Jeff Yost: The Tie that Binds

By Jeff Yost

Over the past several years I have had the honor of working and sharing ideas with John McKnight, a renowned community development pioneer. He recently asked me what Nebraska Community Foundation has learned about how money helps communities to build enduring social capital.

Of course, financial capital is a familiar term to everyone. But “social capital”? We may not often use that term to describe all the truly remarkable, positive developments happening in our Nebraska hometowns. But we know it when we see it.

Simply put, social capital is measured by the number and depth of mutually beneficial, trusting relationships that build shared values and identity. At its best, it reinforces the golden rule. Social capital produces public good for a common good.

Across the Nebraska Community Foundation’s network of 221 affiliated funds, over 1,700 community volunteers are marrying financial and social capital to create hometowns that will attract and nurture young families. They are building unrestricted endowments – permanent funds that will continue to grow and generate earnings for community reinvestments, forever. Our volunteers are not hiring professional fund raisers; they are not writing grant proposals to build their unrestricted endowments. Instead, they are asking their friends, families and neighbors to believe in the future of their hometown. And to give back to pay it forward.

One of the best examples of this growing phenomenon can be found in McCook (pop. 7,698).

Seven years ago, McCook Community Foundation Fund’s unrestricted endowment totaled about $181,000. Affiliated fund volunteers were offered a challenge grant and quickly met their two-to-one match 20 months ahead of schedule. This added $750,000 to their unrestricted endowment. Almost immediately, the Fund accepted another challenge, this one from the Arvene and Neva Myers family. The successful completion of this challenge raised another $270,000. Within four years, the community had built an unrestricted endowment valued at $1.3 million.

The growth in assets greatly increased the Fund’s capacity to distribute more high-impact grants from the earnings on its endowment – in addition to the nearly 30 separate accounts the Fund holds for designated purposes ranging from youth entrepreneurship to leadership opportunities.

But there are many more community assets – both financial and human – in place and ready to be realized. McCook is a hotspot for arts and culture. For 20 years it has hosted the Buffalo Commons storytelling festival. The Prairie Roots music festival draws hundreds. On a regular basis, people pack the Bieroc Café to enjoy both local and national touring acts.

Not surprisingly, when Susan Stuart of Lincoln honored her parents, Walt and Jean Sehnert, by offering a $100,000, two-to-one challenge grant earlier this year, the match was quickly met. Ms. Stuart then doubled her challenge, and the Fund accepted. More than two dozen volunteers and donors are now actively inviting their friends and neighbors to pay it forward with pledges and contributions for the “Sehnert Challenge,” for arts, culture and community. Over 100 families who consider McCook home have made gifts and pledges to meet this challenge grant.

What an amazing community development story. The process of raising the financial match is simultaneously building social capital. The more community volunteers who are inviting their friends and neighbors to join them, the more connected they are to one another.

The community question in McCook is changing from “What do we need?” to “What can we do together?” This social capital, along with an unrestricted endowment, is helping community leaders create the hometown of their dreams. One that will attract and nurture young families.

Positive change that sticks happens along the lines of relationships at the speed of trust. What is your community doing to build the hometown of your dreams?

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