Rhonda Seacrest believes in giving back to Nebraskans through programs that combat hunger, promote the arts and provide educational resources to people across the state. Her broader challenge compels her to motivate others to do likewise, which she accomplishes by planting the seed of philanthropy in College of Business students through a class project teaching them how to fund nonprofits.
“Young people today are interested in more than just going out and getting a high paying job,” said Seacrest, who provides funds for the senior-level Leading People and Projects (MNGT 411) Strive to Thrive Lincoln class project that takes students through the grant application process from beginning to end. “When students learn they could be the head of a nonprofit they start to see the personal satisfaction of helping someone else.”
Seacrest’s original inspiration for helping Nebraskans happened in the early 1970s when she took her mother and friends to a funeral in Merna, Nebraska. The wide-open prairie stretched before them.
“I’m standing out there on a February day looking at this landscape with these women burying their friend. It was so grim and bleak, and I said, ‘Why on earth did anybody stay here?’ Over the years I read about the hardships those early people faced, particularly the women facing isolation and starvation,” Seacrest said.
She explained the heroic image of pioneers passing through Nebraska does not do justice to those who stayed behind.
“The only ones I was interested in are the ones who stayed. The truth is if you came after them in a covered wagon or if you move to Nebraska today, your life is profoundly influenced by those who stayed and developed this land,” she said.
Seacrest visited with Strive to Thrive Lincoln students recently to tell them the story of the pioneers and why it is important for Nebraskans to help Nebraskans. She also gave them a better perspective for determining which nonprofits might align best with the class mission students created which defines the type of projects they wish to fund. Students manage the entire grant application process from the call for proposal to determining which organizations best merit funding, and then holding an awards ceremony where winners are announced.
“My hope is students have their consciousness raised about the great needs that exist even in Lincoln, Nebraska,” she said. “Beyond that, I hope each student becomes aware of opportunities to serve and learn the ethics and business model of the nonprofit sector. It is amazing how many different ways there are to make contributions.”
Dr. Amber Messersmith, lecturer of management, teaches the class Seacrest helps facilitate through her donations. Messersmith explained Seacrest originally got involved by watching her students make a presentation about their experiences on nonprofit site visits.
“Given Rhonda’s interest in the next generation of business leaders and improving the lives of Nebraskans, she provided funds that now allow us to offer this class every semester. We never have trouble filling this class to capacity because students are looking for something meaningful, and this experiential philanthropy course is unlike any other they’ve experienced. Their efforts are going to a greater cause. Rhonda sets a wonderful example for us in that she’s giving but she’s also giving so others can give,” said Messersmith.
Seacrest’s class visit gave students another perspective on why their work is important. Kyle Cartwright, executive director of Nebraska Cultural Endowment, facilitated the in-class interview which led into a question and answer session to help students understand her experiences working with nonprofits.
“It’s really powerful for students to not just hear of someone but really get to know the person who’s making this class possible,” said Messersmith. “It also helps to learn her motivations and I know that’s going to be contagious.”
Molly Wingert, a senior business administration major from Panama, Iowa, took part in the class and is a member of the team handling the awards ceremony preparations.
“We had learned about Rhonda but this helped get to know her on a personal level,” said Wingert. “To have that time with her means so much because she wants to make a lasting impact and so do we. What she provides in funding, we get to take and work on the process, just like her. Before this I never imagined working for a nonprofit, but seeing what you can do for your community I now believe I can make an impact as well.”
Seacrest, whose late husband Jim shared her passion for helping Nebraska communities, serves as president of the Lied Center advisory board, is a member of the Lincoln City Library and Mid-America Arts Alliance boards, and is on the advisory council of the Nebraska Cultural Endowment and Willa Cather Foundation, as well as involvement in many other philanthropic ventures throughout her career. She recounted how the late Dr. Otis Young, former senior minister of First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, spoke about treating those in your community.
“He said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference how brilliant your children are, how beautiful your spouse is or any of the other labels on the outside. The only thing that matters is how we treat one another.’ I am very much into equal opportunity and there’s something in me that wants to equalize that opportunity for all people. When Jim and I identified a need in our community, we always thought of it in terms of how can we fund a solution to meet that need,” said Seacrest.
In addition to her work with the Strive to Thrive Lincoln students, Seacrest supports faculty at the College of Business through the Seacrest Teaching Fellows. The program cultivates exceptional teaching by identifying and recognizing instructional faculty who ignite student enthusiasm for learning and provide high-quality educational experiences.
To learn more about the Strive to Thrive Lincoln project, visit: https://business.unl.edu/strivetothrive.