Omaha’s philanthropic community is known for its unusual generosity.
Some attribute this largess to the small town feel of a city where relationships still matter and where it’s possible to rally people around a good idea or cause. Others point to the concentration of several wildly successful companies grown here that give back. Then there’s the metro’s large number of wealthy families, some of whom acquired their fortunes through business and others through investments. The latter include those whose trust in a young Warren Buffett to invest their money in Berkshire Hathaway was rewarded beyond belief.
Many landmarks and streets are named after early figures whose late 19th century and early 20th century philanthropy built Omaha. Joslyn, Dodge. Kountze. Creighton. Hitchcock. Cudahy. Doorly. Kenefick.
As those early givers passed, new figures stepped up such as Leo A. Daly, Peter Kiewit, Walter Scott, Bob Dougherty, Mike Harper, Tom Nurnberger, Dick Holland, the Storzes, the Durhams, the Hawks, Alan Marcia Baer, the Blumkns-Batts. More recently, Susie Buffett, Bruce Lauritzen, Wally Weitz, John Gottschalk, David Sokol. Bill and Ruth Scott, Allan and Dianne Lozier, the Simons and the Smiths have emerged among Omaha’s new generation of major givers.
These movers and shakers underwrite some of Omaha’s great public-private places and endeavors. Holland Performing Arts Center. Orpheum Theatre. University of Nebraska Medical Center. UNO. Creighton. Film Streams. Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Durham Museum. Omaha Community Playhouse. Omaha Symphony. Opera Omaha. Great Plains Theatre Conference. Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. And many others.
They have skin in the game, too, in things like the United Way and Building Bright Futures, whose greatest benefactor, Susie Buffett, is a notable female exception in what’s otherwise ostensibly a men’s club.
These charitable doyens not only give money but provide leadership on boards and committees and lend more informal advice and service.
Few donors are as colorful or irascible as Dick Holland (see main story). The 94-year-old represents a dying breed who tells it as he sees it, throwing political correctness out the window, but getting things done, too.
Michael and Gail Yanney
A bridge figure between Holland and today’s new generation philanthropists is Michael Yanney, 81, founder and chairman emeritus of The Burlington Capital Group.
Yanney, who came from poverty in small town Neb. to work his way up the ranks of commercial banking and commodities markets, found key mentors he tried emulating in his own leadership and philanthropy.
One was former Peter Kiewit Sons Construction head Walter Scott and another was former Northwestern Bell head Tom Nurnberger.
“Both of these people I trusted a lot. And my wife has probably been one of my best mentors.
Yanney and his wife Gail are a team when it comes to their giving.
“We really like to do things that will make a difference and we want to do them the best we can. Therefore you don’t pick a lot of projects, you pick very few and you make sure they’re outside of the box and you’re going to have to stretch to get there.”
He says giving decisions are not arrived at by accident but by due diligence. “It is something that comes as you see the demand and the opportunity to pick things up.”
Youth mentoring is a prime giving area for him. What’s known now as Partnership4Kids has grown from 20 to some 5,000 young people served. “It’s certainly a commitment and we feel it’s working and there’s very good leadership.” The program mentors at-risk kids from early elementary school through college to try and break the cycle of poverty many come from. “Anything we can do to eradicate poverty is going to make a long-term difference to the overall picture and happiness of our community,” Yanney says.
Health care, particularly UNMC, is another prime giving area. “We have an absolutely strong feeling that medical center is making a big difference to this region. Anything you can do to improve medical research, quality of patient care will make a huge difference.”
Yanney doesn’t see an end to the generosity that’s made “Omaha a very unique place,” adding, “I think there’s a very good chance it will continue as long as there’s very good leadership. The money is there but there’re not going to give if the quality of leadership isn’t there.” He says the leadership of Walter Scott, whom he calls “the chairman of the board of Omaha.” will be “very hard to replace” whenever he’s gone.
Still, Yanney says, “I’m very optimistic. We’ve really got some great young people moving into the leadership.”
