In late 2012, Jeff Kutash arrived in Omaha to interview for the role of executive director at the Peter Kiewit Foundation. It was his first trip to the city and he was curious about the foundation's reputation around town.
He started asking strangers the same question: Are you familiar with the Peter Kiewit Foundation? At the car rental counter, a clerk told him to watch for the elegant lights along Abbott Drive from the airport to downtown — a project that the foundation funded and spearheaded, she said.
At his downtown hotel, a doorman praised the foundation's support for facilities at nearby Creighton University. At the Upstream in the Old Market, his waitress talked about the foundation's scholarship program that put three of her friends through college. Several months later, from his corner office inside the Peter Kiewit Foundation's One Pacific Place headquarters, the 43-year-old Kutash recounted these interactions with awe.
“I'll never forget my first night in Omaha,” he said. “If you go into most communities around the country, even with very large foundations, and you ask what do you know about this foundation or that foundation, you won't get that kind of response.”
The response demonstrates the impact of the organization Kutash now leads. The private foundation, established in 1979 from the estate of construction magnate and Omaha community leader Peter Kiewit, is synonymous with Omaha philanthropy. It ranks as one of Nebraska's largest foundations, with reported assets of $350 million in 2012. In recent years, it has distributed, on average, about $18 million annually in grants and scholarships, and its focus is broad: Arts, education, social service and civic organizations around Omaha have benefitted from the foundation's giving.
For the past 27 years, the foundation's leader has been Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, who will continue as executive director emeritus. Now, the foundation has a new director — a New Jersey native with an Ivy League pedigree whose career reflects two realizations early on: that he had a passion for social issues, particularly education, and that he wanted to position himself to bring about as much change as possible.
Less than two months into his new role, Kutash is adjusting to a new city. Later this summer, his wife and three kids will join him in Omaha, lending a degree of normalcy to his transition. For now, he says his No. 1 priority is learning as much as he can about his new surroundings.
“I'm trying to have a very little mouth and very big ears,” he said.
Kutash comes to Omaha from San Francisco, where he spent close to seven years as a managing director in the San Francisco office of FSG, a global consulting film that provides strategic planning assistance to companies, nonprofits and charitable foundations.
He increased the company's presence in youth and education issues, grew the San Francisco office from two to 30 employees and, according to company founder and managing director Mark Kramer, often lightened the mood with a deadpan sense of humor.
“In many ways, Jeff acted as a conscience at FSG because he was always pushing us to really think hard about whether we were doing enough to live up to our mission and status as a nonprofit organization,” Kramer said. “Beneath that sense of humor, which is so acute, is a very, very serious guy, who is really serious about using his life to achieve social impact, to make the world a better place.”
That sense of purpose came early. Kutash grew up in an affluent area of New Jersey's Essex County, where he said many take opportunity for granted. His family lived in a neighborhood of professionals, where it wasn't a question whether kids would go to college, but where they would go. His parents wanted him to know it wasn't that way for everybody.
“One thing my parents always instilled in me was the privilege of having a good education,” he said.
At the University of Pennsylvania, Kutash saw the gap between rich and poor up close. Though a political science major, he got involved with junior high and high school programs in underserved areas of west Philadelphia. He saw bright kids with dreams of going to college and doing big things but with little if any support system.
“They didn't have guidance counselors, or parents who had connections, or parents who could help them with the application process,” he said. “And huge numbers of them were never going to make it to their potential, simply because of the zip code they were born in versus the zip code I was born into. Right there I decided I need to do something to help young people.”
After graduating, Kutash signed on with Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits highly accomplished college graduates to teach for a few years in low-income communities. It struck him as a chance to get into a classroom quickly and start impacting the lives of kids who didn't have the same opportunities he did.
His assignment took him to a bilingual middle school in the south Bronx made up mostly of Dominican and Puerto Rican students. He taught math. He felt he did it pretty well. But as early as the first year, he knew he would leave the classroom behind when his assignment ended. He could teach his students math, a skill they needed, but he remained at the periphery of the real challenges they faced daily.
