Flatwater Free Conversation: How Jeff Yost is changing the small-town story

Originally posted by Flatwater Free Press
Written by Mike’l Severe

Editor’s note: The Nebraska Community Foundation is a sponsor of the Nebraska Journalism Trust.

Mike’l Severe: Okay, welcome to Flatwater Free Conversation. I am Mike’l Severe. We’re joined this month by Jeff Yost, who is the president and CEO of the Nebraska Community Foundation. Jeff, we appreciate you taking the time.

Jeff Yost: Thank you so much for coming to talk to me.

Severe: Born and raised in Nebraska.

Yost: Born and raised in  Red Cloud. It’s about 40 miles south of Hastings, home of Willa Cather. So really, yeah, really amazing stuff. In my little hometown of Red Cloud, my mom still lives there and some of my siblings. So, uh, my kids still think of that as kind of their second hometown, and I think of it as my home.

Severe: Tell me what’s similar about Red Cloud now, what’s really different?

Yost: Red Cloud has totally reinvented itself in the past 20 years, really taken advantage of the opportunity afforded by having a world class cultural asset like Willa Cather . . . about 10,000 pilgrims a year come to Red Cloud to see that stuff, so it’s really, wow, really really amazing work.

And that’s so much of the work we do in the Nebraska Community Foundation is helping communities to discover their unique and special assets and really figure out, okay, how do we create prosperity and quality of life that is adjacent to that? I would say the narrative in Red Cloud today. Really incredible.  When I got outta high school (in 1986), the implicit message was: ‘You’re a bright, articulate kid. Your future someplace else will see you for the holidays.’

No society can sustain itself if that’s its message to its children.

So, so much of our work at the Nebraska Community Foundation is to try to help communities to have a more positive message, a more positive, self-fulfilling prophecy about the future of their place and the future that they’re talking with their kids about.

Severe: You went to school to be an economist, right? And you worked in the governor’s office for a while?

Yost: I did. I worked in the governor’s office for about five years in the Ben Nelson administration.

Severe: How did that help you when you transitioned to going to the foundation in terms of you obviously you saw what lobbyists, do you see how the economy works? How did that help you?

Yost: Uh, boy, I was given a lot of responsibility in the governor’s office for a young man in his twenties, which was really incredible.

So I got to do lots and lots of things. I got to lobby, I got to work on special projects. I got to work on an interagency basis.

There were really three things that I took away from (the Gov. Nelson administration experience.)

For me personally, I (learned) I didn’t want to be involved in politics because the time frames of politics are too short for me. I’m interested in building things and you build things over generations. You don’t build things over election cycles.

The second thing was I didn’t like how binary, you won or you lost. Most of the world gets better, not because we’re competing, but because we’re cooperating.

I’m a big fan that power is infinite. And in politics, power is really a zero sum game. I have it. Or you have it.

So in the Nebraska Community Foundation, we’re in the business of constantly helping people create new power in the universe. If I share something with you, if I teach you something, if I somehow empower you, I didn’t become less powerful but you became more powerful. We just created new power in the universe, and I can

Severe: Pass the power . . . onto someone else.

Yost: Yeah. And . . . the third part that I learned was that government wasn’t built to do all things to increase public good. We’re gonna have to do a lot more things than just government to create public good. And many, many of them are long-term. Uh, but so many times the thinking in government is pretty short term stuff because of the election cycle.

So we end up having people get elected as single issue candidates. We have people get elected on very, very sort of narrow platforms. What we’re interested in is community building, and community building is a holistic activity.

So as we continue to talk here, we can talk about how some of the things we’re doing in the Nebraska Community Foundation are intended to help more and more community leaders have greater and greater discretion—and therefore more influence over the future of their place.

Mike’l Severe: Community Foundation began in ’94?

Yost: In 1994 was when the first affiliated funds came on board. Yep.

Severe: Right? Same mission essentially when started as it is now?

Yost: The mission has evolved . . . the idea, the theory of change has always been in place. And that theory of change is Nebraska’s an amazing place, but we haven’t always talked about it or acted like it’s an amazing place.

So how on earth do we lift up the goodness, celebrate it, and then use that as a building block? So many times community economic development work gets framed in deficit. and many times you qualify for government money because you don’t have something.

And in lots of circumstances that makes perfect sense but when you’re trying to develop something that doesn’t make as much sense. So, so much of what we do in the Nebraska Community Foundation, and this has always been the case, is our frame is what’s called asset-based community development.

