Collective Impact: Community Foundations Leverage Philanthropy

From pooling individual and corporate donor contributions that fund grants for area projects and charitable organizations to supporting research and nonprofit capacity building, local community foundations make a difference in the towns, cities and counties they serve.

A community foundation can be described in various ways, but its essential function is to serve a particular community through collective impact.


“A community foundation is a tax-exempt public charity that is dedicated to improving the lives of residents in a specific geographical area. A community foundation receives charitable gifts; manages charitable assets of individuals, families and businesses through a variety of charitable funds; and awards charitable grants to nonprofit organizations to assist them in fulfilling their missions,” said Executive Director Diane Knicky of Midlands Community Foundation (MCF). “A community foundation plays a key role in identifying and solving critical community problems and serves as a resource for its community.”

Knicky added, “MCF provides an opportunity for not-for-profit charitable organizations to secure financial assistance through its biannual grants program, which has been in existence for more than 30 years. 

“MCF supports programs or projects, which will enhance and improve the quality of life for residents of Sarpy and Cass counties. The foundation has a strong commitment toward programs benefiting human services, education, health, arts and culture, and community and economic development. 

“MCF’s impact to individuals occurs by channeling funds through nonprofit organizations that provide programs and services to those in need. Through MCF grants and discretionary gift programs, MCF serves Sarpy and Cass counties. Through the establishment of charitable funds, MCF serves individuals, families, and businesses nationwide which enables our donors to support any qualifying organization regardless of location. The real reason that community foundations exist is to really be that catalyst in the community that enables folks that want to be philanthropic to be philanthropic in a much broader way, to expand their reach even beyond what they’re thinking.”

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To solve community problems, the right people need to be behind the mission. 

“A community foundation gathers together like-minded philanthropic individuals from all walks of life and all socioeconomic groups with common goals of helping communities thrive, helping them be strong, supporting the nonprofits that are doing the most compelling and important work in the communities, and also responding to both immediate and long-term needs in a collective way,” said Donna Dostal, president and CEO of Community Foundation for Western Iowa (CFWI). “It’s really a partnership between the folks that want to do the most good; the community as a whole; and the nonprofits, city/county government organizations and the faith-based organizations who are doing the important work to lift up the community.”

Beyond Van Gough Backpack drive. (Photo courtesy of SHARE Omaha)
Beyond Van Gough Backpack drive. (Photo courtesy of SHARE Omaha)

In order to serve the community best, the organization needs to have a strong understanding of its needs. 

“In addition to being connectors, we often serve as a neutral convener to bring together different experiences and perspectives. By developing a deep knowledge of local needs and the nonprofit organizations working on solutions, the team at OCF has established itself as a valued resource and a catalyst for good,” Omaha Community Foundation (OCF) President and CEO Donna Kush said. “From an operational standpoint, we are a little complicated to understand. The easiest way to think about us is that we are a collective of donors who operate like mini-foundations under the OCF tax umbrella as a public charity. By using one of our funds, a donor can centralize their giving all in one place rather than having to write multiple checks, make online donations, or keep individual charitable tax receipts throughout the year.”

Kush added, “Earlier this year with the help of the OCF board and Parlay Consulting, we launched a three-year strategic plan focused on three directions: investing in internal capacity, leading and engaging our community with focus, and connecting our stakeholders with purpose. As we looked at our history and listened to key stakeholders, we spent time reviewing emerging practices in philanthropy and community foundations. Our research and reflection set the stage for alignment among board members and staff for a shared vision of Omaha Community Foundation’s future.”

Making a difference

In addition to leveraging individual donations, area community foundations have strong relationships with local businesses and organizations who want to make a difference not only through financial support, but also through volunteerism and board service. 

“We partner closely with several areas of the business community,” Kush said. “Working with financial advisers, attorneys and accountants, we share clients by focusing on our individual areas of expertise. 

“While our partners are conducting tax, retirement and estate plans, we can serve as the philanthropic partner to complete the plan and take this off their plate. We also work with local corporations to help with their grantmaking strategy and administrative work that may be more feasible to outsource.”

MCF gathers insights from chambers of commerce and government agencies.

“MCF also collaborates with local businesses and serves as a resource for corporate giving by identifying and ensuring that giving aligns with the most critical challenges and needs of the community,” Knicky said. “And the business community supports MCF through charitable donations including sponsoring and participating in our two annual events, the Reflection Ball and Golf Tournament, and through corporate grants to our foundation.”

An active and dynamic board ensures that community foundations are strong and effective, Dostal said, and that level of service means individual advocacy, fundraising support and even event committee participation. 

“Any nonprofit stives to have a board that’s engaged, that is understanding of the mission and helps them fulfill that mission through strategy,” she explained.

Omaha Community Foundation at the Cinco de Mayo parade. (photo courtesy of Omaha Community Foundation)
Omaha Community Foundation at the Cinco de Mayo parade.
(photo courtesy of Omaha Community Foundation)

“There is education that has to take place on the expectations of board service,” she said. 

Kate Cutler, who serves on the CFWI board, said a board of directors serves an important purpose for any community foundation. 

“The vision of the board, toward regional impact, is guiding our direction and supports the strategic goals,” Cutler said. “The goals are straightforward and clear; build the foundation of philanthropy in southwest Iowa, and be the connector and facilitator toward positive, durable change in the region — and they, the board, empowers the organization to do just that. 

