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Omaha Magazine

Like Father, Like Son: Paul and Ryan Strawhecker on Nonprofit Work, Fundraising During COVID-19, and Working With Family

Jul 24, 2020 08:55AM ● By Houston Wiltsey
Paul Strawhecker and son Ryan

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

After 25 years at his organization and half a billion dollars raised— $200 million of which has gone to Omaha and Council Bluffs-based nonprofits — Paul plans to step down as president while Ryan moves into this role from his current position as director of consulting.

Paul Strawhecker and his son Ryan are veterans of Omaha’s nonprofit fundraising scene and have been working on and off with one another at the eldest Strawhecker’s namesake consulting firm—Paul J. Strawhecker Inc.—for the last 14 years. They now find themselves in a period of transition.

After 25 years at his organization and half a billion dollars raised—$200 million of which has gone to Omaha and Council Bluffs-based nonprofits — Paul plans to step down as president while Ryan moves into this role from his current position as director
of consulting.

“The numeric milestone is great, but I think more important than that are the relationships that the organization has built over the years,” Paul said. “The decision has been in the works for a few years and now it just feels right.”

It’s the logical last stop on a 50-year career centered around giving and empowering others. 

The eldest Strawhecker started in Catholic seminary before pivoting to city planning, enrolling at Creighton University and majoring in political science and sociology. During his senior year, he worked as an intern at the mayor’s office under Gene Leahy. It was here he was first exposed to professional nonprofit work. Upon graduating, Paul was hired as a special assistant to Leahy and began writing grants for various nonprofits. After four years of working for the city he immersed himself in the world of fundraising, accepting a position at Boys Town where he initiated their planned giving program. His firm currently represents hundreds of nonprofits across North America and handles everything from gathering information on prospective donors to developing media relations materials. 

“I’ve always thought that you either have a nonprofit heart or you don’t,” Paul said. “You really have to want to get wrapped up in this kind of work to be successful at it. You have to believe in what you’re doing and be willing to put the well-being of other people or a cause over most everything else, including personal gain.”

Ryan was not immediately sold on the idea of following in his father’s footsteps. However, after graduating from Creighton with a master’s degree in English, he decided to join his father’s organization as a project coordinator.

“Certainly hearing about the work from my father was influential,” he said. “But being exposed to the clients and the work they were doing lit a fire under me. Once you see how many people it takes to accomplish a project, it’s easy to find
yourself inspired.”

To learn everything he could about the fundraising world, Ryan left his father’s organization and went to work for several Metro-area nonprofits including the Omaha Home for Boys and United Way of the Midlands. It was his experience at the former that solidified his passion for the work.

“Seeing people donate who live hundreds of miles away that have never set foot on campus was a real ‘aha’ moment for me,” said Ryan. “We hear so much about the need, but I think that taking the time to think about all the people that donate their time and energy to helping people is important.”

Those experiences made Ryan the natural choice when Paul decided to relinquish some of his duties.

As with any passing of the torch from father to son, there were a few cries of nepotism within the organization. A pair of long-term employees moved on when they were informed of Ryan’s appointment, but Paul believes that everything “worked out for the best.” He also believes Ryan is the most qualified candidate, and he’s not the only one. 

“Ryan was a great guy to work with,” said Jeff DeWispelare, president and CEO of Omaha Home for Boys, who was COO during Ryan’s time at the organization. “He cared deeply about the mission of the home and each of the donors in his portfolio,” he continued, joking that while Ryan’s thoroughness at the organization is missed, his trash-talking during the staff volleyball games is not.

Paul echoed those sentiments. “Ryan has a natural likability that’s great for the client-facing side of the business and he’s got the organizational skills and follow-through that gets stuff done.”

Those skills are especially necessary as the duo looks into the future to focus on how to help their clients fundraise in a world ravaged by the

COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s a challenge for everyone involved,” Paul said. “A lot of the organizations we work for are in need of major assistance right now, but due to the pandemic and its effect on the stock market, it’s been harder to convince people to donate.”

With Ryan stepping into the lead role, the organization is undergoing a rebrand that will help the organization and their clients adapt to the times. 

Though the agency doesn’t plan on doing an overhaul in terms of clients, they will shift their focus to the digital world by having the organizations they work for host more online fundraising events and auctions to help their clients diversify their revenue streams. Paul also said that they plan on assisting more companies that are temporarily low on staff due to the pandemic. 

The rebrand also includes a name change. “We’ve discussed a few but have yet to decide on anything,” said Paul, unsure of when that change will come to fruition. 

Despite the transition and difficult circumstances, both Strawheckers feel confident that the organization is in good hands.

“This was my first job and I feel like I’ve done every type of task in the nonprofit world, so I feel very qualified to take on the responsibility,” Ryan said, before adding, with a laugh, “The best part of it is now being able to funnel the calls that I don’t want to take to Paul.”

Visit pjstraw.com for more information about the organization.

This article was printed in the August/September 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.