And it’s exactly what we did in Red Cloud. We helped Red Cloud deeply discover the importance of having a world-class cultural asset like Willa Cather. Nobody else has that. That’s a competitive advantage. And that’s the work we do in the Nebraska Community Foundation, is to help people discover their assets in their place, and then use those to mobilize the future and create better lives.

Severe: $450 million invested in Nebraska hometowns since 1994. In terms of those 275 or so communities . . . If you give them the funds, how do you train them to know what to do with it? How, how do you make sure that those investments are gonna be used where they need to be?

Yost: We don’t give them the funds. Almost all of that money is raised locally,  so much of the work of the Nebraska Community Foundation is motivating, empowering, teaching, training, mentoring local leaders to go and talk to their friends and neighbors. Uh, we’re big fans (of the fact) that change happens along the lines of relationships, and that’s what we are…we’re in the change making business.

We’re helping people try to make things. Not by burning down what’s there, but by really helping to lift up all the goodness and say, okay, with all this goodness, how do we get better? How do we use the science we know today that we didn’t know 50 years ago to keep getting better with education and healthcare and wellness and economic development?

Severe: So how do they learn to be able to raise that money? Is that something that you guys help them with?

Yost: Yep. That’s much of the work that we do at the Nebraska Community Foundation, our community building practice. So we’re very, very interested in working with community leaders that wanna learn how to do this.

But again, the most important part of fundraising (is) typically trust. The world is full of awesome ideas. Right? So why would I give my money to this idea or that idea?

Well, what we’re helping community leaders to do is to begin to become comfortable and confident, and going and having conversations with their friends and neighbors and inviting them into community building with them in using philanthropy as a community economic development strategy.

We can’t make anybody do anything. All we can do is motivate and inspire. So that’s, that’s what we do, is we motivate and inspire. And a big part of the motivation is helping the people to learn the skills and to build the teams to be successful.

So a big part of this . . . is helping a small community to build what’s called an unrestricted endowment. So it’s an endowment, a perpetual pot of money where you’re just using some of the payout every year from the investment. But the corpus remains intact over time. Uh, the fascinating part about it is there isn’t a purpose statement. The purpose is to benefit that place. And boy, that could change five years, 10 years, 15 years from now, right?

Today, when we can live and work from anywhere, the question really isn’t one of jobs. The question is, why do I wanna live and work and raise my family in this place? The question has really become a community question. So we feel like our work is really, really relevant and germane for today’s environment.

Severe: Well, how do you do that? You, you mentioned when you grew up in Red Cloud, they anticipated you going to college and not coming back. How do you encourage young people to finish college or whatever and stay in that town and continue helping it grow?

Yost: So migration is a really, really complicated thing, right?

There’s lots and lots of variables, but some of the variables that we try to help people work on, first of all, what do you want to do? What is of interest to you? And many times what young people say they’re interested in, those employment opportunities actually exist in that place, but they don’t know they exist in that place.

So part of the time we’re just helping to fill in information. Part of the time we’re actually helping adults to not ask, uh, questions that may be perceived by young people . . . as something that’s not really helpful

Severe: Give me an example.

Yost: We have all sorts of stories of young people moving back to their hometown and a well-intentioned adult that they grew up with, encountering them on Main Street and why are you back here? Couldn’t make it in the big city? It’s avoiding things like that. And I don’t think anybody’s doing it because they want to be malicious. They’re doing it because that’s the culture that we’ve built over time. That the expectation was, if you’re successful, you’re someplace else.

And what we know about a 21st century economy is that’s not true. We have lots and lots of stories of young people, middle-aged people, people with young families, et cetera, et cetera, living and working wherever they wanna live and work because that’s where they’ve chosen to be.

And that’s what we’re trying to help our hometowns in Nebraska do, is we’re trying to help them magnetize themselves. So people want to be a part of that community. And that’s a whole bunch of things, right? I mean, part of that’s money, part of that’s having a plan. Part of that’s having a culture where people are not only friendly and welcoming, but there really is a sense of belonging.

Part of that’s employment opportunities. We’re seeing tremendous success in lots and lots of communities where they’re fitting all the different pieces together and using it with their community assets, and they’re having great success in young people that grew up there moving back in early adulthood.

And other people that didn’t grow up there moving in and becoming a part of the community as newcomers.

Severe: And it can be as simple. I know in Holt County you talk about building a movie theater, having a grocery store, having a cool place to go out and get a Moscow Mule. Just having those sort of things is a part of it.

