Faces of Inspiration

By Joe Sweeney

Will Kansas City follow their example?

Always one of our most favorite editions, December again returns to a theme that defines Kansas City: Philanthropy.  One would need a heart of stone to read the stories of our Philanthropist of the Year winners, Barnett and Shirley Helzberg, or those of the 2019 Corporate Champions and Local Heroes, and not be moved.

We recognized all of them on Dec. 13 with our annual Philanthropy Awards Luncheon, and it was an event to remember—inspiration on steroids.

Much of that started with the Helzbergs, who were gracious enough to dedicate time earlier in the day to sit in on our 2019 Philanthropy Industry Outlook assembly, where the intellectual capital of major donors is always a welcome perspective to discussions dominated by non-profit executives.

If you’ve never met either of these extraordinary individuals, I would highly encourage you to seek out opportunities to cross their paths. It’s impossible to calculate the impact that each has had on the Kansas City region, not just for their philanthropic spirit, but for what they’ve done to promote the arts, education and a successful, caring business community.

We hear all the time about how the nature of relationships between successful executives and young entrepreneurs is far more prevalent here than in other peer communities are major metropolitan areas, and people like the Helzbergs are one reason why. They are sincerely interested in seeing others follow their path in business and in philanthropy. I challenge you to identify a more humble, self-deprecating steward of business than Barnett Helzberg Jr., or a more committed, engaged patron of the arts than Shirley Helzberg.

The mark they have left on this region will be visible for generations on multiple levels. One is Barnett’s work to establish the Helzberg Executive Mentoring Program. Another is Shirley’s work on behalf of the Kansas City Symphony and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (plus her efforts to redevelop significant buildings in the Crossroads area and her own mentoring of young entrepreneurs). A third is their co-founding of University Academy, which is changing the discussion about what is possible in an urban K-12 educational setting.

Remarkable stuff, all around.

But proving that you don’t need to sell a 110-year old chain of jewelry stores to Warrant Buffett in order make a philanthropic impact, our Local Heroes this year offer their own tales of inspiration. They hail from disparate interests like volunteer work at domestic-violence shelters, sitting on boards for non-profits like the Child Protection Center and Literacy KC, building tiny houses for veterans, rallying community support and raising funds for a world-class animal shelter or building an safe-space park for inner city youth, they all have shown what it means to step  up and meet a civic or social challenge.

Same goes for our Corporate Champions, who have demonstrated their commitment to ensuring the vibrancy of the community from which they draw their own success. They do it through outright donations, by contributing in-kind services, by funding employee time off to volunteer at organizations those workers have a special resonance, by steering young executives to board service, and in the case of one company, going as far as creating a donor-advised philanthropic fund for every new employee to help create entire new levels—and generations—of givers.

All of this matters. A lot. National studies have found that the number of households engaged in philanthropic giving has been on the decline since 2000. United Way of Greater KC says the civic pillars of giving, legacy companies that have carried a disproportionate burden of fundraising for decades, no
longer have the capacity to maintain that type of giving. Impulse donations from the younger crowds—who make small contributions to causes on the spot—aren’t sufficiently bridging those funding gaps.

I don’t believe KC can afford to lose that spirit and identity as a community apart from others. Our philanthropy has long defined us. Our Philanthropist of the Year winners, dating back to Henry Block, Bill Dunn, and Kent and Charlie Sunderland, along with our Local Heroes and Corporate Champions over the years, have all shown us the way with their leadership and their inspirational giving.

We need more of their kind. Without them, something rare and precious could be lost. 

About the author


Joe Sweeney

Editor-In-Chief & Publisher


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