Posts Tagged ‘Money’

Philanthropy: For the greater good – Omaha’s legacy of giving continues in old and new hands

December 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Money makes the world go round.  It may not buy happiness, but it sure helps to have some when it’s most needed.  All manner of causes and endeavors need a helping hand from those privileged enough to have a surplus and to have a generous nature in sharing those riches.  It is the rare nonprofit in this or any town that can survive without the aid of benefactors and philanthropists.  These charitable givers help keep the lights on, fund programs and services, and otherwise keep the organzations they support running and their staff employed.  This cover spread I did for the December 2015 issue of The Reader ( gives a brief run down on some of Omaha’s philanthropic heavyweights, including Michael and Gail Yanney, Todd and Betiana Simon, Paul and Annette Smith and that old lion of local philanthrophy, Dick Holland.


Philanthropy: For the greater good – Omaha’s legacy of giving continues in old and new hands

Michael and Gail Yanney

Todd and Betiana Simon

Paul and Annette Smith

Old Lion of giving Dick Holland promotes change and progress through philanthropy

©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (

Omaha’s old lion of philanthropy Dick Holland slowing down but still roaring and challenging the status quo

December 4, 2015 1 comment

Nebraska has one of the highest per capita millionaire ratios in the nation and that stinking rich club includes a gallery of characters from all walks of life.  One of the most colorful is Dick Holland.  The Omahan’s penchant for unscripted, off-the-cuff, colloquial-style remarks is refreshing in this all too polished and canned age.  Here is a new profile I did about him for The Reader (  It’s part of a larger look at philanthropy and philanthropists in the December 2015 issue.  Following this piece is a shorter one I did on some of his fellow charitable givers: Michael and Gail Yanney, Todd and Betiana Simon and Paul and Annette Smith.  Like any town of any size, Omaha has a mix of old and new money and these philanthropists represent a nice blend of each.


Omaha’s old lion of philanthropy Dick Holland slowing down but still roaring and challenging the status quo

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (

Omaha’s philanthropic heavyweights are generally male, old-monied Great White Fathers whose wealth and influence support health, human services, education and the arts.

A veteran of this deep-pocketed fraternity is Richard D. Holland. The Omaha native came from an upper middle class family that produced high achievers. Holland took over his father’s small advertising firm and built it into the metro’s second largest agency but his real fortune came from investing with Warren Buffett.

An entrepreneur from the jump, he ran an ice house that fronted for a bookie operation, he probed rail grain shipments, he sold Fuller brushes door to door, he cut lawns and he did janitorial work.

“I found out kind of early I didn’t want to work for somebody – I wanted to be my own boss,” he says.

He also served a stint in the Chemical Corps during World War II.

“It’s obvious I learned a lot as I went along.”

“There were disappointments in all the things I did,” he says, but it taught him the resilience he finds lacking in many today. He advises young people that “by trying out things regardless of what they are you begin to gain confidence.”

According to the occupational assessment inventory developed by his late star psychologist brother John “Jack” Holland, he’s an investigative, artistic, entrepreneurial type. Those traits, along with some luck, helped him amass wealth.

The Holland Foundation he and his late wife Mary Holland established reported assists of $150 million in 2014.

Like his first generation philanthropic cronies, Holland’s a Great Depression and Second World War product. While they largely operate behind the scenes on capital and building campaigns. Holland’s an outlier who speaks bluntly and publicly about things he’s passionate about. That’s in stark contrast to his peers, who parse words in carefully prepared press releases and sound bites devoid of personality and controversy.

Where others prefer uniformity, Holland, a science geek, favors chaos theory. He’s the rogue who says what’s on his mind not only behind closed doors but in interviews and letters to the editor and lets the chips fall where they may. He’s equally capable being a team player or going his own way. For example, when an organization he helped found and fund, Building Bright Futures, balked at doing lobbying and research he favored, he cut ties with it to form two organizations of his own – Holland Children’s Movement and Holland Children’s Institute – charged with those two priorities, respectively.

