever. Headlined by the controversial hip-hop group Run The Jewels, Maha 2017 is poised to be one huge spectacle that promises to bring together a diverse group of concert-goers.

That kind of unity through music drives Martin, who got her first taste of it when she was a college student working on the campus program council at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “All of the sudden, I realized my favorite thing was to bring people together around experiences,” says Martin, who was named Maha’s first executive director in 2015.

While attending UNL, Martin helped bring such performers as singer-songwriter Jason Mraz and comedian Kathy Griffin to the university. After graduating, she wanted to continue exploring a career of booking musical talent.  Martin interned at Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records in 2007. The following summer, she found herself working at Live Nation, a global entertainment company in St. Louis. However, the Great Recession of 2008 cut her career plans short, forcing her to move back home and assess her future in the music industry.

“I came back to Omaha and felt like a dog with my tail between my legs because I failed—or because I couldn’t hack it—whatever it was” Martin says.

In 2009, Maha was born, and Martin took interest. Over the next few years, she wore many hats, including working as a house manager at Omaha Performing Arts and as programming director at Hear Nebraska. In 2012, she was given the reins to Maha’s social media accounts. She was also named to Maha’s board of directors that same year, eventually serving as vice president.

As she continued to work with Maha, Martin’s view of music changed, especially how it can affect people and bring them together. This feeling and sense of community is something she continues to incorporate into Maha.

“Now I realize music is something we all share, and it has a power to connect. It’s everything from a release, to a way to express yourself,” she says. “And while I myself am not a musician, I find that music helps me process things. It helps me connect with other people. It’s a passion in a way that music is an avenue for my fulfillment.”

Martin also worked in communications at the Omaha Community Foundation, where she helped implement Omaha Gives!, a 24-hour charity event aimed at raising money
for nonprofits.

Then, in 2015, something big happened—Maha sold out for the first time, thanks in large part to a phenomenal lineup that included Modest Mouse and Purity Ring.

“It caused everyone involved with Maha to realize that, if we want the event to continue and really be sustainable and see what even further impact we could have on the community, we needed someone full-time. That’s when I became the executive director,” Martin says.

She also emphasized that the popular festival, currently held at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village, is much more than music. The event serves as a medium for other nonprofits to receive attention.

“It’s about raising awareness,” she says, “not forcing anyone to learn about something or expose them to potential trigger topics.”

For example, this year the festival will have information about suicide, the second-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 34 in the U.S. Martin says the majority of Maha’s demographic falls in this age range.

“Maha is more than a music festival. It’s a platform for engagement,” she says. “We realized not only can we be a platform for other organizations, but we can help spread education.”

Martin adds that while information is available to event-goers, the staff aren’t trying to make attendees uncomfortable. “Because that isn’t the intent of anyone,” she says. “We’re not impacting the experience by throwing mental health in your face,” Martin says. “We’re not scared to talk about this. We want to be an organization that is listening to what is going on in our community.”

In addition to providing mental health information, other nonprofits team up with Maha as part of its community to culture and social activities.

This year Maha has again partnered with Louder Than a Bomb, an annual youth poetry slam with roots in Chicago that focuses on bringing teens together across all divides. The group was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name.

Another repeat partner is Omaha Girls Rock, a nonprofit that typically draws plenty of attention. The group empowers young women to voice creativity through music education and performance. In general, to “rock.”

“Maha is an event that connects and reflects the community,” Martin says. “In that kind of structure, you get to walk away saying ‘Omaha’s got some really cool stuff going on.’”

As Maha continues to grow, Martin says people are getting even more out of the music festival. To this date, the event has drawn music fans from 46 states, according to its website.

“While the music is seemingly the main event, you come to Maha and get so much more than that,” Martin says. “I thought I was getting involved with Maha for the music, but what kept me involved with Maha was all the people I’ve gotten to meet.”

Visit mahamusicfestival.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.

