“Omaha is a big little town,” says Anne Hindery, CEO of the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands. “Omaha is a city with big hearts and deep pockets.”
It is not a big surprise to those who frequent the city’s community and cultural spaces. The history of Omaha’s philanthropy is written all over the city, if you take a closer look.
Take a stroll through the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
There’s the Lied Jungle, named for Ernst F. Lied, who owned a network of Omaha businesses—a car dealership, an apartment complex and a tool factory, among others—before investing in Las Vegas real estate.
There’s the Hubbard Gorilla Valley, Orangutan Forest, and Expedition Madagascar, all named for the Hubbard family. Pioneering Omaha cardiologist Theodore Hubbard and his wife, Claire, established charitable foundations, and their daughter, Anne Hubbard, continues that legacy today.
There’s the Scott Aquarium, and more recently the Scott African Grasslands, named for Suzanne and Walter Scott. Walter Scott succeeded Peter Kiewit as chairman and CEO of Kiewit Corp. Suzanne Scott was the founding executive director of the Omaha Zoo Foundation.
The list goes on. Omaha history provides as much of a foundation for those buildings as concrete, bricks, and mortar. Natalie Simmonds, a consultant who works with area nonprofits, says Omaha is a close-knit community with a lot of pride and resources, and those combine to create a city that’s special to many of its residents.
“One reason Omaha is so great is its tremendously generous philanthropic community,” says Simmonds, the founder of dotted i writing services. “The spirit of giving is special in Omaha.”
That spirit contributes to Omaha’s culture, promoting collaboration between businesses and nonprofit missions to improve the community.
“Omaha is not only unique in Nebraska philanthropically, I think it is unique across the country,” Hindery says.
There are several reasons why. The city has a high concentration of millionaires compared to its size, largely due to the fortunes made by early investors in Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway and the continued presence of the conglomerate, and several other Fortune 500 companies in the community. They often demonstrate a strong desire to give back.
“This is where people raise their families, where they made their fortunes,” Hindery says. “They really have that sense of community.”
Omaha’s business world includes start-ups and entrepreneurs, franchises and small businesses, national firms, and global titans.
Many of these businesses and businesspeople have created large foundations that drive local philanthropy—including the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, Peter Kiewit Foundation, Robert B. Daughterty Charitable Foundation, Lozier Foundation, and Sherwood Foundation. Heritage Services has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in private giving for community projects.
There are also several community foundations and corporate charities like the Union Pacific Foundation. Across the river, a portion of the proceeds from gaming are legally required to go to charity, and this is distributed by The Iowa West Foundation in Council Bluffs.
While major projects in the community have traditionally required the blessing of large foundations or philanthropists, Angela M. Eikenberry, a professor of public affairs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says there’s a generational change happening.
“The newer generation, especially among those smaller family foundations, they are not necessarily interested in doing things the same way,” Eikenberry says. “They don’t have the same level of, ‘Oh, you must go talk to so-and-so before you do anything.’”
Grassroots fundraising has also blossomed, in part, she says, because of one-day giving campaigns. These flash mobs of philanthropy make it easier for smaller organizations to do direct fundraising. For example, Eikenberry says she’s involved with Mode Shift Omaha, a transportation advocacy group that she described as “running counter to a lot of the accepted practices to get funding.”
“We’re very grassroots,” she says. “It’s been enough to do what needs to be done.”
There are many ways for those who don’t make millions to contribute to philanthropic causes. Regional, national, and international organizations have local and state chapters—including noted charities such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way, Habitat for Humanity, Boys and Girls Club, and the YMCA. A number of national groups like Feeding America also have local partner organizations like the Food Bank of the Heartland.
Churches, school groups, and government entities also have their own foundations, supporting field trips, soccer programs, library amenities, religious ministries, and a plethora of other activities. There are animal rescues, homeless shelters, human services, arts and cultural organizations, policy and advocacy organizations, and many other special-interest groups.
The nonprofit ecosystem is as varied as the people who make up Omaha. Money and ideas flow among nonprofits and businesses alike. Nonprofits share membership and board members with area businesses, and they work alongside businesses and government entities.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert says these relationships are what drives Omaha’s successes.
“Building great partnerships is the way we get things done in Omaha–partnerships with our business, development, and philanthropic communities, our state, and our nonprofit sector,” Stothert says. “Nearly everything we accomplish benefits from the leadership, financial support, and vision of these valued partners.”
Eikenberry says Omaha is somewhat unique in having a strong corporate culture combined with a concentration of wealth and social capital. However, she notes that Omaha also faces a legacy of segregation and inequality. The status quo can be more entrenched than in other areas, too.
“Everyone knows everybody, so it’s interesting because, on the one hand, it makes it easier to collaborate,” Eikenberry says. “But it also constantly remains that, if you don’t fit in that group, or if you don’t align with the same influence, it might be harder to make change.”
Omaha’s close-knit community also raises the stakes when it comes to upsetting donors, which can make it challenging to call out wrong-doing.
“There’s a reluctance to challenge the corporate culture that we have,” Eikenberry says.
She says many people were hesitant to speak out about the executive pay scandal faced by Goodwill Omaha in 2016 that was sparked by an Omaha World-Herald investigation. Susie Buffett did give a blistering statement following the expose, that exemplified a shift in public support for the organization. (Goodwill Omaha has subsequently overhauled its leadership and updated ethics policies.)
There are still many ways philanthropists, and potential philanthropists, can give. Eikenberry says one area still struggling with securing ongoing financial support is human service organizations. She recommends that those looking to make a difference in Omaha start by spending on efforts to change policies and provide assistance to disadvantaged communities in the city.
“There’s a lot of disparity in Omaha, and there’s a lot of opportunity for people to not just be following what everyone else is doing,” Eikenberry says. “There is opportunity to figure out how to expand who benefits.”
Those who are unsure where to best place their dollars can do research through the multi-impact organizations, which often feature lists of nonprofits and interactive maps on their websites.
“A lot of people may not realize what exists in their neck of the woods,” Hindery says.
Hindery says if she ever won the lottery, she’d set up an account with a local community foundation—an option that’s available to anyone interested in becoming a philanthropist who wants advice about the best way to proceed.
One thing is certain—whether someone in Omaha makes $1 million, $100,000, or less, the city’s philanthropic heart beats loudly.
“People are realizing you don’t have to be Warren Buffett or somebody with that kind of money to be a philanthropist,” Hindery says. “You can make a difference.”
Visit nonprofitam.org for more information about several of the nonprofits mentioned in this article.
This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.