One of Omaha’s Core Business Values: Community Responsibility

I’ve been on the Board of Trustees of the Business Ethics Alliance for a few years now, and I’ve always enjoyed the programs and conversations that the BEA hosts. They’ve recently taken the conversations online and launched a blog. Dr. Beverly Kracher, the BEA’s fearless leader, asked me to write a piece that pertained to one of Omaha’s five core business values, Community Responsibility, and how it compares to that of other cities. I’ve cross-posted the piece below, but I encourage you to visit the BEA’s blog and connect with them on social media. They’re doing great work and worth your time, attention and involvement.

I’m an Omaha transplant and have come to love this city over the past 12 years I’ve lived here. One reason for my #Omalove is the city’s strong sense of community responsibility that permeates all its residents. It’s infectious.

To be clear, I’m not an expert on this topic. What I know and offer herein has been learned through several experiences and conversations over my career. And while I’ve been fortunate to interact with many of Omaha’s seasoned business leaders, I can’t say that we’ve had the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about Omaha’s ethic of community responsibility.

Furthermore, contrasting and comparing Omaha’s ethic of community responsibility to that of other cities is a bit of a challenge given that my entire professional career has primarily been spent in Omaha. I just simply don’t have the breadth of experiences to draw meaningful conclusions on my own.

To beef up my knowledge, I did what any true Gen X-er would do: I crowd-sourced my research. Yup, I’m talking about Facebook. A few days ago, I posted a couple questions, and the response was great. Several people offered some extremely enlightening perspectives on the topic at hand. Here’s what I learned:

Our Strength Has Been Our Cash

When it comes to financial contributions, Omaha is one of the most generous places in the country. As noted by the Omaha Community Foundation, Omaha ranks fourth nationally in per capita giving. Further evidence of our generosity, the Chronicle of Philanthropy compared charities’ donation figures from 2007 to 2010 and found a 177.9% increase in the Omaha Community Foundation’s numbers, second only to the Entertainment Industry Foundation, Hollywood’s leading charity. Foiled by George Clooney!

Anecdotal feedback backs up the statistics. At least a few folks in the nonprofit world noted that they exceed their national peers in their ability to obtain support from Omaha businesses. Those organizations that have the financial wherewithal to support organizations do so, and they do so in droves.

The Tide is Turning Toward Organizational Engagement

Many agreed and acknowledged that Omaha’s philanthropic strength has been financial, but several also noted that a shift is occurring towards more organizational engagement. One person wrote, “Empowered citizens, primarily younger, seem to be more apt at application of organizational strength in addition to money.”

I don’t think that older generations have not been involved personally or engaged their organizations. They have. I do, however, see many of my peers focusing organizational attention towards positive community impact. In my unscientific opinion, the reasons are twofold: 1) our younger, smaller businesses simply don’t have the financial resources, so they give their talents rather than their treasure, and 2) my generation seems to prefer a “hands-on” approach.

We May or May Not Be Strategic in Our Efforts

Perspectives seemed to be mixed when it came to whether or not Omaha businesses are really strategic about their involvement and philanthropy (includes time, talent and treasure). On one hand, a respected friend and nonprofit leader who has traveled the country noted that, “true philanthropy exists here – not just charity – where people are engaged in systems change versus just throwing money at particular issues.”

On the other hand, others indicated our generosity is often not directed toward the most important and pressing issues Omaha faces. The quote that really hit home for me: “In general we are very good at helping people, but we have a very hard time considering root causes and systemic failures…so we are very giving and responsive, but not so good at actually solving things.”

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle and can vary greatly based on several different variables. Either way, it was telling that people had such disparate opinions.

Somewhat relatedly, another respected friend suggested that it might be worthwhile to reconsider a suggestion Malcolm Gladwell made at the YP Summit a few years ago: agree as a community on just a few common issues or root causes and collectively focus on those rather than soothing the symptoms. Made me wonder what those few root issues would be in Omaha.

Omaha Values and Supports Efforts to Improve the Community

My wife Emily and I are honorary co-chairs (along with Michael and Laura Alley) for the Inclusive Communities Humanitarian Dinner this year. As we’ve reached out into our network to solicit support for the dinner, one thing has been abundantly clear in the response: even those that decline to sponsor the event express sincere gratitude for our efforts. They often repeatedly thank us for our work in the community and wish us nothing but the best. This response really opened my eyes to the value that businesses place on community involvement.

The more time I spend here and the more business leaders I interact with, it becomes clearer and clearer that community responsibility is one of our strongest ethics. The vast majority of people are absolutely dedicated to making Omaha a great place to live, work and play, and they often expend a great amount of resources to do what they can to move Omaha forward. It’s contagious, and I’m glad I caught it.

Onward and upward.

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