 

Lauren Martin

Matt Darling

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Omaha Community Foundation was designed to pool donations into a coordinated investment and grant-making facility dedicated to Omaha’s social improvement.

Learning and/or knowing the people of the community to help improve Omaha’s social services is an especially vital skill for OCF’s vice president of donor services, Matt Darling. Darling’s job is multi-faceted; ultimately, he is responsible for helping donors achieve their desired level of giving.

When people determine they want to give money, no matter how big or how small, Omaha Community Foundation starts an account for that donor. The money itself is held at Wells Fargo, and the OCF executive staff works with their board of directors to manage the assets. Donors opening accounts of at least $25,000 then have a donor advised fund. That fund is exposed to market trends, meaning it could go up or down with the stock market.

The donor services work involves collaborating with Omaha’s community of financial advisers to help bring funds into the foundation, often answering questions about where is the best place to use funds. Each account is individualized, so donors are able to manage their own money. Some donors want OCF to keep track of how their account is doing, while others know exactly where they want their dollars to be spent. It involves creating relationships with each donor and figuring out what they want, a skill in which others say Darling excels.

“Matt doesn’t need to have the right idea in the room, but he’ll find the right idea,” says Kevin Welsh, senior vice president of the Welsh Friesen Group at Morgan Stanley. “He wants to get it right. There’s no alternative motive with him other than what’s right for the situation.”

That desire to get it right comes from the desire to work for the community. It’s a switch from his previous job as co-owner of Paramount Parking. In 2013, with a fiancée and a desire to start a family, Darling began considering the idea of working at a nonprofit.

He reached out to Sara Boyd, OCF executive director, for a lunch meeting—one that turned out to have longtime implications.

“The first lunch we went to, I knew he was the right fit [for OCF],” Boyd says. “He is smart and business-savvy, as well as kind, artistic, and analytical.”

Although she did not have a  job opening at the time, she hired him as director of donor services later that year.

A larger part of this work is building relationships with the 1,500 OCF donors, whether they are giving $100 or $1 million.

“Matt’s really thoughtful,” Welsh says. “You can talk to him, or someone with $5-6 billion can talk to him, and they are the same to him.”

It’s a necessary skill for the job that requires a unique quality, as the donor services department works with people from all walks of life. Darling takes it in stride.

“When you think of philanthropy, you think of a wealthy man in a suit. That’s not necessarily the case,” Darling says.

Using OCF to discover where to give means engaging in a network of like-minded philanthropists and philanthropic organizations. The donor relations team researches specific nonprofits to provide donors (and potential donors) with in-depth details about nonprofit programs, leadership, target populations, goals, and uses of funds. They also research issues and causes that donors and potential donors identify with and let people know what organizations would work well for them.

While the donor relations team works with individuals and corporations, Darling particularly enjoys working with families in the areas of family giving and succession planning, in which one family will choose a specific charity to give to throughout various family members’ lifetimes.

“It’s very satisfying,” Darling says. “We’ve been working with some families now for two, three generations.”

Navigating the wishes of multiple generations can be tricky. The first generation’s idea of the perfect nonprofit may not be the same as the second generation’s idea, and the second generation sometimes sits back and feels ignored.

Darling refuses to let that happen.

“Matt is excellent at bringing people to the table and asking what is meaningful to the individuals and taking something that will be meaningful to people on all sides of that conversation,” Boyd says.

He already had a bachelor’s degree in business and studio art from Hastings College. But to learn more about nonprofit funding, Darling enrolled in American College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He earned a Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy designation, learning about family wealth dynamics and nonprofits.

He didn’t stop there; he now helps to facilitate CAP study groups with SilverStone Group’s Mark Weber. The facilitator role keeps him connected with the local financial advising community.

“The lectures are online. At the OCF, I brought the idea to them to host study groups of professional advisers,” Weber says. “(Darling) helps invite guests, helps facilitate the classes…We’ve had panels of nonprofit directors. We’ve had panels of heads of private foundations. I’ve had panels of professional advisers on how best to work together, and a number of high-profile philanthropists who have shared their life story about their philanthropy.”