This Europhile’s opinionated critiques of what he deems American lapses can come off as the bluster of a crusty, crotchety old man. Like what he says or not, he puts his money where his mouth is.

The ultra progressive Holland is a robust Democratic Party political contributor. He proudly proclaims his liberal leanings and Unitarian beliefs by supporting humanistic public policies and rigorously questioning things. Unlike some fellow travelers, he favors giving the undeserved tools or means for success rather than hand-outs.

This blend of pragmatist and creative studied art at what’s now the University of Nebraska at Omaha and spent his salad days wooing ad clients. His agency devised campaigns for industrial clients, including Valmont, and political candidates.

His philosophy on giving is getting “results,” and “making ideas a reality.” “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big in order to get something done.” He does his homework before committing funds. “I’m not throwing money at it.” He says he makes his donations public because “I’ve learned I actually influence a few people. I’m sure if somebody hears I’m into anything big they say, ‘Well, he’s not just playing around.’ I hope it’s true.” He uses the same art of persuasion he practiced as a Mad Man trying to win others over to his way of thinking.

“Some of the great lessons I learned in advertising, like how to talk to people to try and convince them of an idea, have served me well.”

He adamantly endorses America providing free prenatal care and early childhood education for all at-risk families. He says the presence or absence of that care and education is often the difference between success and failure in school and later in life.

“Brain research indicates what happens to a child between 0 and 3 is far more important than anything else that happens to him in his life in terms of growing up and becoming a productive citizen. It’s a truth I’m trying to get across to the rest of society. Hell, yes, I’m trying to influence public opinion. ”

He considers his advocacy for early childhood ed the most important thing he’s ever supported. “Oh, absolutely.”

He envisions a large, central funding apparatus to support another passion, the arts, but rues it iall take someone younger to launch it.

“I see the future not being so much private but much more public,” says the man for whom the Holland Performing Arts Center is named. “I don’t see the enormous private fortunes coming along in Omaha where they can make $100 million gifts.”

Holland points out that some of the biggest local fortunes were made by early Warren Buffett investors like himself and by the heads of dynastic companies. Both groups are dying out and there isn’t necessarily new rich blood replacing them.


He says the more cosmopolitan Omaha that’s emerged was a long time coming as the city’s economic base transitioned from blue collar industrial to white collar professional and things like the arts became more valued quality of life measures

“We had a helluva time getting over the fact we were a cow town. That was Omaha’s original wealth. We had all the great packing plants. That whole thing just disappeared and a new system or class replaced it.”

Like his peers, Holland’s giving includes many education initiatives. He funded the Robert T. Reilly Professorship of Communications at UNO named in honor of his old advertising partner. Holland monies established the Cardiovascular Research Laboratories at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He helped found the Nebraska Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. He backed the purchase of a supercomputer at the Peter Kiewit Institute in the Holland Computing Center.

He’s equally bullish in his arts philanthropy. “I suppose it really began in the mid-’80s and really got going in the late ’90s.” His lead donations enabled construction of the Holland Performing Arts Center and renovation of the Orpheum Theatre.

“I was on a symphony committee about building a new home and every time we had a meeting we had great ideas and no money. I got to talking to Sue Morris of Heritage Services because I knew about its work with the Joslyn and so on. That was Bob Dougherty and Walter Scott getting together the fat cats. Bob was after me on it and then it was the SAC museum. Coming home from some meeting he and Walter were talking and they said we ought to set up a permanent organization to take on some of these things important to the city,”

That something became Omaha Performing Arts and Holland says his two giving buddies “are greatly to be complimented because few cities have this.” He recalls a backstage inspection at the Orpheum revealed an antiquated theater ill-equipped to accommodate large touring shows. “It was just dismal. I think that viewing of the Orpheum opened some eyes to the need and things began to move after that.”

The Hollands made the biggest gift and later gave more but he credits others for actually making the Orpheum project happen.

“Without Heritage I don’t think we would have got it done then. Sue (Morris) is a wonderful gatherer. She also understands construction.”

