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SUE MORRIS: Unprecedented

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“I hope to make a positive impact for our community.”

~ Sue Morris

As president of Heritage Services, Sue Morris was involved with numerous capital campaigns over 25 years supporting the likes of Joslyn Art Museum, The Durham Museum, the Holland Performing Arts Center, Do Space, the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Baxter Arena, Lauritzen Gardens, Siena Francis House and more.

Her last project was the Ambulatory Care Center at the Omaha Veterans Administration Medical Center, which will serve thousands of veterans throughout the state of Nebraska and western Iowa and is the first public-private partnership with Veterans Affairs in the country.

“The VA project, while it wasn’t our biggest, is probably the crown jewel of the end of my career at Heritage,” she said. “In the past 25 years we realized over $1 billion in community projects and raised over $750 million in philanthropic funds.”

Morris is originally from Illinois but came to Nebraska in her youth (“So I am from Nebraska.”). After graduating from Kearney High School, she attended Wayne State College as a music major, thinking she might become a teacher.

“My mother was a teacher, my brother was a principal, my sister was in education,” she said. “Education was very important in my family.”

However, Morris realized in college that her heart wasn’t in education. She earned her degree and started working for the Omaha World-Herald in 1979. It was a good experience, she said, but after starting a family, her career became more exacting. She left the newspaper in 1988.

“Honestly, the best work background to lead a nonprofit is to have experience working for a for-profit. I had two amazing bosses at the newspaper: Bill Donaldson and John Gottschalk,” she said. “They challenged the best in me.”

Innate fund-raiser

Morris then “fell into” a development job with College of Saint Mary. Her roots as the daughter of a minister helped make her a natural.

“I didn’t plan to enter the development field, but being a preacher’s kid, I think I was born to be a fund-raiser…I saw my dad raise money every week,” she said. “I was at College of Saint Mary for five years. Higher education is a really good place to start in development. There are a lot of resources and layers, and I learned a lot while I was there.”

In 1995, she joined Heritage Services, a relatively new organization at the time. Imagining and envisioning projects that serve the community was hard but rewarding work, Morris said. Overseeing the development of projects usually included architectural and design oversight along with administration and financing…and many long hours.

“It’s what’s required as an executive. It’s not a 40-hour workweek, it’s a 60-hour workweek, and you’re committing to a lot of personal time with evening functions and late meetings,” she said. “I’m humbled that people give their money away, and I chose to give that power and recognition to the right people, because that’s who deserves it: the donors. I’m a facilitator.”

Morris was especially adept at a sort of matchmaking.

“I spent a lot of time listening to donors, asking what their personal interests are. Many times I wouldn’t ask them for a gift for years, until the right project came along that matched up to them,” she said.

“But I did not do this alone,” she emphasized. “I had an amazing leader, Walter Scott (Jr.), who led Heritage Services for 30 years, and a committed and talented board that knew when to take risks. Over the years they had such an important impact in the community.”

Lasting impact

As a big-picture thinker, Morris also praised a staff that skillfully executed details and “every day worked with excellence.”

“We had a real commitment to be good stewards of other people’s money,” she added. “Ethics is important.”

She’s proud of the projects she was associated with through Heritage Services, Morris said, and some had special meaning like leading the Holland Performing Arts Center, which appealed to her interest in music. The Omaha South High School soccer and football field was also particularly touching.

“Changing the landscape of that school and nurturing athletes and parents from other schools play on the field or watch their children breaking down preconceived barriers is a lasting impact,” she said.

Stepping down, moving forward

Leaving Heritage Services in 2020 after a quarter-century wasn’t easy, Morris said.

“I used to tell people I had the best job in the city of Omaha with Heritage. When Walter Scott made the decision to step down, I had worked for him for 25 years,” she said. “It seemed like the right time to leave, but it’s always hard to leave. It was kind of who I was for so long, and I loved it.”

Her successor, Rachel Jacobsen, “is doing a great job,” Morris said. “The transition has gone well.”

Morris now serves as president of Omaha Philanthropic Trust, a new nonprofit supporting emerging philanthropic initiatives. “I’m not retired!” she said with a laugh. “I hope to make a positive impact for our community.”

Morris’s husband David, however, did retire in 2020. The couple also celebrated 40 years together last summer.

“We are blessed that our two children are thriving personally and professionally. My daughter Sarah is a technology attorney and she and her husband Brent live in D.C. Our son is involved in corporate real estate and serves on the Omaha Planning Board,” she said. “Patrick and his wife Monica planned a June 27 wedding at the Holland Center. Due to COVID, they were married on March 23 in front of eight people. They made the right decision, and they did it gracefully.”

Morris, who was inducted into Aksarben Court of Honor in 2015, has always been active in the community.

“When possible, I have tried to stay connected with organizations or projects Heritage Services led or (in which) I personally have been involved. I am very supportive of UNO and the impact athletics has had on transforming that campus. The Baxter Arena and the new baseball/softball fields play an important role in recruiting all students, not just athletes,” she said.

Morris also enjoys mentoring professional women just starting out.

“I didn’t know I was a role model, but after I announced that I was stepping down as president of Heritage Services, I was moved by the number of women of all ages who reached out and said they admired what I had accomplished,” she said. “I’m most effective with young women who are graduating college and entering the workforce… I think women need buddies, particularly early in their careers. I look forward to identifying ways to stay connected with that age of women.”

Other ways to serve

Morris still makes room in her life for her church and faith, too, and even served as the national moderator in 2019 for her church denomination The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She attends First Christian Church here in Omaha. She said she’s mulling over how she can serve her faith community in new ways.

“I see myself considering the impact of COVID and how it has impacted communities, i.e., the decline in church attendance and if attendance will return back to pre-COVID numbers,” she said. “The role of the church is important in how it responds through community outreach.”

Regarding the more distant future, Morris said, “When I really do retire, I’ll always be a development resource for nonprofit leaders and fund-raisers and development officers.” She may also become more involved in the political process. “I don’t have aspirations to serve in a political role, but I see myself identifying emerging leaders and encouraging them to serve in office.”

The new year is promising, Morris said. It’s exciting to be in on the ground floor with a budding organization, and she’s looking forward to getting back to traveling and hosting dinners and cocktail parties.

“I love to entertain, and I have a ‘dish room’ full of sets of china and fun serving pieces and linens. My mother (Bernice Hogan) was an amazing entertainer and she also wrote books. One book she wrote and dedicated to me is called The Party Planner (1967),” she said. “To invite persons to my home and make them feel welcome in a special way brings me joy.”

This special feature is sponsored by planitinc.

planitinc. is dedicated to honoring women whose influence not only impacts the boardroom but the community. 

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SUE MORRIS: Unprecedented