Nebraska City stays strong by investing in its people

Nebraska City is the fortunate home of half a dozen generous family foundations, among them the Nelson, Kimmel, Wirth, Kropp, Kriefels and Steinhart Foundations. Their generosity has helped countless projects take shape in Nebraska City over the years – a new hospital, an addition to the library, an aquatic center, multiple public and parochial school renovations and much more.

Undoubtedly, it is thanks to this support that Nebraska City consistently tops the lists of Nebraska’s most beautiful destinations. The home of Arbor Day is indisputably charming.

But Nebraska City’s allure extends beyond its stately buildings. The people are top notch, too, deeply devoted to the community they call home. A good handful of those folks serve as volunteers to the Nebraska City Community Foundation Fund, an affiliated fund of Nebraska Community Foundation, and since 1999, the Fund has been filling an important niche in Nebraska City.

“We invest in people,” said Paul Madison, a retired physician who has served on the fund advisory committee for nearly nine years. “The abundance of family foundations makes us different from a lot of communities and we’re so lucky to have them to fund brick and mortar projects. Because of this, the Nebraska City Community Foundation Fund has been able to focus on different ways of making an impact.”

Investing in people informs every aspect of the Fund’s work, not only its grant making procedures, but its role as a connector and facilitator in the community.

“Our mission is about more than just money,” said Doug Friedli, a founding member of the Fund. “We see ourselves as a collaborator and convener. The Fund brings local citizens, organizations and institutions together to talk about big issues.”

Last year, the Fund did just that.

In January, volunteers extended an invitation to Nebraska City’s many community leaders to attend a meeting of the minds. The gathering served as an opportunity for the diverse entities to each share their vision for the future of their community.

“As far as anyone could remember, this had never been done before,” said Friedli.

Attendees included representatives from four family foundations, the city council, economic development, school board, chamber of commerce, Leadership Nebraska City alumni and the public library. In total, 88 people participated in the conversation.

“We felt really good about the attendance,” said Friedli.

In January 2018, the Fund will host a follow-up meeting to plan for next steps.

Madison admits that fulfilling the Fund’s mission is not without its challenges. “It’s easy to understand brick and mortar projects – you can see them,” said Madison. “Investing in people is a little more abstract. Sometimes you don’t see the results for years. They take time to develop.”

A perhaps even more abstract opportunity presented itself several years ago when a private foundation challenged the group to raise $500,000 to be met with a $250,000 match. If the goal was achieved, the money would benefit Nebraska City Community Foundation Fund’s unrestricted endowment. An unrestricted endowment is like a permanent savings account for a community. The assets are invested, rather than spent, and while a portion of the income earned is granted out to worthy causes, the principal remains intact to continue to build the fund forever. Importantly, there are no restrictions on what charitable causes the endowment can support. This allows the Fund a great deal of flexibility to award grants that support its mission of investing in people.

The Fund began the challenge in 2011 and completed it in 2015, creating an additional $30,000 to $40,000 per year to be invested back in the community and its people. This money, in addition to other dollars raised by Fund volunteers, has supported projects to benefit Nebraska City’s oldest residents, youth and everyone in between. For instance, recent grants have supported a free outdoor movie series downtown, a challenge grant to Leadership Nebraska City, a visit from a renowned children’s book author, youth philanthropy contest and “Philanthropist of the Year” awards.

The Fund has also established a scholarship program that has, to date, provided financial assistance to 52 non-traditional students. Another unique scholarship program awards funding to local groups and organizations to attend planning retreats and leadership development training – the city council and school board have both been recipients.

Fund dollars have also gone towards the purchase of new iPads for a program housed at the public library. “Tech Revolution” takes young volunteers into nursing homes to teach residents how technology can be used to stay in touch with their relatives.

Six years ago, local kids decided they wanted to build a skate park. Fund volunteers mentored the youth, taught them fundraising techniques and provided the means to facilitate donations. Today, thanks to this partnership, Nebraska City has a $150,000 skate park enjoyed frequently by local youth.

“A lot of communities build skate parks for kids, but not with kids,” Friedli said. “They feel a real ownership of the project and they continue to use, love and take great care of the park.”

The Fund’s investment in people also involves mentoring their youth advisory committee. This is no token committee. The group has authority to award 20 percent of the Fund’s annual payout from its unrestricted endowment. With that endowment now exceeding $1 million, it is a big responsibility.

Chloe Higgins, a high school senior, has been on the youth advisory committee since eighth grade. Last year she recommended a $5,000 grant for a program that directly impacts young children, especially those who come from underprivileged families.

Readers EDGE serves all pre-school and kindergarten classes in the public schools, plus children in Head Start. Once a month, volunteer readers – known as “Book Besties” – visit the classes to read a book and lead a related activity. Most importantly, every child gets to take home and keep a copy of the book.

Worth noting, 47 percent of children in Nebraska City qualify for free or reduced lunch. Literacy has been shown to reduce generational poverty, yet many children are being raised in homes where there are no books.

The pilot program in April 2016 was very successful. The book was “Peter Rabbit.” Children’s comments included questions like, “Can I read this every day?”

“Can I keep this book at my house?” These are gratifying responses for the 12 volunteer readers and others who help with the program.

Fund leaders like Doug Friedli hope that the Fund will lead by example.

“Nebraska City Community Foundation Fund invests in people, but beyond that, we hope to create a culture of giving that encourages people to invest back in their community,” Friedli said. “The Fund gives everyone the opportunity to participate at whatever capacity they can. Yes, we’re lucky to have such generous family foundations in Nebraska City, but we all have a responsibility to give back.”

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