A few weeks ago, the staff of the Omaha Community Foundation gathered for a daylong retreat at Love's Jazz & Arts Center in north Omaha.
The mood was light, marked by casual dress and coffee and table spreads of candy, with a sense of lingering exhaustion.
One month earlier, the foundation had presented its first Omaha Gives! charitable challenge, a 24-hour marathon of online donations that raised more than $3 million for 318 nonprofit groups.
Now a facilitator led staffers through a brainstorming session on the future of Omaha Gives!, using phrases like “system map” and “tactical dashboard.” When he asked for descriptors to define the event, words like “community” and “collaborative” and “fun” came up.
When he asked if Omaha Gives! could happen more than once a year, everyone just laughed.
After two hours, a flip chart spelled out an ambitious vision for the event. It represented the collective thoughts of the staff, some veterans, some recent hires.
One of the most tenured, Sara Boyd, took the floor. If most of the room seemed ready for a break, Boyd looked like she was just getting started — and in a way, she was.
After 12 years with the organization, Boyd, 36, takes over this week as its leader, replacing retiring CEO Mike Leighton. The transition effectively began months ago, so at the retreat, eyes turned to her.
Boyd could tell the group needed a break, so she assured everyone that lunch was on the way.
But first she wanted to set the tone for the afternoon, to get everyone thinking about the organization's direction. As she said, “Where are we going from here?”
Boyd's promotion comes, if not at a crossroads for the Omaha Community Foundation, then at the next phase in its growth.
Established in 1982 as a middleman of sorts between affluent donors and the charities they wanted to support, the foundation has grown into one of the largest philanthropic entities in the state. In 1989, it reported assets of about $4 million; today assets exceed $650 million. And while the organization's core business continues to be donor accounts, its axis is tilting.
Over the past decade, the foundation nearly quadrupled its donor accounts, in part through a “charitable checkbook” service that allows anyone with $1,000 to open a giving account.
Marketing became a priority, too. If the phrase “Let Good Grow” rings a bell, or if you remember a spot for the foundation during a pay-per-view Husker game a few years back, you picked up on the campaign.
In May, Omaha Gives! became the latest and most visible indication of the foundation's intent to broaden its footprint, bringing anyone with $10 to spare into the world of philanthropy.
“The greatest asset that we have at this foundation in my judgment today is the participation of the community,” Boyd said recently, from the foundation's first-floor offices at the Blackstone building near 36th and Farnam Streets. “When you're a startup, you've got to go for assets, you've got to go for the actual money... But if we don't have a solid and expansive base of participation, then we're just a function of convenience for a few people.”
No one knows the foundation better than Boyd, who joined the staff barely a year out of college and has spent the past three years as chief operating officer.
Last fall, when Leighton revealed his plan to retire, the foundation's board of directors might have launched a national search for his replacement. Current chairman and former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey grants that this would have been reasonable.
Instead they looked down the hall.
“What we have with Sara is someone who has done just about every job there,” Fahey said.
In Leighton's first days as CEO in 2003, many of his phone calls ended with him visiting Boyd's office for insight. He said it's easier to retire knowing she's his replacement.
“I can honestly say she and I never had a cross word,” he said. “She's very driven, she's very success-driven, and I would say she's very ambitious, but not in a negative way. She wants to do the best for her, her family and her community.”
Boyd started at the foundation in 2000 as development director. She already was well-connected with the philanthropic community. Her mother, Carol Russell, is widely recognized for her nonprofit volunteer service. Her father, Richard Russell, is president of Millard Lumber Co.
Still, Boyd hadn't anticipated the career move. When she graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a mathematics degree in 1999 — she always assumed a collegiate epiphany would inspire her to change her major, but it never materialized — Boyd took a job with a technology consulting firm, mostly because it meant living in Chicago.
She suspected life eventually would lead her home, but she wasn't in a rush. She had a serious boyfriend, a job that paid the rent in a cool new city and all the time in the world to build her life.
The following spring, she returned to Omaha for an event honoring her mother's volunteer work, and in a serendipitous turn — “I would have never connected with this opportunity (otherwise)” — she learned about an opening at the Omaha Community Foundation.
A few months later, she was back in Omaha to apply for the job. Her boyfriend (and now husband, Matt Boyd, a fundraiser for the University of Nebraska Foundation) came along. On the day of her interview, he peppered her with potential questions during a morning run, and something solidified in her mind.
“I remember thinking at that point: 'I really want to do this,'” she said.
During her first couple of years with the foundation, Boyd traveled back to Chicago on weekends, earning her MBA from the University of Chicago. Since then, she's picked up certificates from Harvard and Stanford.
“It was pretty clear to me that she wanted to head this organization, or some organization,” said Del Weber, who, as Leighton's predecessor, hired Boyd. “She's an intense person. She likes to have fun, but she's a very serious person. You don't (travel) to Chicago every weekend to get your master's degree unless you're a very driven person.”
Not everyone was so quick to spot a star. Some donors saw a kid just out of college.