Darling brings people together for the common good of trying to strengthen the amount of giving in the community. He uses his knowledge to work with his OCF team, which includes CFO Melisa Sunde and vice president of community relations Kali Baker, among many others. Through the team effort, the organization has enabled more than $1 billion to be donated throughout Omaha since its inception in 1982. That means the city that is 42nd in size in America is the 17th highest for charitable dollars.

“I’ve never worked in a place where the entire staff is so focused on doing good,” Darling says. “The team is second to none.”

He, along with his team, takes a great pride in making this community a better place for everyone.

“I live an incredibly fortunate life,” Darling says.

Visit omahafoundation.org for more information.

This article appeared in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Matt Darling

The Compass in the Landscape

October 16, 2016 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

With growing levels of philanthropic donations sloshing around Omaha, it’s important to keep in mind that underserved segments of the community remain. Sometimes these segments of the community are out of sight. Sometimes their needs are unknown, hidden to those who would otherwise
offer assistance.

Folks in charge of the Omaha Community Foundation are paying mind to the hidden needs of the metro area. In fact, Sara Boyd, CEO of the Omaha Community Foundation, unveiled a new initiative to confront the problem this fall.

“The Landscape Project is a data-driven reflection of the Omaha-Council Bluffs area,” says Boyd. “It is an online resource to integrate data in our community about how we are faring on certain issues with community priorities and lived experiences to help us gain greater insight into how we’re doing.”

The Landscape Project relies on existing data—along with direct engagement with specific segments of the population—to gauge where gaps remain in community support.

“The goal of the project is to create shared learning and understanding, for all of us, to see how we’re doing on some of these priorities,” Boyd says. “Then to potentially have a process or structure in place that allows for greater participation and prioritization on these issues; and then, from there to coordinate or align our efforts.”

While the Landscape Project is like a compass for philanthropy, Omaha Gives is the foundation’s vehicle for driving charitable donations to organizations around the metro. In 2016, the fourth annual Omaha Gives campaign amassed almost $9 million—a new record for the 24-hour funding drive—and generated more than $1 million in new donations from first-time participants. “That, for us, is very meaningful,” says Boyd. “It was not just a celebration of giving, but also to say, ‘can we grow the pie of giving in our community in some way?’”

“The Landscape Project is a data-driven reflection of the Omaha-Council Bluffs area.”

-Sara Boyd

Boyd says the foundation began developing the Landscape Project concept roughly five years ago while reviewing studies about local urban problems. Several of those studies were one-time only, others were outdated. So, the Omaha Community Foundation partnered with United Way and Iowa West Foundation to do a community assessment.

Moving forward with the Landscape Project, identification of local housing problems illustrates one way the new online resource could help inform philanthropy and public policy alike: “Throughout the country we know there is disparity in home ownership along many levels. One of those disparities is along different communities and different races. Blacks own their own homes at significantly lower rates in our community than they do elsewhere in the country.”

landscape-foundation1Home ownership, she says, is an indicator of wealth-building and asset accumulation. Boyd hopes data from the Landscape Project will help policymakers and nonprofits to cross-reference the experiences of other communities (nationwide) that have battled similar problems, analyze how the problems were alleviated, and bring relevant solutions to Omaha.

The Landscape Project will begin with six areas of focus: health, neighborhoods, safety, transportation, education, and workforce. “Really, the long-term goal is to strengthen our ability to solve problems as a community and move the needle on important issues,” Boyd says.

Visit thelandscapeomaha.org for more information.

The Science of Charity

May 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kali Baker knows well how the better angels of our nature think. She knows that although they are angels, they still love a little competition. They love variety, too. They love prizes. Like their less-noble brethren, they even like to party.

Omaha Gives 2014, the 24-hour-long, online telethon Baker organizes, is as much a psychological experiment as it is a charity. Still, the bottom line isn’t rocket science: The event raises a heck of a lot of money for a heck of a lot of Omaha charities. Last year, in its first outing in the city, this online telethon put on by the Omaha Community Foundation raised $3 million for charities in the area.