Todd and Betiana Simon
Todd Simon points to the fourth generation of his Omaha Steaks family empire, including his late father philanthropist Fred Simon, as “very inspirational to me personally.” He adds, “It was basically leading by example. That giving back to the community is just something you do both through financial support but also by being on boards, helping with capital campaigns, providing leadership where appropriate. I think it was my uncle Alan who said to me one time, ‘Community service is my hobby,’ and I think that really struck with me. It’s a great hobby to have when you can take something you’re really passionate about and turn it into something you really want to spend time on.”
He says the calculations he and his wife Betiana use in making giving decisions “starts with the heart” and follows with the head. “The question Betiana and I ask is. ‘How can we have the most positive impact on the project, whatever that project is, and on the community that project serves.’ We’ve made the choice to support the arts and human services and obviously those are both really big buckets. Within those we make the decision of how we’re going to support.
“We have been focused on doing programming support in the arts and making sure the institutions we’re supporting can do first class programming work. In health and human services we’re more focused on the mission of the organization and in those instances we’re happy to fund just direct operating support because we know so much of the work of these organizations goes right to their beneficiaries.”
In weighing an organization and its need, he says, “I try not to over-think it,” adding, “I think what it really comes down to is people give to people and so I look to the leadership of the organizations both from a staff and a board perspective and the question I ask is, Does this organization have the capacity to deliver on their mission? That’s usually a fairly easy determination to make and once I’m confident they can, then we’ll typically feel good about giving. I leave it up to the leadership of the organization to deliver on their programming and promises, which they almost always do.”
The Simons prefer going with sure things and sticking with them.
“What we tend to do is find organizations doing a terrific job and we stay with them, not only financially but also from a time commitment perspective. We join the board or participate in a committee or get involved in leadership in some way. That keeps us really connected.
“We kind of want to go deep rather than broad. We’re most effective in our philanthropy when it’s not just about writing a check.
“I think the most fulfilling thing is planting seeds and seeing them grow into the community.”
Paul and Annette Smith
Philanthropists sometimes partner on projects. The Simons joined forces with another new era power couple, Paul and Annette Smith, in founding The Impact Circle for Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
The Smiths, recipients of the 2015 Sower Award in the Humanities, have used others’ giving to guide their own.
“There are a host of great examples we’ve borrowed from,” says Paul Smith, a founding member of Tenaska Capital Management. “Our approach is probably an amalgam of different approaches we’ve seen with others.”
An early influence on them was Howard and Rhonda Hawks.
The Smiths divide their giving between youth serving organizations and the arts. In each case, their head and heart enter the equation.
“We try to focus on outcomes – on how much impact we’re really having,” Smith says. “I suppose that is the head part but we’re pretty passionate about both of these areas, so there’s a lot of heart in it, too. So it’s some of both for us.”
When it comes to young people they look to impact “underserved and disadvantaged youth, especially through avenues that enhance their educational and social opportunities,” Smith says. “What we look for is a real efficacy and real difference made sustainably over time in the lives of young people in our community.”
When it comes to the arts, he says, “we’re looking to create cultural assets in our community.” He says they prefer to support programming of the kind that Film Streams does that “serves to create a cultural connection around people and a dialogue around important issues – I think that’s true of all of the arts organizations we support.”
Annette Smith says such activities enrich the cultural landscape. “It makes our community a more vibrant place to live for everyone.”
Paul says they support any arts endeavor that promotes access and diversity “in creating community around art.”
Sometimes, their passions for youth and arts overlap, as in the examples of their investments in the Kent Bellows Institute and Omaha Conservatory of Music.
He says their giving reflects their belief the arts are integral to a well-rounded life and city.
“Imagining our city without these things – without a symphony, an opera, art museums and challenging places where new art is being created – imagines a less interesting, less connected, less enjoyable place to live. So that’s why we think of it as a form of investment when we invest in the arts.”
Smith says he and his wife remain “active in the dialogue that exists in our community broadly around these sorts of institutions, so we try to support them not only with contributions but with counsel and service. And sometimes that means a board seat and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.