“I appreciate that some people held back a little bit with me and said, 'I don't know who you are. You're pretty young. I'm not sure that you'll be able to help me like you said you will,'” she said. “I really took that as a challenge, and I like challenges. I'm going to make it my role to convince you through my actions that I can do this.”
On a recent Tuesday, Boyd started her day early — 5 a.m. is normal — from a modest office (“It's got a computer and I've got a place to sit”) in her home near Lake Zorinsky. She likes to sift through email and get in some exercise before the rest of the house wakes. Once she gets moving for the day, she might not stop, so daybreak is her time to process.
She doesn't buy into the idea of work-life “balance”.
“Integration might be a better word,” she said. “How you integrate those elements of life so you feel healthy about it.”
Boyd connects her time with the foundation to the growth of her family. When she started, she was still single, though in a serious, long-distance relationship. As she's risen in the ranks, she's married and had three kids (ages 3, 5 and 7).
The loyalty she feels to the foundation ties back to family, too. Seven years ago, Boyd was preparing for an important meeting when she went into labor just 31 weeks into her pregnancy.
“It was such an uncertain time for me,” she said. “I had never been a parent. It was surreal for me that I was having this baby at the time.”
Her son, Jacob, remained hospitalized for five weeks, and as she cared for him, Boyd received a message of support from then board chairman Mike McCarthy.
“What I read into that was we're with you, and we'll figure it out,” she said. “And that was really the case.”
During her typically atypical Tuesday, Boyd zoomed all around town. By sundown, she'd met with a new Omaha CEO, convened with a board member to discuss fundraising, led staffers on a bike-share ride to a College World Series game for a team-building getaway and ducked away from the game to catch a meeting.
The schedule required three wardrobe changes, the last made discreetly in her minivan, a stealthy skill she learned as a kid involved in a wealth of extracurricular activities.
“Honestly, I kind of thrive on that,” she said of her hectic schedule. “I love it. The variety from day to day is what keeps me intrigued. And I'm learning every day.”
Early in her career with the foundation, Boyd accepted a second title as special assistant to Weber. She now believes he invented the position to train her for management — a theory Weber doesn't refute.
“Helping people to give money is a real art,” Weber said. “If you're not careful, what happens is wealthy people use it as their philanthropic bank. They get the write-offs, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be community-minded.”
The challenge, he said, is to help people to donate in ways helpful to the community. It's a balance — being in a position of authority when it comes to community need while empowering donors to make informative decisions.
“You have to be very sensitive to that,” Weber said. “Sara will be very good at that.”
Community leadership is a new focus for foundations across the country.
In part, that's out of necessity, according to Angela Eikenberry, a UNO professor who focuses on the nonprofit sector and philanthropy.
“Broadly, in the U.S., we want government to do less and less, but there are still needs,” she said. “There is a vacuum that community foundations are being forced to address, or play a leadership role in.”
Part of that role is bringing more people into the fold. Omaha Gives! is the most visible example yet of that ideal. Foundation communications director Kali Baker suggested it, patterned on similar events around the country, including one in Lincoln.
Leighton initially didn't buy into the concept.
“I just thought, this sounds like a lot of work for potentially not much result,” he said.
Boyd changed his mind, raising more than a half-million dollars in matching funds to spur excitement among nonprofits who had a vested interest in promoting the day. The final tally — more than $3 million — might have raised eyebrows, but another figure stood out: That money represented more than 19,000 donations.
For Boyd, Omaha Gives! strikes at the center of what has become a foundation priority: widespread participation — engaging not only those who can make large-sum donations, but, well, everyone.
“You've got to have a good cross-section of people to make sure you're doing the best you can with the community,” Boyd said. “And also hear the most representative voice.”
This summer, the Omaha Community Foundation partnered with the United Way and the Iowa West Foundation on a series of community “needs assessment” meetings, part of a larger effort to gather data that will, in theory, help direct charitable giving. For its part, the Omaha Community Foundation will have more information to provide donors, who will ultimately make the decision on how to contribute.
Boyd, who refers to herself as a “University of Chicago geek,” is excited about providing that information to nonprofits, too. The greatest good will come, she said, “if information is transparent and available to everyone.”
At Omaha North High School, about 200 people turned out for an evening meeting, participating in an electronic survey in exchange for $10 in grocery store certificates.
As consultants led the meeting, Boyd and her counterparts from the other host organizations roamed the room. When Mayor Jean Stothert arrived, they all gathered to welcome her.
A large screen showed real-time results of the survey. When it came time to identify the biggest community needs, “employment” and “education” drew the highest numbers.
The next morning, Boyd again started her day early, working from home before the retreat at Love's. That night, she was at Omaha South, where the fourth and final needs assessment meeting was held. Another 150 showed up. More numbers rolled in.
“The benefit and maybe the curse of a community foundation is it's a pretty flexible institution,” Boyd said. “You can do a lot of different things to affect a community, but you can't do them all. Especially well.”
The key is to make choices, to collect information and establish priorities for the future.
“You have to stand for something,” Boyd said. “What are those things?”