Adapting the Orpheum from a vaudeville and movie house into “a full-blown theater” hosting Broadway shows before record crowds paid off.

“Hell, we have tours coming that take two weeks to load-in with eight over-the-road trailers. Elaborate damn things. That wouldn’t have been possible without that work. We reseated it, too. Cut out one aisle to make a better line-of-sight. We brightened it up. It’s a lovely place. If you had to duplicate it today you better start with $150 to $200 million.

Besides being home to the symphony, the Holland Center hosts dozens of shows a year across the live arts spectrum.

He’s proud of how generously Omaha supports its arts, as most recently evidenced by community giving that made the new Blue Barn Theatre possible. But he bemoans the way funding’s done.

“Our support of the arts leaves everybody gasping at the end of every year over a lack of funds. This to me we don’t see the arts is an economic engine for the whole damn society. Major donors tend to be heads of companies, corporations and generally they’re not artistics in the sense of having great artistic interests. The net is they dismiss the arts – there’s a lack of understanding of value.

“Nobody’s ever nailed down that value but I always think about European cities where they think nothing of putting up millions for operas and symphonies and privately and publicly support them because they recognize a major industry for Vienna or Berlin or Paris is the arts. And it’s not just the performing arts – it’s museums, galleries.”




Dick Holland is pictured in his Omaha home on Oct. 2, 2012.


He feels America must move away from its haphazard support to something more consistent and equitable but he concedes that sea change requires a new mindset.

“At the present time most of the arts struggle. Funding is dispersed, it’s spread around, there’s no leadership of it. That’s one of the reasons why I think a great coalition is needed.”

He says if the city can invest $150 million to build TD Ameritrade Park for the two-week College World Series there’s no reason it can’t invest similarly in arts that serve audiences year-round. It galls him that the public sector leaves the bulk of arts funding to the private sector.

He feels Omaha could capitalize more on its existing amenities and perhaps expand offerings to become a regional destination.

“It almost defies anybody saying the arts don’t amount to much because of all these things going on and the audiences that go there. In the 10 years since the opening of the Holland and the refurbishing of the Orpheum we’ve had millions of people pass through. Those people came from not just Omaha or the outlying districts. We’ve done studies which indicate that maybe 20 or 25 percent and once in a while as high as 40 percent come from beyond. It’s a support for the restaurants, hotels, parking garages-lots, shops and so on.

“I think there’s an enormous amount to be gained by making Omaha a Middle Western city that is well known for its arts.”

For him, it’s part of the calculus that makes a city livable and attractive.

“I think what’s greatly underestimated is why people come to Omaha and want to live here. One of the economic engines is the Med Center. I’ve talked to them about the arts and its effects and one of the things they point out is that when they want to bring in someone to head up a new initiative or an existing section they tell me the key is the wife. The first question she asks is, ‘What are the arts like?’ She’s the key because if she says no it’s no and it doesn’t make much difference how good the offer is. These decisions are made like that.

“The whole cultural scene is a big, big part of a community.”

He’s dismayed America forces presenting organizations to be perpetually on the beg and cuts arts ed in public schools.

“They cut out the arts in the schools at a time when they’re needed most,” he says about a nationwide patern. “They cut out the arts in a town when they have to balance budgets. This is nearsightedness.”

An area he feels Omaha has fallen much shorter in yet is handling its growing poverty population.

“It’s neglected its poor people badly. Omaha’s doing OK economically but it is has great difficulty educating poor kids. To me that’s the worst thing Omaha does.”

While he applauds the metro’s “highly developed educational system” he says too many children enter school unprepared to learn and too few programs address preparing them. Reading difficulties, for example, get magnified when kids become adults and don’t have the education or skills to get living wage or salaried jobs.

“I don’t see this so much as an intellectual problem but as a community problem. We have all kinds of government programs designed to grab these people as they fall off the cliff. The failure is to raise them so they can climb cliffs. There’s no question in my mind it’s going to be a major government project. It has to be.”