“It was just remarkable to watch,” says Baker, who is director of communications for the Foundation. “It’s such a different type of event, we didn’t know for sure what we were getting into. It just felt so good when we saw the numbers.”

Impressive numbers. From midnight to midnight one day last spring, nearly 11,000 people made online donations to 318 participating non-profits.

This year’s Omaha Gives 2014 will be held May 21. At 12:01 a.m. that Wednesday, you can go to omahagives24.org and donate to any one of more than 500 charities in the region.

Here’s how it works. Area non-profits sign up to be a part of the event. All the participating charities are then included on a sort of “Big Board” on the Omaha Gives website. On May 21, people can begin going to the website and donating to any one (or, of course, any number) of the charities listed. Each charity’s name on the board with have a real-time running tally of the money they’ve received.

So, here’s where the mind games come in. The website becomes a scoreboard. All of a sudden, somebody is winning. As is human nature: The volunteers and donors for the five hundred or so other charities decide it would be neat for them to be the leader.

Baker calls that “incentivizing” the event. It gets better.

Last year, many of the charities held events during the day. Donors and volunteers gathered, had fun and very often got on their smart phones and donated. Also, as the excitement built through the day, they contacted their friends, who contacted their friends. That social media thing. Pretty soon, the event was drawing hundreds of new donors and volunteers to the charities involved.
Then came the prizes for hitting certain donation targets. This year, non-profits will compete for prizes in three categories depending on the group’s annual budget.

The Omaha Community Foundation also will be offering matching funds. In addition, each hour, one donation will be randomly selected to be augmented with an additional $1,000.

That’s yet another clever carrot.

“Things can get a bit slow at some points, especially in those early hours of the day,” Baker says. “But that $1,000 each hour should get people fired up to stay involved all day long.”

One group that benefitted greatly was The Union for Contemporary Art. The young non-profit (started in 2011) hosted a lunchtime pizza party the day of the event last year as well as an open house for donors. Numerous donations were made from donors onsite, but most of the donations came through social media, says Brigitte McQueen Shew, The Union’s executive director.

“I basically spent the entire day jumping online and reminding people that even a gift of $10…would make a huge difference.”

More than 200 people donated a total of $13,000, “A huge amount for us,” she says. The Union’s effort earned them one of those $1,000 bonus prizes.

“Omaha Gives basically enabled us to launch (programs) years before I thought we’d have the funds available to make it happen,” she says. “We are truly looking forward to the event this year.”
Sara Boyd, president and CEO of the Foundation, echoes that sentiment. There’s good reason to believe Omaha Gives could grow exponentially in coming years.

“As we look at these event in other communities, the second year presents a huge opportunity to get more people involved in giving,” she says. “People who didn’t know it was happening last year or didn’t understand the premise have a greater opportunity to participate.”

The Omaha Gives day is modeled after a few similar 24-hour, online fundraisers that have popped up in recent years around the country. Because of the immense success of this fundraising formula, Baker says, more and more will likely be showing up around the country.

“It just has been proven to work on numerous levels,” she says. “It has an amazing way of getting people involved, even people who have never been involved before.”

That may be the greatest power of this fundraising formula. Thanks primarily to that intense social media burst, it’s estimated that 30 percent of last year’s donations at the Omaha event came from first-time donors.

“I think one of the great things about Omaha Gives is that it gave us a vehicle for raising awareness about our programs and work,” McQueen Shew says.

That new awareness, and all those first-time donors, means a whole new army of volunteers and donors for those charities as they move forward.

“It’s not just about the money raised, it’s about introducing a great number of new people to a great number of non-profits,” Baker says. “All these neat incentives are just ways to promote giving and bring the community together in new ways.”

Omaha Gives “is empowering, accessible, and meaningful,” Boyd says. “That’s especially important as we seek to develop a new audience of givers in our community.”

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