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Omaha Magazine

Mutual of Omaha's Giving Spirit

Aug 26, 2019 11:38AM ● By Anne Walsh

Many companies in Omaha claim a great bond with the city, but one in particular, Mutual of Omaha, has dedicated time and money, in a variety of ways, to improve quality of life in the metro-area.

“Giving back has always been part of Mutual’s history, and Omaha is core to its brand,” says Gail Graeve, vice president-community affairs and corporate events, “We believe our company is only as strong as our community, and our community is only as strong as its most vulnerable friends and neighbors.”

The company's foundation is less than 15 years old; it was formalized as a 501c3 in 2005, but Mutual of Omaha and its leaders have a century-long history of supporting Omaha.

The company was first incorporated as Mutual Benefit Health and Accident Association in 1909, and Dr. C.C. and Mabel Criss took over the charter of the fledgling insurance company a year later. She became Mutual of Omaha’s first woman officer and vice president in 1929, and Dr. Criss served with the company from 1933-1952, first as president and then as chairman.

Philanthropy started with heartache. The couple’s destiny was shaped by the loss of their only child, Harry, who died at age 4 in 1907 from a blood disorder. Inspired by his memory, the couple gave millions to charity. In one example, Mabel gave two major gifts of stock, totaling more than $4 million, to Creighton University for its health sciences schools. This was after Dr. Criss died in 1952, and at the time, it was the largest donation by an individual. Their generosity also led to formation of the privately held Dr. C.C. and Mabel Criss Memorial Foundation, which was founded in 1978 upon Mabel’s death.

The Criss Foundation and Mutual of Omaha continued to donate millions to Omaha’s medical, health, and civic institutions, including Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, Methodist Hospital, Nebraska Medicine, One World Community Health, and numerous educational facilities.

Succeeding the Crisses were V.J. and Tom Skutt, the father-son duo whose consecutive periods of leadership extended from 1949-1986 (V.J.) and 1986-1998 (Tom). They and the company supported myriad Omaha-based organizations, including Creighton University, Clarkson Hospital, Joslyn Art Museum, YMCA, Boys Town, and V.J. and Angela Skutt Catholic High School, which was established in 1993.

These civic endeavors defined Omaha’s landscape and became part of the Mutual of Omaha Foundation’s two-fold mission: break the cycle of poverty and invest in major capital projects that strengthen the community.

The Mutual of Omaha Foundation was created toward the end of third president Jack Weekly’s tenure as CEO and chairman. The idea was not to replace corporate giving, but to ensure a consistent, long-term source of financial investment to help people in their time of need, says Kim Armstrong, community programs manager. Dan Neary, who succeeded Weekly and continued Mutual’s evolution into banking and finance, supported the foundation’s growth.

“It speaks to their genuinely altruistic leadership that they created a foundation which didn’t replace corporate giving, but expanded it,” says Graeve, who also serves as the foundation’s executive director. “For more than 100 years we have given back to the community, a value that’s been embraced by every generation of our workforce and every CEO. It’s good business to engage in philanthropy and invest in the people and programs that make all of us stronger, wiser, healthier, and engaged.”

Since 2005, the Mutual of Omaha Foundation has invested more than $40 million in programs and organizations addressing poverty issues and capital projects throughout Douglas and Sarpy counties in Nebraska and Pottawattamie County in Iowa. It has supported collaboration in three focus areas:

Basic needs—affordable housing, community health, food, emergency shelter, and homeless prevention.

At-risk youth—abuse and neglect, college and career prep, mentoring, out-of-school programs, and teen parenting.

Adult self-sufficiency—domestic violence, financial education, literacy and language, parenting classes, and workforce development

In 2009, the foundation celebrated Mutual of Omaha’s centennial by paying for playgrounds in low-income areas and funding 100 Days of Caring, an initiative in which 1,500 employees volunteered 7,000 hours helping nonprofits with construction, landscaping, sorting, cleaning, painting, serving meals, and spending time with senior citizens.

United through Mutual of Omaha’s culture, the foundation’s board is comprised solely of employees having unique skill sets and their own community perspectives. Board director Alex Hayes, Mutual’s vice president of physical security and business continuity, is a former Omaha police chief. “It’s such an advantage to have his leadership,” says Graeve, who herself recently was named a 2019 Tribute to Women honoree by the Women’s Center for Advancement.

By 2012, the foundation began giving greater priority to groups having outcome measures in place to show the impact of their services. Consideration also is influenced by collaboration, because “no organization or foundation alone can solve the issue of poverty,” Graeve says.

Poverty-focused organizations receiving foundation grants through the years include Heartland Family Services, Legal Aid of Nebraska, Girls Inc. of Omaha, Stephen Center, Habitat for Humanity of Omaha, Food Bank for the Heartland, Heart Ministry Center, Omaha Home for Boys, Completely KIDS, and TeamMates Mentoring Program.

The foundation also invests in major capital projects that strengthen the community. While many of these investments support those tackling poverty, its capital approach includes intentional investments driving key economic development for the metro area. They have included Baxter Arena, Holland Performing Arts Center, T.D. Ameritrade Park, Henry Doorly Zoo, Buffett Cancer Center, Do Space, Lauritzen Gardens, Children’s Hospital, Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands, Charles E. Lakin Human Services Campus, and Pottawattamie Arts Culture and Entertainment (PACE).

“The capital projects we’ve funded not only improve quality of life in Omaha, they also have an economic impact in terms of jobs,” said Graeve. “They are what makes Omaha strong, with continued success and stability.”

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This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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