“The needs a kid has go so far beyond the classroom, and I just felt like there were opportunities where I was going to contribute to helping out young people in a more holistic way over a longer period of time,” he said.
After three years, Kutash seized an opportunity to turn around a dormant after-school program in Harlem. Now, instead of teaching math in a single classroom, he was providing programs for more than 600 kids from two dozen schools. He worked with families and school administrators, and with everyone from kindergartners to college students.
During Kutash's time with the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, the organization underwent a professional strategic planning process that resulted in an epiphany. As the planning sharpened his organization's focus, identifying its core priorities in order to make every dollar count, Kutash became enamored not just with the results but with the process itself. He soon found his career leading him in a new direction.
“My mission was to make sure that social sector organizations were able to get access to that sort of support, to be the best that they could be,” he said. “And that's what put me on the path toward business school.”
Kutash realized he was running a business as much as he was operating a youth program, and he had no background in business.
His epiphany led him to pursue an MBA at Harvard — “a network that benefits me tremendously to this day” — and a new career in consulting. After a few years working with both private and public sector organizations, Kutash took a job with The SEED Foundation, a nonprofit educational institution that provides college-preparatory boarding schools for underserved kids. He was hired to expand the organization's schools into California, but after three years it became clear that the state's budget crisis eliminated the possibility of any lasting public funding for the project.
Disappointed and at a career crossroads, Kutash heard from a business school friend who encouraged him to join FSG. The job gave him the leeway to pursue projects related to his passion of youth and educational issues and an opportunity to work with philanthropic leaders around the country.
“He has a really incredible sense about him,” said Greater Texas Foundation president and CEO director Wynn Rosser, who worked with Kutash on multiple projects, including his own organization's strategic plan. “How he reads people, how he reads situations, how he reads the room and knows what the right thing to say and the right time to move the conversation forward.”
Both Rosser and FSG's Kramer say that's one of Kutash's strengths: an ability to bring various interests together to isolate and address a community interest or need.
Kramer has written extensively on “collective impact,” the idea that significant social change requires broad cooperation across sectors. He expects Kutash to bring that perspective to Omaha.
“Jeff's orientation and his experience with collective impact leads him to focus very much on the role a foundation can play with others in the community,” Kramer said. “Not imposing the foundation's agenda, but really being a facilitator that helps the community advance more quickly on key social issues.”
Jane Miller, chairwoman of the Peter Kiewit Foundation's board of trustees, said Kutash's experience as a former teacher and nonprofit executive, as well as his passion for social issues, stood out during the national search for a new director.
“Jeff also brings to this role his experience over the past decade in working with dozens of the nation's most prominent foundations,” she said. “We are looking forward to helping Jeff come up to speed on the particular issues we face in Omaha and in the state of Nebraska more broadly, and are excited to work with him to continue to build on Peter Kiewit's philanthropic legacy.”
Though Kutash hesitates to speak to the direction of the Peter Kiewit Foundation just yet, he identifies that role of problem-solver as one of things that most attracted him to his new position. He also looks forward to putting down roots after years of flying from project to project.
“Here's a place-based funder with a great reputation who's got a long history of doing fabulous work in the community, and an opportunity for me to do some of that work that I've enjoyed most and do it from a place where I'm also living,” he said. “That's where I think it intersects with the personal. We've loved living in California. At the same time, we have three little kids. Omaha, from what I've seen of it, and my experience, is just such a welcoming community for families, with strong schools.”
Already, he's noticed something else he finds special about Omaha.
“Everybody is civically minded,” he said. “Whether that's through their own personal time and they volunteer, whether it's through their job, whether it's through working in the social sector — I've just been impressed. I haven't met a single person who's not involved in something. And that's from waitresses and bartenders to folks who work in foundations and nonprofits.”
He expects the first six months to be a learning experience. Right now, he prefers to ask questions, and starting from the moment he first touched down in Omaha, he's received no shortage of feedback.
“No one has said these words directly, but I feel they like they're so close to coming out and telling me: 'Look, do a great job and don't mess it up,'” he said with a smile. “So that's going to be my mantra: Do a great job and don't mess it up.”
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