Yost: Entertainment is certainly a part of it . . . And boy, these community spaces are extraordinarily important. But we see young people in particular talking about how incredibly important it is to have high quality schools. How incredibly important it is to live in a safe place where you know your neighbor.

How incredibly important it is to be raising your kids near your parents. So this whole idea of extended family is something that we’ve really come back around to. So those are three of the big reasons that we get from young people as to why they want to be a part of a place. But there’s all sorts of things.

Severe: Many of these kids when they leave to go to college, sometimes that might be the first diversity they see when they go into college. In order to move back, maybe they’re looking to have some diversity still in their lives. Is there anything that can be done in those small towns or is that just something that’s very difficult to do?

Yost: There’s a very substantial number of places in Nebraska that have had pretty sizable amounts of in-migration from new Americans over the years.

Many of those folks are Hispanic, Latino, but we’ve seen a lot of other places where there are people from both East Africa and the Ivory Coast, throughout Central and South America. A fair amount of people from central Asia and a fair amount of people from East Asia.

Depending upon the communities. There’s a number of places we work today where kindergarten classes are a third to half non-Caucasian students. So as we think about demographics in our places, the demographics, especially in schools, are changing pretty dramatically. And so there is more diversity in our places than we’re used to.

I think the other thing that we’re really interested in from a diversity standpoint is diversity’s gonna manifest itself in all sorts of ways, right? There’s ways of thinking. There’s where you grew up, it’s your faith community. Certainly your politics, certainly your employment and your bent on that.

One of the big community building practices we’ve really tried to help people work on is not only being nice and friendly, but really trying to be good at being welcoming and belonging. So a big part of our community building practice is people belong when they have their gifts and talents received and appreciated.

So I don’t belong in a community if somebody just tells me I belong. I actually have to feel it myself.

So a big part of our community building practice is to help people understand, what is the psychology that actually goes into belonging? And then no matter what your skin color is, no matter sort of where you’re coming from, if you have commonalities and common interests and and common purpose, we can absolutely all live together and do lots and lots of really progressive, wonderful things in our place even if we don’t agree on everything

Severe: You mentioned earlier, you can almost work anywhere in the world now with your computer in Zoom. And that’s one of the things that we really learned from Covid at the same time a lot of shortages and other things from Covid have been tough. Has it been difficult for those communities, fundraising, being able to raise dollars in this these last three years?

Yost: It has not. Nebraska has extraordinary abundance. So one of the things we’ve studied in the Nebraska Community Foundation is something called the intergenerational transfer of wealth. Since World War II, in particular, the United States has become extraordinarily wealthy. And Nebraska’s a big part of that as well.

So one of the things, I talk about it within the context of this is my parents both grew up in or near Red Cloud. Uh, I’m the sixth of six children. Only two of my siblings continue to live in Red Cloud and Webster County. The other four of us are someplace else.

Severe:  It’s actually pretty good.

Yost: Not bad.

But what happens to whatever my parents made and accumulated during their lifetimes when they pass away? Usually it just gets divided by the number of children you have. Well, if two-thirds of those children no longer live there. Two-thirds of the wealth leaves.

So really the leading indicator was the loss of human resource because people migrated. The lagging economic indicator is the loss of wealth.

So many bankers will talk about, you know, kids show up to the funeral, they go to the funeral, they go to the supper, they come by the bank, take the assets outta the bank, and the last thing they see is the, the tail lights going out of town.

So much of what we’re trying to help people in the Nebraska Community Foundation network understand and then mobilize is this massive transfer of wealth, we think in the next 10 years in Nebraska a hundred billion dollars will be transferring from one generation to the next and we think in the next 50 years, it’s close to a trillion dollars. In many, many counties we work in that transfer of wealth is at least a billion dollars.

So one of the things we’ve embarked on in the Nebraska Community Foundation is to ask people to think about their hometown and to think about, okay, what if I just gave a small portion of this back to the place.

(In my family) there were two parents and six kids. It totally took a village to raise us. What do we do to support that village into the future? So we have a campaign called Five to Thrive, which is asking every generous Nebraskan to consider giving back 5% of their accumulated wealth to the place and the causes and the people that have helped them to have a great (life).

We think about 5% of a hundred billion dollars in Nebraska. That’s $5 billion. You can create a lot of margin of excellence with that.

Severe: If that wealth, if you can’t figure out a way in some of those communities for that wealth to be redistributed or kept. Are we in danger of losing some of our small towns? Like literally the town name is still there, but there aren’t people living there.

