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Think of them as your local “Avengers,” as the many members of the Columbus Area Future Fund (CAFF) are striving for the prosperity of the community moving forward. Just don’t expect any crime fighting or costumes.

Back in 2006, a group of area residents launched the CAFF in conjunction with the Nebraska Community Foundation, a nonprofit that aids communities statewide in living “the good life” by providing training and resources to a network of affiliated funds. CAFF members operate under the mission to leave the community an even better place than when they found it.

“I think that’s what most of it is,” said CAFF Chairman Rick Chochon, who is also president of Great Plains State Bank. “I believe it’s everybody’s loyalty to the community where we’re making our money at and living.”

Since its inception, CAFF has had a hand in a number of projects benefiting the people and places in the Columbus region by providing grants to numerous local initiatives and organizations. Among the many projects CAFF has supported is helping integrate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum in all three Columbus area high schools; helping preserve the Andrew Jackson Higgins Memorial; piloting the first Youth Leadership program and Youth Philanthropy Contest; as well as the development of a first-of-its-kind Columbus Inclusive Playground at Lost Creek Elementary School (giving children of all abilities a safe place to play and enjoy time together).

The Fund has also collaborated with the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce and United Way to help increase affordable, high-quality child care options for families, and provided aid toward training for business owners through Centro Hispano’s Micro Business Development Program.

“We’re always making well-educated grant choices based on what we get for applicants,” CAFF Coordinator Eve Ortmeier said.

What the Fund supports is certainly across the spectrum, but that’s the point, Ortmeier noted. The idea is to support efforts that will benefit greater Columbus for years, even decades, to come with the guidance of four key pillars:

“Building local leadership, expanding community philanthropy, energizing entrepreneurship and engaging youth and young people,” she said.

K.C. Belitz recently took on the role of chief operating officer with the Nebraska Community Foundation, but the longtime local resident was heavily involved in the initial conversations to bring NCF efforts to town more than a decade ago. Due to his new job, he’s no longer officially on the CAFF Advisory Committee but is serving as NCF’s primary staff member for supporting CAFF.

“CAFF is an affiliated fund of NCF, so legally we are one and the same. The home office provides the basics: Investment, tax returns, record-keeping, etc. But far more important, NCF provides world-class assistance in fundraising, impact grant-making, marketing, and overall community development,” Belitz said. “The other critical resource provided by NCF is simply the network created by more than 200 other funds across the state that provides support, peer-learning, encouragement, best practices and inspiration for each other.”

Although much has already been accomplished, those affiliated with the CAFF are hoping to do significantly more good with the entity’s “Toward a Bold Future” campaign. The CAFF is one of five affiliated funds that were selected for a $250,000 challenge through the Building Community Capacity in Rural Nebraska initiative by the Sherwood Foundation, which promotes equity through social justice initiatives to enhance Nebraska quality of life. The challenge is to raise $500,000 for the CAFF’s unrestricted endowment. As part of it, every $2 in unrestricted contributions received by Dec. 31, 2020, will earn an additional $1 (up to a maximum grant of $250,000).

Chochon said with how much government funding fluctuates each year, the whole idea of the endowment is to ensure community needs happening over the next 10 years can still be met. He said the community has historically done a great job of supporting brick-and-mortar-type projects. And though support for CAFF has been solid, there is hope for more people to see the bigger picture of investing in Columbus’ long-term future.

“With an endowment fund, you’re building a fund for dollars and challenges that are yet to come,” he said. “I think we need to look at what will help our employers make the hires they need to satisfy the families they’re looking at bringing in. This fund itself has to be used for the betterment of Columbus.”

Ortmeier agreed, adding the Fund has the potential to shape Columbus for generations to come.

“Right now, we’re working to build a robust, permanent and unrestricted endowment. As we grow it, it will gain more and more payout, which will lead to more and more projects invested in,” she said, noting the importance of educating people about what an endowment is and what it can do to help the community. “Hopefully, one day, we will have a very robust endowment that pays out enough money for many, many community projects.”

For his part, Belitz said he’s a firm believer in CAFF because it’s critical Columbus has an unrestricted endowment as a resource.

“I say that because the pace of change is continuing to increase and there is no way for communities to anticipate the needs that we will face in 20 years. As a result, building a significant unrestricted endowment will be a really critical ‘margin of excellence’ that may literally make the difference between thriving and barely surviving for many rural communities. And … we have tremendous wealth in this area,” he said, noting Platte County transfer of wealth in just this decade is almost $900 million. “But once those resources leave, they don’t often come back, so we have an important window of time to capture some of that wealth that was created here and keep it to work for future generations.”

Belitz stressed he feels that the fund will ultimately do more good than maybe anyone realizes right now.

“Bottom line: I believe firmly that CAFF can literally change the future of Columbus when we are successful in raising awareness and eventually building a significant unrestricted endowment for our hometown,” he said.

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

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