What Funding to Nebraska Nonprofits Can Teach Us About "Social Capital"

Four nonprofit arts organizations in North Platte, Nebraska received a combined $100,000 in funding from the Union Pacific Foundation, underscoring philanthropic organizations' continued commitment to smaller and more rural areas and the heightened importance of "social capital."

The foundation awarded over $2 million to 66 organizations across the entire state of Nebraska. The four recipients in North Platte were the Creativity Unlimited Arts Council (CUAC), the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center, Mid-Plains United Way, and Wish I May.

We were most intrigued by the CUAC. The organization, which acts as one of the city's primary artistic "anchor institutions," will use the funds to renovate its new Prairie Arts Center and eventually transform an old post office building into a second art center that will hold classes and exhibits.

While this may seem like another ho-hum funding announcement, we'd like to take the opportunity to view it from the unique standpoint of a predominantly rural arts organization. On one hand, these types of organizations face the same issues as a museum or arts center in Los Angeles or New York. They need to pay the bills, attract customers, and build a sustainable financial future. Yet small-town organizations can address these challenges from a very different perspective with equally different outcomes.

In fact, we'd venture to argue that a nonprofit arts organization in a town like North Platte exerts a greater influence over its community, relatively speaking, than one in Miami or Chicago. The reason, naturally, is a matter of scale. Consumers in smaller towns have fewer options, which accentuates the influence of an arts center in these areas. For example, if you look in certain geographic regions like the South, arts organizations have been instrumental in integrating white and African-American audiences.

Or consider IP's take on the Knight Foundation's efforts in making Grand Forks, North Dakota entertainment and arts scene more "young-people friendly." The town is emblematic of thousands across the country—a single arts center may be a teenager's only arts option outside of school.

This is why folks in the nonprofit world allude to the power of "social capital," the idea that, while money is obviously critical, organizations in smaller towns also need to rely on relationships and bridging gaps between diverse populations, even more than their big-city counterparts.