Kelly: As city gives, Omaha Community Foundation transitions -
Published Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 1:30 am / Updated at 10:13 pm
Kelly: As city gives, Omaha Community Foundation transitions

In the Omaha area and throughout the Midlands, generosity is a given.

But this Wednesday is an especially good time for people to “give it up” and donate to nonprofit groups — the first “Omaha Gives!” day.

It comes at a time of transition for the sponsoring Omaha Community Foundation. CEO Michael Leighton is retiring soon at 65, to be succeeded by Sara Boyd, 36.

She will become the first woman to head the foundation, and she will do so about the time that Jean Stothert is sworn into office as Omaha's first woman mayor.

“We're taking over,” Boyd quipped.

Omaha investor Warren Buffett made international news this month by calling for equal treatment of women in the workplace. As women take leadership roles in business, he said, the U.S. economy stands to gain.

Is the rise of women to top leadership in Omaha government and philanthropy a step forward?

“I would like to say so,” Boyd replied. “We have a lot of work to be done yet in Omaha, but I think there is progress. Omaha is doing better on that and in many other areas all the time.”

What will help the Omaha area achieve its potential in all areas, she said, is getting everyone involved. And that includes involvement in philanthropy.

“We want to increase giving locally, and its impact,” she said. “The outcome is a better community. But it doesn't just happen. A community like this is not an accident. There's a lot of intentionality and quiet action that drives that.”

The intention of “Omaha Gives!” is to encourage everyone to action — donating as little as $10 to nonprofit agencies during a 24-hour charitable challenge at

More than 300 participating nonprofits will be eligible to receive matching funds and prizes through the community foundation.

Kali Baker, the foundation's director of communications, suggested the idea for the day after seeing success in other cities. She said “giving days” also have resulted in a good percentage of first-time donors.

Leighton, who departs the foundation June 30, said he hopes the 24-hour drive is “wildly successful for the hard-working nonprofits in our area.”

Boyd called it “one big charitable party before Mike leaves.”

Omaha Gives! is new, but the foundation is not. Since its inception in 1982 as a kind of pass-through organization — helping people with donations to various recipients — donors have given more than $906 million to 1,600 charitable organizations.

Boyd, a foundation staff member for 13 years and more recently its president and chief operating officer, said Leighton has done a “phenomenal” job of increasing donors.

In his 10 years as CEO, the foundation has helped direct $670 million in grants to nonprofits. And the number of donor accounts has increased nearly 250 percent.

A 1970 Creighton University graduate, Leighton then worked at Creighton for 32 years, including as chief fundraiser, before joining the community foundation.

Few things in the Omaha area, he said, are not affected by philanthropy, which has helped build major, visible projects.

Beyond that, he said, “are things you don't see — the people who are being sheltered and fed, the children being protected, the tremendous arts and cultural activities underwritten to a very large extent by philanthropy.”

People elsewhere, he said, are beginning to notice what's going on here.

“As we travel around the country,” Leighton said, “people say, 'What's in the water in Omaha?' I joke that we started sprinkling philanthropy pills in the water supply.”

After a decade as CEO, he said, it seemed like the right time to retire and spend more time with his wife, Mary, and their children and grandchildren. What made it easier, he said, was that Boyd was more than qualified to take over.

He recommended to the foundation board that it not undertake a national search and to appoint her as CEO, which is what happened.

“Sara is very, very intelligent and well-connected,” Leighton said, “and I think her interest in philanthropy comes genetically because her parents are such great volunteers in the community. She has prepared herself intellectually, she understands the business and she's just got a great personality for it.”

Her parents are Richard and Carol Russell of the Millard Lumber Co. family. Two of their sons work there, but Sara chose not to do so.

“People ask why I didn't go into the family business, and I say I did — I went into the non-paying half of the family business,” she said. “I hoped to make a profession out of what they did, volunteerism.”

A 1995 graduate of Millard South High School, Sara was elected student body president at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and served as a student member of the university Board of Regents.

She worked in Chicago before joining the Omaha Community Foundation in 2000. She earned an MBA on weekends over 2½ years from the University of Chicago and has attended seminars at Stanford and Harvard.

Sara and husband Matt Boyd have three children, ages 7, 5 and 3. Matt is a fundraiser for the University of Nebraska Foundation.

She joked that when they are out in public as a couple, people whisper, “Don't make eye contact. It's the Boyds, and they'll ask you for something.”

Fortunately, she said, people say yes to good causes. And she hopes that on Wednesday, Omaha gives — with an exclamation point.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132,

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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