Rachel Jacobson sat in the sun-drenched picture window of Lola’s just as the coffee-drinking crowd was switching to wine and matinee-goers were lining up at the nearby concessions counter. Outside, Dodge Street traffic zipped by.
On both sides of the glass was a city full of life and possibility, a scene set for a rising star like Jacobson. The 41-year-old is tapped to cross a bigger stage this summer, leaving the independent art-house theater she started, Film Streams, for the big-money, big-projects nonprofit Heritage Services. Film Streams is a local amenity. Heritage builds local amenities.
Jacobson’s isn’t the only newly elevated name in the philanthropic world. Wendy Boyer is the new head of the Peter Kiewit Foundation. Donna Kush now has the top spot at Omaha Community Foundation. All three represent entities that aim for a public good and definitely shape city life.
Jacobson announced she’d be leaving Film Streams in late February, when Omaha was a pre-pandemic city. The only people with known novel coronavirus were the ones brought here by the federal government to heal. After Jacobson sat in that window March 11 things were rapidly changing. A pandemic was declared. President Donald Trump held a prime-time address. In the days that followed, life changed drastically.
Lola’s closed. Film Streams closed. Schools. Shops. Museums. Government offices. Major events like the College World Series — canceled. Outside of grocery and hardware stores, much of the city is hunkering down.
And the worst is yet to come.
Under other circumstances, these three newly minted civic leaders would have their hands full with the needs, desires and opportunities to build a better Omaha.
In a pre-coronavirus era, Jacobson, Boyer and Kush would be meeting other civic leaders, prospective donors and planners. They would begin charting the course for the future. The work would be hard but exciting.
Instead, each is grappling with what this still-to-peak pandemic will mean for Omaha. There are so many unknowns. This much is sure: Their jobs will change. Their roles at the heart of Omaha’s giving community will become more necessary in the weeks ahead.
The World-Herald wanted all three to meet for a photo, but because of social distancing, each had to take her turn standing solo, the city skyline in the back. It was hard finding words for this new chapter of city life.
“It’s like trying to relate it to 9/11,” Kush said, quickly adding that even that comparison to the terrorist attacks of 2001 falls short.
“This affects every single person’s life,” Boyer said.
It’s like being in hibernation, Jacobson said, pondering when it’s safe to come out, what reality will greet Omahans?
That question will be a guide as each woman navigates change from three different ships.
Donna Kush’s first day at the helm of Omaha Community Foundation was March 23, one week into the city’s clampdown on gatherings.
The community foundation collects and invests donor dollars, researches local needs and tries to match both. It’s a top-tier organization nationally with one of the highest rates of per capita giving. Last year, the foundation gave $169 million.
“We are constantly asking ourselves, ‘What is it that donors need? What do nonprofits need?’ ” Kush said.
The answer was: coronavirus assistance. On March 14, local philanthropists established a response fund through the community foundation that will focus first on basic needs like food and housing, then on health care expenses and finally on long-term recovery.
As of Friday, the fund had reached half a million dollars, with about $235,000 distributed.
Kush knows that donors are strained by a down stock market and by massive income and job losses. Nonprofits are struggling in the downturn. The needs and work ahead will be huge.
Kush, 50, a native of the small Nebraska town of Monroe — about a two-hour drive west of Omaha — is no stranger to tightly stitched communities. Her graduating class was 11. Her long career in Omaha has given her deep ties in corporate and philanthropic life here.
She worked in communications and public affairs for TD Ameritrade and Union Pacific. She has served on the Omaha Sports Commission, the Invest Nebraska board and Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce.
Connie Ryan, president and CEO of Streck Inc. and chairwoman of the foundation board, said Kush is the right leader for the moment.
“She’s a very talented person with lots of community relationships who understands how to build partnerships,” Ryan said.
Ryan said the coronavirus will lay bare some longtime Omaha challenges like housing and job preparation and will give new urgency toward fixing those.
“Nothing can ever stay the same after this,” Ryan said. “This is a catalyst for change. We’ll be rethinking our priorities.”
Wendy Boyer took the reins in early February at the Peter Kiewit Foundation, where she’d worked for the past five years as director of programs.
The foundation was created in 1979, the year its namesake died. Peter Kiewit had lived through the influenza pandemic of 1918 and built his construction empire.
He was deeply invested in Omaha, at one point rescuing this newspaper from chain ownership and giving it a long run under an employee ownership structure. Boyer’s husband, Jeff Carney, is a former World-Herald photojournalist who works as corporate director of digital content for Lee Enterprises, which now owns the newspaper.
Kiewit was among the first major foundations in the city, and its focus has been on projects that build communities — whether that’s concrete projects like the downtown mall or building people. Kiewit knew that engaged citizens are vital.