Community Foundation for Western Iowa presenting a community impact grant to the First Responders Foundation. (photo courtesy of CFWI)
Community Foundation for Western Iowa presenting a community impact grant to the First Responders Foundation. (photo courtesy of CFWI)

“Also, being agile and adjusting to the needs of our community is important to CFWI. Listening to the need, adjusting and connecting, and then providing strong guidance for our donors are all hallmarks of the organization.”

Kush noted that board members are the reason the foundation exists. 

“Celebrating our 40th anniversary year, we are incredibly grateful to our board members, who are the reason we exist. The Omaha Community Foundation was created by a group of residents who wanted to make a positive investment in the community,” Kush said. “Today, we are fortunate to have an engaged board that bring a diverse group of backgrounds, experiences, interests and perspectives with our mission at the forefront: maximizing the power of philanthropy to strengthen our community. They are united in their commitment to making Omaha and Southwest Iowa a better place to live.”

Tom Ackley, MCF board president, agreed that community foundations need active board members. 

“As a member of the MCF Board of Directors since 2011, I have enjoyed helping MCF continue to expand its charitable footprint in Sarpy and Cass counties. Each member of our working MCF board is active and engaged in ensuring that the MCF mission is fulfilled each year,” Ackley said. “Thanks to our board and dedicated staff, the MCF story continues to be told to an ever-expanding audience of donors who want to see their charitable dollars make a significant impact on the issues that matter most to them.” 

Knicky added that the MCF board, which is governed by a volunteer board of directors made up of community leaders from Sarpy and Cass counties, plays “a significant role in providing guidance and serving as a resource to MCF about issues in their communities, and they are ambassadors and advocates for MCF in their areas.”

Cutler said considers CFWI an organization worthy of the gift of her time and experience as a board member. 

“The community foundation is a strong and flexible tool by which individuals and businesses can create impact and be generous. In the work I have done as a board member for several organizations across the region, I bring a wonderfully broad base of knowledge and experience, which is now being channeled in a more regional way,” she said. “My leadership and insights, as well as all board members, are valuable to help guide our strategy and my knowledge and experience is valued. With my past experiences on other nonprofits, and also on other large philanthropic foundations, gives me a unique perspective that helps to guide regional philanthropy beyond the borders of cities and town, to a much more holistic impact.”

Grant recipient YMCA. (photo courtesy of Midlands Community Foundation)
Grant recipient YMCA. (Photo courtesy of Midlands Community Foundation)

Growth and Success

All three community foundations have grown. Community Foundation for Western Iowa, which launched in 2008 as Pottawattamie County Community Foundation, rebranded earlier this year as a reflection of its expanded service region — now nine counties — and scope of support. 

“Our goal is to continue to grow and serve southwest Iowa and the western Iowa region in a way that supports nonprofits and connects philanthropy to the most compelling projects and important needs today and in the future,” Dostal said. 

Omaha Community Foundation uses established philanthropic strategies and innovative programs to address social and economic needs for nonprofits and those they serve, fundholders, private foundations, corporations, government agencies, and the community as a whole, Kush said.  

“By mindfully connecting donors to local nonprofits and helping direct resources to areas that will strengthen our community, the Omaha Community Foundation has positively impacted thousands of organizations,” Kush said. “We’re exceptionally proud that our collective of fundholders has granted more than $2 billion in its 40-year history. That kind of generosity ranks Omaha in the top 3% in per-capita giving. Our $1.6 billion in assets rank us at about the 15th largest community foundation in the nation. Most importantly, our 2,000 active donors granted $175 million in 2021 through 16,500 grants to more than 3,000 nonprofits.”

Midlands Community Foundation has been supporting the community since 1994. 

“The mission of MCF is to be a catalyst for lasting impact in Sarpy and Cass counties and to give opportunities to organizations and individuals so that they can pursue their charitable goals,” Knicky said. “Community is at the heart of everything we do at MCF. 

New Visions Homeless Services received a grant from Community Foundation for Western Iowa. (Photo courtesy of CFWI)
New Visions Homeless Services received a grant from Community Foundation for Western Iowa. (Photo courtesy of CFWI)

“We pride ourselves on being a trusted, compassionate, and permanent community resource for those who have received grants from MCF or who have created expendable and endowed charitable funds. MCF brings together people and resources to tackle critical community needs, as a funder, organizer, partner and advocate. We remain committed to transparency and accountability and operate with the highest standards of integrity and stewardship to improve the economic and social well-being of our community.”

“What started as a small charitable bank for Omaha and Council Bluffs philanthropists 40 years ago has grown tremendously to become a regional thought leader in philanthropy and community investment through its advanced knowledge, expanded programming, and strong relationships,” OCF Board Chair Mike Cassling said. “The organization has evolved right alongside the needs of the community.

“A great example is how the foundation used its grantmaking expertise to partner with the city of Omaha and the county to distribute about $42 million in CARES Act and ARPA funds. Maximizing its keen knowledge of the community and efficient administrative services every day with its 2,200 fundholders, the foundation is able to effectively serve individual donors, public partners, private and family foundations and nonprofits.”

“While the pandemic has been highly challenging, it also allowed us to demonstrate our work in new ways,” Kush added. “By first establishing our Response Fund (now Resilience Fund), we invested approximately $2 million and used that community knowledge to develop and execute the grantmaking programs for our public partners. This is an excellent example of how a community foundation can use its community knowledge and grantmaking administrative experience to infuse funding that helps nonprofits and their clients swiftly. It also helps maximize the complementary philanthropic investments and support from businesses and foundations. We aim to continue this leadership role in the community, building on our role as a convener and bringing together more people, resources and organizations.”