He insists universal early childhood education is the key to reversing the situation but claims legislators ignore the evidence.

“We are terribly ignorant in this country about early childhood. We just plain are dumb. We don’t understand how kids get educated even though it stares us in the face and we are not willing in many cases to turn around and fix this. The proof is all over the place, all you have to do is look at it. There’s no point sitting around speculating about it. If we do it, it will end the problem. It’s very clear. Hell, we can look at all kind of European education systems – you’ll see the same thing.”

He feels America may have missed an opportunity with Head Start. “If we had continued to develop Head Start we might have got there.”

New models have emerged that show promise. “We have something going on in Neb. headed by Susie Buffett, Educare, that’s a helluva good idea. It’s also expensive. But it is a proven thing now.”

“The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation is one of the largest in the United States. What they’re attempting to do in education and the schools through Building Bright Futures is just monumental.”

He’s also encouraged by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and the impact it’s making in raising awareness and standards.

The goal is creating holistic after school and daycare programs that are educational and developmentally based, not just caretakers.



Holland Performing Arts Center


Child Saving Institute



Holland, whose support of the Child Saving Institute is legendary, says, “I just decided to focus on this problem. It’s difficult because it’s costly. Trying to get the kind of money from the state and the nation to really look after these children is just plain expensive.”

He says even as Building Bright Futures, Partnership4Kids and other education efforts have scaled up their impact “is tiny in terms of the need,” “Five thousand-plus kids enter the Omaha Public Schools each year and half of them are probably not ready to learn, which indicates a serious problem,” he says. “Multiply that over some years and these kids are more likely to have problems becoming productive citizens. That describes in Omaha the size of the problem. It’s enormous.”

Mentoring is another thing he supports.

“It’s been shown that even after this bad beginning if we get a hold of a child and mentor him properly we can get him higher up in the education scale.”

Holland wants America do something overarching, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan or the Great Society, to once again assert leadership that’s inspirational at home and abroad.

“We’re beginning to see we have to make some changes but the changes I’ve seen so far are not nearly as drastic as I think they should be. I’m more and more positive it’s going to take a revolution.”

The old ad man in him tells him “we haven’t really been able to sell the benefits of doing something like this even though it would be far better than the cost of not doing it.”

“We have more than two million people in prison in the United States, leading the world, and not realizing this is our own fault. We think they’re just bad people. They weren’t bad when they were born, I’ll guarantee you.”

He’s concerned the American Empire he came of age in is eroding.

“I’m worried about it terribly. I think our national government and even our state governments are not using their ability to think about the good of the country and to work together to improve it. Hell, everybody and his brother knows about it that pays any attention.”

Compounding the problem, he says, is America’s own policies.

“We have not reformed our immigration policy. We’re getting fewer immigrants as we make stupid requirements to get a person into this country anymore. That’s backwards because immigrants are highly motivated people who work hard to succeed..

“We don’t tax the wealthy or anything like that. We don’t seem to have any ability to take a look at a good country in Europe and realize that those people pay much higher taxes than in the United States but they’re better educated, they’re happier, they have decent transportation systems, they have universal health care.”

He’s not sure the country has the will to do what’s right.

“I used to think of the United States as infinity. In the post-World War II era we dominated the world. One of my great disappointments is that we’re not leading the world, we’re responding to problems.”

Better sooner than later for him that America take action.

“I want it to happen now. What the hell, I’m 94.”

_ _ _

Giving for the greater good

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (


Omaha’s philanthropic community is known for its unusual generosity.

Some attribute this largess to the small town feel of a city where relationships still matter and where it’s possible to rally people around a good idea or cause. Others point to the concentration of several wildly successful companies grown here that give back. Then there’s the metro’s large number of wealthy families, some of whom acquired their fortunes through business and others through investments. The latter include those who’s trust in a young Warren Buffett to invest their money in Berkshire Hathaway was rewarded beyond belief.