Boyer, 59, is an Omaha native who graduated from Burke High and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
She formerly served as an Omaha Public Schools elementary teacher and assistant principal, and still, after jobs at Mutual of Omaha and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, sees herself as an educator.
She said her time in North and South Omaha classrooms showed her the richness of the city’s community and potential. And given a labor crunch in high-demand tech and engineering fields, she said Omaha has to respond by developing STEM skills, especially in economically disadvantaged youths. She said leadership ranks need to be more diversified.
“How do we support that or create that within our ecosystem? How do we invite others to the table?” she said.
The focus right now is on the coronavirus and how the foundation will need to respond.
“It will not be ‘business as usual,’ ” Boyer said. “We understand that this could be a long recovery.”
Kiewit Foundation Board Chairman Mogens Bay, chairman of Valmont Industries, said Boyer is well suited to help guide the recovery efforts, saying she has “a quiet competence” and “not a big ego,” is a team player and “a straight thinker.”
“She doesn’t take things and make them complicated,” Bay said.
Boyer said she’s clear-eyed about what’s ahead: collaboration, innovation and resilience.
“We will get through this together,” she said, “and come out stronger on the other side.”
Jacobson doesn’t begin her new role until July 1.
Unlike the other two foundations, Heritage Services’ mission isn’t front-line oriented. The organization was created to plan, raise money and build long-lasting structures that enhance life in Omaha.
Over the past 30 years, the organization has shepherded improvements to local museums, stadiums at Central and South High Schools and massive entertainment venues like CHI Health Center, TD Ameritrade Park and Baxter Arena. It turned the old Border’s into Do Space. It responds to social-service needs with the Kroc Center in South Omaha and the Siena Francis House’s new homeless shelter. Heritage currently is involved in the $300 million remake of downtown’s old Gene Leahy Mall.
During that entire time, Sue Morris has executed the projects for Heritage donors. Morris said that her transition has been in the works for a while and that she’ll continue to work in another philanthropic role in Omaha.
She and Jacobson gave examples of how, in the midst of crisis, it is also important to consider the big picture.
After the 2001 attacks, a pair of Heritage donors debated whether they should pursue buying a Rodin sculpture as planned or if the money should go toward the emergency at hand, Morris recalled. Art won. Two decades later, the sculpture remains in Omaha.
Jacobson was living in New York City at the time and working for an arts organization that, in the weeks following the attacks, received a $10,000 donation from Michael Bloomberg, who was elected mayor after Rudy Giuliani was term-limited out. Bloomberg had given millions to arts organizations following 9/11, realizing that while emergency response was the focus, nonprofits also were struggling, and he wanted New Yorkers to live in a city that hadn’t lost everything.
She can’t say yet how Heritage might respond to the coronavirus. She’s not at the helm yet and Omaha has not peaked with the virus. One model predicts more than 400 coronavirus deaths by July 1, when Jacobson will start.
This much is certain: She will bring an arts background and track record of being able to start and finish projects, a quality of vital importance to Heritage, said Omaha businessman and Heritage board member Mike McCarthy.
Alexander Payne, the Omaha native, Oscar-winning film director and founding Film Streams board member, said Jacobson will serve Omaha well in her upcoming role.
“She’s the ultimate diplomat,” Payne said. “She’s a very affectionate, compassionate people person. And very effective. That’s what’s gotten her this far.”
He credited Heritage leaders for choosing someone who will “challenge them when they need to be opposed and bring them new ideas they might not have thought of.”
When I met Jacobson in early March at Lola’s, evidence of her success was apparent in the people streaming through the door to get a bite or see a movie.
Pre-pandemic, Jacobson had felt good about handing off her baby to committed board and crackerjack staff, including deputy director Casey Logan, who will serve as interim executive director.
That still holds, though she’s worried about how the organization and city will emerge. Conservative spending and solid fundraising have given Film Streams enough money in the bank to pay staff through the end of April. The print newsletter is going to go digital. But Jacobson’s final weeks there will be crisis management.
She said massive change and a realignment of values are coming.
“This,” she said, “is a profound moment.”
So far, Nebraska has been able to keep its virus curve rate relatively low, but hundreds more deaths are predicted. A record number of Nebraskans have filed for unemployment assistance. Gov. Pete Ricketts has warned this month will be especially tough.
But the leaders of all three helper organizations were clear-eyed and hopeful about the path ahead. They say it will involve hard work, sacrifice and collaboration. They say Omaha is lucky to have a strong philanthropic spirit and commitment.
Kush said Omaha always comes together in a crisis, whether flood or pandemic, and emerges with a stronger infrastructure.
“We learn,” she said.
Boyer said the city’s strength is its people.
“We are resilient,” she said.
Jacobson counted blessings. Omaha’s strong philanthropic community. The Nebraska Medical Center’s pivotal role. The extraordinary health care workforce.
The challenge before us is big, she said. So is the call to work together.