Yost: Yeah. Certainly the economy’s gonna keep evolving. Nebraska today has 532 incorporated places. In 1930, there were about 850 of them. Once upon a time we had about 850 school districts. Today we have 244.

So are things gonna keep evolving? Yes. They’re gonna keep evolving. The community question becomes, and we work in lots and lots of places that are between a hundred people and a thousand people, and about 70% of those 532 places are less than 500 people.

We work in lots and lots of small towns where those places have a very, very bright future.  Because there is a sense of community, there is a sense of their purpose.

I mean, they have what any enterprise needs. They have a soul.

So the communities that haven’t really worked through that, they’re just kind of a bedroom community or they’re just kind of a stop over place, or they don’t really have a cohesive vision of who they want to be in the future, those places are in danger.

But many, many of the places we work in that are . . . 500 people have extraordinarily bright futures. Because technology is actually allowing us to re-localize lots of things. And that’s one of the things we’ve helped a lot of our affiliated funds do. We have lots of affiliated funds that have helped to re-localize significant elements of their school lunch program with the whole idea that it would be more healthy. It helps connect those kids to where their food came from, which has all sorts of benefits for, say, STEM education, how to use that within all of your curriculum.

And then it really helps to change the narrative of, oh, this isn’t a poor little backwater place. This is an awesome place. Look at this incredible meal we have in front of us. Right, right, right. I mean, we really do live in the breadbasket of the world. We don’t wanna run away from that. We want to embrace that in lots of different ways.

Severe: You know, I’ve met chefs that have moved to Nebraska because of that.

Like literally. I know a guy just opened a restaurant in Fremont and one of the reasons why he decided to do it was he found a good location, obviously, right? Good building. But he also thought, you know, within 50 miles of me, I’m gonna get fresh hogs. I’m gonna get the chickens.  Everything I want that I have shipped into New York City, I can get it there.

Which I thought was a pretty remarkable choice.

Yost: And it, and it speaks to the whole idea of, what are the assets we have? We have land, we have water, we have amazing people. We can do all sorts of incredible things that we tried to get away from in the 20th century. I think we wanna run toward those things in the 21st century.

Because the 21st century is a completely different economy. It’s a completely different set of values and interests.

Severe: Talk about the homegrown intern program. You sent me a great piece on that. It was very interesting, getting these young people to go back. One guy even started his own business there . . .

Yost: Sure. So the whole idea of hometown interns was, it always occurred to me that having an internship was kind of hard because you have to meet a whole bunch of new people and you have to learn a whole bunch of new skills. And you’re 19 years old.

It’s an interesting learning opportunity, but . . . what if you actually help the degree of difficulty of that be decreased? So the original idea was what if somebody who grew up in that community came back and did an internship in that community during college?

They already have all these relationships in place…They’re bringing all the benefits of a year or two of new perspective from college back to this thing that they know really well. You can see it with new eyes, with the hope being that they can then use that with people that they already know and trust to be able to ask really, really authentic questions about what if . . . What if we thought about doing this? What if we brought technology to bear on this particular thing?

What if we, what if we did this in the school system? What if we did this for childcare and early childhood development? What if we did this with historic preservation?

But all of the enthusiasm of somebody that’s 19, 20, 21 years old . . . So very smart, very articulate, but still very, very young in their professional or adult journey.

And then we use our asset based community development practice to help these interns do what’s called asset mapping in their particular place. So in some of the places we’ve done this, who are all the people in this community that are artisans?   They might be crafters, they might be quilters, they might be wood makers, they might be makers, painters that write. And what are all the things that then could be brought together through (them)?

There’s now a festival in Ord, specifically connected to the accordion.

Because of this whole arts asset mapping work they did really begin to uncover these hidden assets. And one of the things we always talk about within asset-based community development is we’re always interested in a process of discovery and no one person knows everything.

So how do you continually be in dialogue with lots and lots of people? And ask them questions, not about what’s wrong. What’s right, what’s awesome, what are you really proud of? What are the things we should know about here and, and really appreciate? And a big part of that is young people having the opportunity to then help elders in their place reshape the narrative.

One of the reasons that people have been disinvesting in rural Nebraska for a long time is because we haven’t had a very good narrative. . . So your question about are these towns gonna be here or not? What we’re trying to help people do is, well, there are choices . . . there isn’t just some destiny here.

You, you can impact your future. And a big part of that is people believing and then manifesting that hope into a plan for how do we make sure that this community continues to be stable, relevant, and then prosperous going into the future. And usually that’s because we all band together and get things done.