Many landmarks and streets are named after early figures whose late 19th century and early 20th century philanthropy built Omaha. Joslyn.
Dodge. Kountze. Creighton. Hitchcock. Cudahy. Doorly. Kenefick.

As those early givers passed, new figures stepped up such as Leo A. Daly, Peter Kiewit, Walter Scott, Bob Dougherty, Mike Harper, Tom Nurnberger, Dick Holland, the Storzes, the Durhams, the Hawks, Alan Marcia Baer, the Blumkns-Batts. More recently, Susie Buffett, Bruce Lauritzen, Wally Weitz, John Gottschalk, David Sokol. Bill and Ruth Scott, Allan and Dianne Lozier, the Simons and the Smiths have emerged among Omaha’s new generation of major givers.

These movers and shakers underwrite some of Omaha’s great public-private places and endeavors. Holland Performing Arts Center. Orpheum Theatre. University of Nebraska Medical Center. UNO. Creighton. Film Streams. Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Durham Museum. Omaha Community Playhouse. Omaha Symphony. Opera Omaha. Great Plains Theatre Conference. Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. And many others.

They have skin in the game, too, in things like the United Way and Building Bright Futures, whose greatest benefactor, Susie Buffett, is a notable female exception in what’s otherwise ostensibly a men’s club.

These charitable doyens not only give money but provide leadership on boards and committees and lend more informal advice and service.

Few donors are as colorful or irascible as Dick Holland (see main story). The 94-year-old represents a dying breed who tells it as he sees it, throwing political correctness out the window, but getting things done, too.


Gail and Michael Yanney

Michael and Gail Yanney

A bridge figure between Holland and today’s new generation philanthropists is Michael Yanney, 81, founder and chairman emeritus of The Burlington Capital Group.

Yanney, who came from poverty in small town Neb. to work his way up the ranks of commercial banking and commodities markets, found key mentors he tried emulating in his own leadership and philanthropy.
One was former Peter Kiewit Sons Construction head Walter Scott and another was former Northwestern Bell head Tom Nurnberger.

“Both of these people I trusted a lot. And my wife has probably been one of my best mentors.

Yanney and his wife Gail are a team when it comes to their giving.

“We really like to do things that will make a difference and we want to do them the best we can. Therefore you don’t pick a lot of projects, you pick very few and you make sure they’re outside of the box and you’re going to have to stretch to get there.”

He says giving decisions are not arrived at by accident but by due diligence. “It is something that comes as you see the demand and the opportunity to pick things up.”

Youth mentoring is a prime giving area for him. What’s known now as Partnership4Kids has grown from 20 to some 5,000 young people served. “It’s certainly a commitment and we feel it’s working and there’s very good leadership.” The program mentors at-risk kids from early elementary school through college to try and break the cycle of poverty many come from. “Anything we can do to eradicate poverty is going to make a long-term difference to the overall picture and happiness of our community,” Yanney says.

Health care, particularly UNMC, is another prime giving area. “We have an absolutely strong feeling that medical center is making a big difference to this region. Anything you can do to improve medical research, quality of patient care will make a huge difference.”

Yanney doesn’t see an end to the generosity that’s made “Omaha a very unique place,” adding, “I think there’s a very good chance it will continue as long as there’s very good leadership. The money is there but there’re not going to give if the quality of leadership isn’t there.” He says the leadership of Walter Scott, whom he calls “the chairman of the board of Omaha.” will be “very hard to replace” whenever he’s gone.

Still, Yanney says, “I’m very optimistic. We’ve really got some great young people moving into the leadership.”



Photo (L to R): Helena Maria Viramontes, Victor LaValle, Jeff Chang, lê thi diem thúy, Luis Ubiñas; Credit: Chris Callis © 2010

Photo (L to R): Betiana Simon, Mia Simon, Todd Simon, Judith Helfand; Credit: Chris Callis © 2010



Todd and Betiana Simon
Todd Simon points to the fourth generation of his Omaha Steaks family empire, including his late father philanthropist Fred Simon, as “very inspirational to me personally.” He adds, “It was basically leading by example. That giving back to the community is just something you do both through financial support but also by being on boards, helping with capital campaigns, providing leadership where appropriate. I think it was my uncle Alan who said to me one time, ‘Community service is my hobby,’ and I think that really struck with me. It’s a great hobby to have when you can take something you’re really passionate about and turn it into something you really want to spend time on.”

