“Fundamentally Unique”

By Kim Carpenter - Omaha Magazine

Read through the Board of Governors for the Aksarben Foundation, and the names speak to an encyclopedia of some of Nebraska’s most successful and storied businesses: CQuence Health Group, NP Dodge Company, Security National Bank, First National Bank of Omaha, SilverStone Group, Noddle Companies, Physicians Mutual Insurance Company—the list continues.

Such a blend of heavy-hitting corporate involvement on the board of a single nonprofit indicates just how special the Aksarben Foundation is.

In a way, it’s fitting. Business leaders, after all, were behind the organization’s founding in 1895. Twelve of them, all part of the Omaha Commercial Club, which preceded the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, joined forces to save the state fair, which they considered important for Nebraska’s economy. They feared the state was moving backwards, so a witty word play of “Nebraska” became “Aksarben.”

The name stuck. Throughout the decades, the organization, through endeavors such as the Aksarben Stockshow & Rodeo, the Aksarben Racetrack and Coliseum (demolished during the 2000s to make way for present-day Aksarben Village), and of course, the legendary annual Aksarben Ball, has been a source of both economic boon and civic pride to the state. Funding the monuments in Memorial Park, purchasing fire trucks, saving the Orpheum Theater during the early 1970s, building community centers across the state, and awarding over $65 million in scholarships and community grants are just the tip of the iceberg of what business leaders coming together through the Aksarben Foundation have been able to accomplish.

Changes, naturally, have taken place over a century and a quarter. In 2017, the organization discontinued crowning a “king” and “queen,” deeming the figureheads outdated, and instead made the annual ball a celebration of “Most Honored Citizens,” people from Nebraska and Western Iowa whose philanthropic and civic work embody the “Spirit of Aksarben.”

“The roots of the organization are centered around those leaders who came together as a group,” said Sandra Reding, president of Aksarben Foundation.

“What’s so interesting about that, when you think about what Aksarben is doing today, it’s so similar. It’s a group of leaders coming together on an issue like workforce development and retaining our talent,” Reding continued. “The organization over 129 years has changed and shifted, but the one piece that’s really remained the same is that it’s about leaders coming together to make a difference and make positive impact for the state.”

N.P. “Nate” Dodge, president of NP Dodge Company, is one of those leaders. His family has been involved with the Aksarben Foundation for generations. “It has a special place in our hearts,” he said, referencing how he grew up with the nonprofit. “I was a page and an escort. I’ve been on the Floor Committee, a councilor, and on the Board of Governors. I’ve worked through each level.”

Dodge is proud of how business leaders come together in support of the Aksarben Foundation to benefit the people of Nebraska and Western Iowa. “I’ve never seen a foundation like this,” he said. “You see business competitors come together and drop the guard of competition to better the community.”

He said that the foundation’s success is tied to the ability to adapt to the times. “The key is you have to change and stay relevant,” he said.

“There’s a time and a place where that makes sense,” Reding added. “As with all things—I think that’s the beauty of Aksarben—it’s changed over the years to become what’s appropriate for the time. But the one thing that stays the same is the mission. I think that’s what makes this such an exceptional organization. It’s important for the state that we come together as a group.

“That’s the essence of what this is about; it’s always been about recognizing people—leaders, philanthropists, volunteers—who’ve made a difference in their communities, in the state,” she continued. “That foundation is exactly the same as it was 129 years ago. It may look different; we may have updated the terminology, and certainly, we are becoming much more inclusive, but at the very heart of what the ball is about is recognizing people…I don’t know that there’s an organization like this anywhere else in the country.”

Dodge agreed. “Having business people on the board as well as academics means we look at issues in our community. We have talented people who care a lot about the community and connect over this passion. Under Aksarben Foundation, we work together, and our only goal is the community. That is fundamentally unique.”

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2024 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.