Jeff Yost: The momentum behind a movement

By Jeff Yost

During one of the most unpredictable years in recent history, Greater Nebraskans refused to give up. We rolled up our sleeves, wiped our brows and continued our march toward a brighter tomorrow in 2020, and we’re carrying our momentum into 2021.

Our upward trajectory is apparent in five communities where volunteers recently raised a combined $3.75 million to pursue hometown dreams. By the end of 2020, Nebraska Community Foundation affiliated funds in Howells, Columbus, Imperial, Keith County and Stuart had each met a $500,000 fundraising goal. Their success means each will receive a $250,000 match for a grand total of $750,000. That money goes straight into their affiliated fund’s unrestricted community endowment—a savings account that grows forever and provides perpetual annual payout which offers volunteers opportunities to award locally-controlled grants for community betterment.

Thirteen communities took part in this effort—we call it Building Community Capacity—between 2012 and 2020, including McCook, Nebraska City, Norfolk, Shickley, Brown County, Pender-Thurston, Plattsmouth, Valley County, Columbus, Stuart, Imperial, Howells and Keith County. Campaigns began by investigating the roots of their community assets. Inspired by an inclusive rural development philosophy, volunteers dove deep into what makes their hometowns unique. These endowments were built by local volunteers inviting friends and neighbors to build community together.

This was about more than money. What people might see from outside – financial capital, success, growth—is only the tip of the iceberg. To reach that point, volunteers build relationships, strategize and plan their next steps behind the scenes. These community leaders turned the spotlight on improving community confidence and advancing a culture where everyone’s input matters—essential work that is hard to quantify. To achieve lasting, transformational change, leaders built genuine relationships with their neighbors and championed giving by everyone in the community, whether through dollars, talent, time or creativity.

Shickley, population 341, now has an unrestricted community endowment of $2.3 million, and 12 donors are planning to benefit Shickley through their estate plan.

“It was very important to our community,” said Shickley’s Richard Walter. “It gave us a big boost. Of course, the $750,000 infusion of cash to our unrestricted endowment was important, but the most important outcome was the interaction with the other communities. The exchange of ideas, and the creation of new friendships were transformational.”

We anticipated community leaders would gain a new understanding of opportunities in their hometowns. Volunteers exceeded expectations. All told, these communities raised upwards of $9 million for their unrestricted endowments. They are among the 80 NCF affiliated funds with an unrestricted endowment—46 of which have an annual payout of more than $10,000. Altogether, these unrestricted endowments total more than $60 million—a substantial increase from $12 million in 2012.

We are seeing a tremendous increase in newcomers, stayers and returners, thanks in part to efforts like Building Community Capacity. Unrestricted community endowments allow volunteers to go the extra mile and magnetize their hometowns through bolstering projects and programs that would have otherwise been out of reach. When people see the transformational capacity of these funds, they are drawn to become part of successful communities.

“We know we can finally really Turn Up the Dream Switch,” said Leanne Maxwell, chair of the Brown County Community Foundation Fund, a Round 2 participant. “Instead of only being able to consider the traditional grants, we can now really believe in much bigger grant possibilities. We know we can collaborate with other individuals and organizations to work toward and complete projects that were once unattainable. For instance, a new childcare center hopefully will someday be a reality, not just a dream.” Brown County now has an unrestricted endowment of $1.6 million.

Grants from these unrestricted endowments are creating change that may otherwise not occur. Some examples include affordable housing development in Keith County, early childhood development in Boone County, non-traditional scholarships in Nebraska City, K-12 curriculum enhancement in Shickley, entrepreneurship and small business development in Valley County, youth engagement in Norfolk and leadership development in Brown County.

Building Community Capacity is just one indicator of the momentum building. NCF affiliated funds now benefit 272 hometowns in 83 Nebraska counties. Twenty NCF affiliated funds received gifts of at least $100,000 between July and December. In the past ten years, assets in the NCF network have tripled, and now total $211 million. At least $30 million is being reinvested in Nebraska hometowns every year.

For years Nebraska Community Foundation’s network of volunteers gathered in community centers and assembly rooms, putting their heads together to foster a mindset of abundance. They identified collective strengths and then drafted blueprints to harness them. Their passion for their hometowns inspired. Soon, their friends, family and neighbors joined the movement, too. When regular people realize they can affect change in their communities, anything is possible. The future is bright, and we’re going to go further, faster, together.