He says the calculations he and his wife Betiana use in making giving decisions “starts with the heart” and follows with the head. “The question Betiana and I ask is. ‘How can we have the most positive impact on the project, whatever that project is, and on the community that project serves.’ We’ve made the choice to support the arts and human services and obviously those are both really big buckets. Within those we make the decision of how we’re going to support.

“We have been focused on doing programming support in the arts and making sure the institutions we’re supporting can do first class programming work. In health and human services we’re more focused on the mission of the organization and in those instances we’re happy to fund just direct operating support because we know so much of the work of these organizations goes right to their beneficiaries.”

In weighing an organization and its need, he says, “I try not to over-think it,” adding, “I think what it really comes down to is people give to people and so I look to the leadership of the organizations both from a staff and a board perspective and the question I ask is, Does this organization have the capacity to deliver on their mission? That’s usually a fairly easy determination to make and once I’m confident they can, then we’ll typically feel good about giving. I leave it up to the leadership of the organization to deliver on their programming and promises, which they almost always do.”

The Simons prefer going with sure things and sticking with them.

“What we tend to do is find organizations doing a terrific job and we stay with them, not only financially but also from a time commitment perspective. We join the board or participate in a committee or get involved in leadership in some way. That keeps us really connected.

“We kind of want to go deep rather than broad. We’re most effective in our philanthropy when it’s not just about writing a check.

“I think the most fulfilling thing is planting seeds and seeing them grow into the community.”


Image result for paul and annette smith omaha


Paul and Annette Smith

Philanthropists sometimes partner on projects. The Simons joined forces with another new era power couple, Paul and Annette Smith, in founding The Impact Circle for Big Brothers, Big Sisters.

The Smiths, recipients of the 2015 Sower Award in the Humanities, have used others’ giving to guide their own.

“There are a host of great examples we’ve borrowed from,” says Paul Smith, a founding member of Tenaska Capital Management. “Our approach is probably an amalgam of different approaches we’ve seen with others.”

An early influence on them was Howard and Rhonda Hawks.

The Smiths divide their giving between youth serving organizations and the arts. In each case, their head and heart enter the equation.

“We try to focus on outcomes – on how much impact we’re really having,” Smith says. “I suppose that is the head part but we’re pretty passionate about both of these areas, so there’s a lot of heart in it, too. So it’s some of both for us.”

When it comes to young people they look to impact “underserved and disadvantaged youth, especially through avenues that enhance their educational and social opportunities,” Smith says. “What we look for is a real efficacy and real difference made sustainably over time in the lives of young people in our community.”

When it comes to the arts, he says, “we’re looking to create cultural assets in our community.” He says they prefer to support programming of the kind that Film Streams does that “serves to create a cultural connection around people and a dialogue around important issues – I think that’s true of all of the arts organizations we support.”

Annette Smith says such activities enrich the cultural landscape. “It makes our community a more vibrant place to live for everyone.”

Paul says they support any arts endeavor that promotes access and diversity “in creating community around art.”

Sometimes, their passions for youth and arts overlap, as in the examples of their investments in the Kent Bellows Institute and Omaha Conservatory of Music.

He says their giving reflects their belief the arts are integral to a well-rounded life and city.

“Imagining our city without these things – without a symphony, an opera, art museums and challenging places where new art is being created – imagines a less interesting, less connected, less enjoyable place to live. So that’s why we think of it as a form of investment when we invest in the arts.”

Smith says he and his wife remain “active in the dialogue that exists in our community broadly around these sorts of institutions, so we try to support them not only with contributions but with counsel and service. And sometimes that means a board seat and sometimes it doesn’t.”

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