Sarah Walker of Lincoln was promoted to Civic Nebraska’s director of development on May 3. That means she’s responsible for all of our vital revenue streams, which allow us to achieve our mission and maximize our impact across the state (it’s a key part of the process, to put it mildly). We recently sat down with Sarah to discuss her approach to her new role, what Civic Nebraska means to her, and why now is the time to invest in democracy.
CIVIC NEBRASKA: First off, congratulations on the new role. You’re a familiar face at Civic Nebraska having worked in development here for several years, but this is a new path for you. Did you have much time to celebrate your promotion or was it straight to work?
SARAH WALKER: One of my top five Gallup Clifton Strengths is WOO, or winning others over. That’s sometimes confused by my dedication to celebrate moments big and small in life. I was grateful to celebrate this important promotion with close friends and my wife – both of which I thank for supporting me through my career advancements – but Civic Nebraska is making big moves right now. I’m exceedingly grateful for my institutional knowledge and the excellent training from my predecessor that made this transition very smooth. I’m celebrating the changes toward sustainable donorship we are implementing, I’m celebrating the new giving initiatives we are rolling out, and I’m really celebrating the opportunity to build Civic Nebraska’s development team. I’m very eager to meet the next Civic Nebraska Grant Writer.
CN: You have a reputation as someone who is relentlessly positive, and who will find a way to accomplish a goal once it’s set, no matter what obstacles that may present themselves. Where does that come from?
SW: I really found the career that set my heart on fire when I started working in development. This job marries my love of writing, relationship building – and party planning! I understand the work of a fundraiser through a lens of reciprocity and love and it’s a great honor to connect our supporters’ passions with a way to make a tangible difference in the community. People believe in, volunteer for, and donate to Civic Nebraska because they believe this work is vital to a healthy and strong democracy.
CN: Civic Nebraska is a growing organization that has a statewide footprint. What are the programs, places, or people you’d really like to build up at Civic Nebraska?
SW: Every one of Civic Nebraska’s program areas across Youth Civic Leadership, Civic Health, and Voting Rights is growing and building capacity each day. It’s a wonderful challenge to hustle to keep up. An organizational value I’ve seen come to life even more across this last year is the innovative spirit that guides all of our program developments in response to the pandemic. I’m particularly excited to see CIVIC U. grow and continue to be a part of our work as we return to in-person programming. While there were many challenges this year we had to creatively work around, one accidental learning was that offering digital engagement greatly increased the reach of our programs across the state in a manner we’d not yet seen. Whether it was a virtual youth civic leadership club, an online Civic Saturday, or a digital roundtable discussion on voting —increased access to our programs and community resources skyrocketed. I want to keep our rural partners top of mind and continue building out our digital engagement methodologies to attract even more Nebraskans to our organization, regardless of geography.
CN: One of our most straightforward pitches is “Donate to democracy, support Civic Nebraska.” Why is it important that all of us invest in strengthening American democracy, particularly now?
SW: Our country is in an important stage of healing right now, and the events in the last 14 months underscore the reality that we are strongest when we work together. Civic Nebraska brings together diverse Nebraskans who believe communities, neighborhoods, schools. or whatever square of earth we call home can be better if all people have access. Democracy didn’t stop because of the pandemic, but the turbulence of 2020 reminded us of its fragility. We were called on as teachers, caregivers, remote learners, essential workers, mentors, guardians, and so many more capacity-extending roles that redefined what it means to be a citizen. We were able to do the impossible this last year because of the powerful democratic values which thread our lives. Investing in strengthened democracy ensures a more resilient community future. Right now, that is the most important cause I can think of investing in.
CN: What does Civic Nebraska do that no other organization can do in that realm?
SW: Civic Nebraska has carved out a unique space because of the diversity of our programming and our holistic approach to strengthened democracy. While our organization is divided into three program areas (Civic Health, Youth Civic Leadership, and Voting Rights Initiatives), all programs invest in the lives of Nebraskans. Our core organizational goals include strengthening the pillars of social and civic health, which builds confidence in our institutions, connects us socially to our home and neighbors, increases our civic engagement, and helps Nebraskans feel empowered to participate politically.
I sometimes see our organization as a set of Russian nesting dolls – each program building upon the other and embodying a core of civic health, each program coming to life in different contexts or serving different populations. The synchronicity and uniqueness of our organization center so many different Nebraskans in our mission, who co-create a civically healthy society.
CN: What are some of your priorities out of the gate?
SW: Civic Nebraska has demonstrated so much resilience and innovation across the COVID-19 turbulence and we continue our journey of recovery today. My first priority is to make Give to Lincoln Day a record-breaking success for our organization. This is the 10th anniversary of the Lincoln Community Foundation’s celebration, and it’s more important than it’s ever been. Civic Nebraska is counting on vital operations gifts and citizen philanthropy to enable us to tackle our mission.
I want to remind everyone to keep Civic Nebraska in mind as you make Give to Lincoln Day donation from now until May 25. Your dollars are a direct investment in the version of the community you want to see for years to come. I can’t imagine a version of this state without Civic Nebraska, so if you believe in a more modern and robust democracy, we need your help this year.
CN: You’ve had a big year, having gotten married in October and now being promoted to a key role at Civic Nebraska. Just two low-stress affairs, right? What do you do when you want to unwind?
SW: I love going for walks around East Campus with my wife. We have two cats named Remi and Toulou and these kitty brothers couldn’t be more different. Remi is a homebody and scared of most things but Toulou is an adventurer. As a wedding gift, one of our friends gave us a cat bubble backpack so now that the weather is nice again, we like to take Toulou on walks to meet the neighbors.
CN: OK, we saved the toughest question for last. You grew up in Omaha but call Lincoln your home now. Settle an argument between the Lincoln staff and (Omaha-based Voting Rights Field Director) Brad Christian-Sallis. Which is the ‘better’ city?
SW: I love both cities for very different reasons! Depending on the day of the week, I’ll likely give a different answer. I appreciate the big-small city feel to Lincoln and I’ve always loved the changing energy that comes and goes when university students pour into the city each fall and then disperse for the summer. One thing Lincoln lacks that would secure its spot as a permanent favorite in this “showdown” is great Thai food! Omaha has such flavor, literally and figuratively – in my opinion it has Lincoln beat in the restaurant game and of course, having a Dodge Street. But in response to Brad’s steadfast opinion that Omaha is the “best” city, I’d probably have to ask, “why is our beautiful Unicameral located in Lincoln?” (laughs)
CN: In all seriousness, thanks for the time, Sarah. Congratulations again, and I know our community of supporters is eager to see how you shape Civic Nebraska’s giving culture as our development director.
SW: I’m honored to be here. Truly, there’s no better place to be.