We’ve helped lots and lots of communities do refurbishments to their civic hall. We’ve helped lots and lots of folks work on elements of a trail system. You know, something that’s very tangible and usually not incredibly capital intensive, but something that they can say, yes, we got that done.

Because then I’m a big believer that success begets success. And then, and then we start working on the next piece.

Severe: Yeah. We were talking about younger people moving back to where they grew up. But like my father-in-law moved back to St. Paul, Nebraska.

Yost: Nice. St. Paul’s a lovely little place.

Severe: It is a great little town, but it’s also built around, you know, they have (major league pitching legend) Grover Cleveland Alexander and they have the baseball museum. They have stuff built in there. If a community doesn’t have that, What’s the easiest way to get it started?

Yost: Every community has it.

Severe: They have something.

Yost: They have something. Plainview has a clown museum.

Severe: Really?

Yost: There’s just, you know, a gazillion little things. I mean, Cawker City, Kansas, has the biggest ball of twine. Yes. Just pick your thing. Every little town has it. And every little town is full of amazing.

Sometimes it may not be a tangible thing. Sometimes it may be the culture.  Sometimes it may be the relationships that already exist there. Sometimes there may be certain legacies that they wanna perpetuate. Yeah. Those are all good things. They’re all really amazing assets to be able to build this off of.

And then one of the things that starts happening is, goodness does beget goodness. So people begin to see the modeling behavior. I want to be a part of that. Right.

Quick story for you. So we’ve done a lot of work in Burwell and and the fund there is called the Calamus Fund because it’s for Garfield and Loup County, because it’s the Calamus River and the Calamus Reservoir.

In the history of that fund over the past 26 or 27 years, they now have almost 6,000 people that have made gifts to that. Which is dramatically more people than live in those two counties. Wow. They’ve created a culture of we’re gonna constantly reinvest in the future of this place. So metrics like that are incredibly important to us because much of what we’re trying to do in the Nebraska Community Foundation, we’re trying to help people adopt a better set of habits.

As Nebraskans we’re habitual. That’s not a problem. It’s awesome. And we’re trying to help lots and lots of people create a better set of habits. Not only in their charitable giving, but especially in the way they talk to their neighbors, their friends and especially in how they talk to their kids,

Severe: Not pushing you out of the job. You know, you’re older than I am.

Yost: Now, now, now, be nice.

Severe:  Well, you, you said (you graduated high school) in ‘86. I’m ‘87 and gray. You look at the future of the foundation and kind of your legacy in it. What do you see in that crystal ball?

Yost: Oh, just all sorts of goodness. I continue to think of the Nebraska Community Foundation as an adolescent.

Severe: Really? Oh, yeah, I guess so. Yeah. Um, if you’re talking generations, yeah.

Yost: I’ve been here for 25 years. I was the first full-time employee at that time. We’re just getting started.  This is really just beginning to get its feet under it. Helping people to think about things differently,

You don’t turn that ship right away. That takes a long time to turn that ship.

What we are beginning to see from these hometown interns, from lots of our youth survey work, is that young peoples’ attitudes about their future of their hometowns are dramatically more optimistic than (older people).

So again, how do you lift that up and then again, help the adults to really think about this? So I think about my work, I’ve found my life’s work here and I’m delighted doing it, and I look forward to the opportunity to keep doing more and more of it. We have an extraordinary team and extraordinary network that’s doing all sorts of amazing leadership in all sorts of different ways.

So part of the time, my job is to get out of the way. Part of the time my job is just to be really, really supportive. And then I am incredibly optimistic about the future of this mission going decades into the future.

It scared some of my colleagues initially when I would say this, when I first started doing this work. And what I would say is I’m interested in working myself out of a job. And I, and I continue after all these years to be very, very interested in doing that because one of the big things we do here is we don’t do things for people, or to people. We only do things with people because communities can only be built by the people that live and work in them.

So we may have particular expertise, but we’re not residents. It’s your town, it’s your choices. So as we think through how we can be a really, really effective partner that continues to change. And in some places, what they needed help with 10 years ago, they don’t need that help anymore.

They need us to help them think about a whole series of new pieces. So one of the things that’s always very energizing to me is I have the opportunity every day here to think about what’s next. Andthat’s what we’re doing here, is we’re thinking about what’s next, not just for the Nebraska Community Foundation, but for Nebraska hometowns.

Severe: Jeff, we appreciate it. Thanks for taking the time.

Yost: Mike’l. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.


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