A Closer Look at the Cooper Foundation's Support for Lincoln, Nebraska's Art Scene

A profile of the Cooper Foundation in the Daily Nebraskan provides an interesting look at the grantmaker's long-standing relationship with the Lincoln, Nebraska's art scene.

We here at IP frequently profile philanthropic groups who almost single-handedly support the arts in cities across the country. They hunker down in a specific place, immerse themselves in the community and, over time, they become an integral part in the respective city's art scene. The Knight Foundation invests heavily in places like Akron and Miami. The Doris Duke Foundation has been particularly keen on the Twin Cities as of late. The Mott Foundation is committed to the revitalization of Flint, Michigan. And the list goes on.

But every now and then we come across foundations who plant roots in cities that are off the proverbial beaten path. In addition, these foundations generally have no larger designs beyond their immediate surroundings. They're perfectly content to set up shop in a city and stay there as long as possible. Such is the case with the Cooper Foundation and its long-standing relationship with Lincoln, Nebraska. 

The foundation was started in 1934 by Joseph Cooper, a Russian immigrant. Eighty years later, the Foundation is committed to the "support of people through education, human services, the arts, the humanities, and the environment." All grant recipients are non-profit organizations located in and working in Nebraska, primarily Lincoln and Lancaster County.

To get an idea of what the foundation is looking for from nonprofits, we took a look at recent grant recipients. They included:

  • $2,500 in general operating support to the Crane River Theatre in Kearney.
  • $4,000 for OmniArts Nebraska towards the production of new works.
  • $15,000 in general operating support for the Meadowlark Music Festival.

The foundation also awarded $15,000 in March to the Sheldon Art Association to support its 2012 Jazz in June season. In fact, the aforementioned article took a closer look at Cooper's instrumental role in making Jazz in June happen. Laura Reznicek, development director for the Sheldon Museum of Art, was blunt in her assessment, noting, "Their gift was transformative in making this year’s events possible."

Of course, the Cooper Foundation, like its peers elsewhere, can't fund everything all the time. Where do they draw the line? Foundation senior program officer Victoria Kovar's rationale is simple. "We have to ask every single time: How will our funds really be used to make a real difference?”

In the case of Jazz in June, the difference was the fact that without the foundation's funds, the festival wouldn't happen. But threatening to dissolve a program due to lack of funding probably isn't a good bargaining tactic for nonprofits in Lincoln, or anywhere else for that matter. If the Cooper Foundation teaches nonprofits anything, it is this: as ambiguous as it can sound, make sure your program makes a difference, tangibly and measurably, in the lives of local residents.