After emigrating from Russia, a young Joseph Cooper worked in a variety of capacities in New York City’s movie theatres. He went on to develop a chain of theatres in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado. After purchasing theatres in Lincoln, Nebraska, he made this city the center of his theatre activities outside of New York, while continuing to live there.
On December 14, 1934, Joe Cooper created The Cooper Foundation and co-located the office with Cooper Theatres, Inc. At that time there were only three hundred or so foundations in the country. By June of 1937, the Foundation’s bank balance stood at $37,732, and later that year we made our first grants totaling $5,000.
From the day he created the Foundation in 1934 until his death in 1946, Joe Cooper donated proceeds from his movie theatre interests to fund the gifts of the Foundation. Upon his death, he left the theatre business to the Foundation. Under our management the chain prospered and grew to include pioneering round Cinerama Theatres in Minneapolis, Denver, and Omaha. We sold the theatre business in the mid 1970s, resulting in a substantial increase in the Foundation’s endowment. Since the Foundation was formed it has given over $23 million to support programs and projects in Nebraska.
Mr. Cooper’s interest in young people has been honored by the Foundation’s continued priority on grantmaking in the areas of education, human services, the arts, the humanities, and the environment throughout Nebraska, primarily Lincoln and Lancaster County.
Cooper Foundation founded on December 14.
The Foundation gave its first grant, $500 to the Boy Scouts for camp improvements.
The first memorial scholarships at the University of Nebraska Foundation established in honor of deceased trustees J.E. Miller and Charles Stuart.
First grant for the ‘Arts’ made to the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra.
The Cooper Board of Trustees extended the life of the corporation from 50 years to perpetuity.
Joe Cooper died on March 20 and the Foundation takes over the Cooper Theatres.
The Board of Trustees began what was to become a decades-long discussion with the IRS to retain the Foundation’s tax exempt status while owning a multi-state theatre business.
Major grants totaling $61,000 given to the University of Nebraska for campus beautification.
Approved $32,000 to the City of Lincoln to renovate Lincoln’s oldest park, which became Cooper Park.
Trustee J. Lee Rankin resigned to become Assistant United States Attorney General.
Trustees consolidated leadership of the theatre business in Lincoln, Nebraska and appointed a general manager.
The Board begins to budget for grants and to consider specific grantmaking objectives.
Cooper’s first Cinerama theatre opened.
On New Year’s Eve, E.N. “Jack” Thompson was elected president.
Cooper Foundation joins the Council on Foundations.
The last of six grants (total $57,080) was made to the University of Nebraska State Museum (Morrill Hall) for the creation of 14 dioramas depicting the flora and fauna of Nebraska.
New Cooper Lincoln theatre opened at 52nd & O in “suburban Lincoln.”
The Tax Reform Act formally defines private foundations and establishes rules on payout requirements, self-dealing, and business ownership.
Cooper Plaza building at 12th & P Streets is completed, housing the new Plaza 4 Theatres and Cooper’s offices.
The Foundation’s first formal grantmaking policies were adopted.
Cooper funded a grant to equip the new Cedar Point Biological Station at Lake McConaughy.
The Foundation made an initial $100,000 pledge (later increased to $200,000) to increase Merit Scholarships at the University of Nebraska.
The Foundation sells the Cooper Theatres business to Commonwealth Theatres of Kansas City.
A $70,000 grant was made toward the planned Clyde Malone Community Center.
Cooper Foundation organized the effort to establish a local food bank, and hired Bob Troyer to lead the process. He became the first Executive Director of the Lincoln Food Bank.
A $70,000 grant helped establish Voices for Children.
A grant of $8,500 helped establish Bright Lights.
The Cooper-UNL Forum on World issues lecture series was created, later renamed the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues.
Art Thompson was appointed President; E.N. Thompson was elected Chair of the board.
A $25,000 grant was made toward the founding of the Child Advocacy Center.
The Foundation sold the Cooper Plaza building.
A $25,000 grant to the YMCA helped create a “community wraparound center,” (later becoming a Community Learning Center) at Elliot Elementary School.
The Board of Trustees added the ‘Environment’ as a grantmaking priority.
A grant of $250,000 completed the capital campaign for the Cooper YMCA in Southwest Lincoln.
The Foundation received $192,387.22, the remainder of a trust set up by Joe Cooper in 1937 for his son – those funds were granted to UNL’s Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center for their new building.
Chair Jack Thompson died on December 7, having served the Foundation for 50 years.
Jack Campbell was elected chair of the board in early 2003.
The Foundation made a major change in its investment policy, allocating 100 percent of its endowment to equities to maximize appreciation and grants.
The stock market declined, as did the Cooper Foundation’s endowment, which plummeted from $24.9 million to $14.9 million. The board adopted temporary grant guidelines calling for smaller grants that focused on the highest priorities.
A grant to NET Foundation for Television of $20,000 for equipment helped launch the Platte Basin Timelapse Project.
A $25,000 grant to the Lincoln Community Foundation helped start Give to Lincoln Day.
Cooper Foundation joined with 12 other funders to develop the Lincoln Vital Signs report which provides comprehensive data on key economic, social, health, and community wellbeing measures.
Longtime legal counsel Richard A. “Dick” Knudsen was named an Honorary Trustee.
To celebrate 80 years of grantmaking, $202,293 was granted to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to fund the first phase of equipment for Innovation Studio at Innovation Campus.
The Cooper Foundation celebrated 85 years in 2019, honoring the Foundation’s leadership and history, and looking to the future. On January 1, 2019 the Foundation had a leadership transition. Victoria Grasso was appointed President by the Foundation Trustees, Art Thompson transitioned from President to Board Chair, and Jack Campbell, Board Chair, transitioned to Chair Emeritus. Jack has served as a Trustee for 44 years and as board chair for 16 years. Art joined the Board of Trustees in 1984 and was appointed President in 1990. Victoria joined the Foundation in 1994 serving in many grants management positions throughout her career.
The E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues season featured three women of color (a series first): Nobel Peace Prize winners Nadia Murad and Leymah Gbowee, and former diplomat and counter-extremism expert Farah Pandith, who all addressed extremism and war from varying perspectives.
The Foundation kicked off 2020 by promoting the 2020 Census with a special printed report. This was a collaborative effort with nonprofits to promote the census response. As a result of our community’s efforts, Lincoln ranked 1st in the country in the self-response rate and Nebraska ranked 4th nationally.
The trustees of the Cooper Foundation added Civic and Community Engagement to its grantmaking priority areas. This dedicated program area will support nonprofit organizations as they address issues of public concern, lift up voices from all areas of the community, and draw people into public decision-making processes.
In March of 2020, the Foundation adapted its grantmaking in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A new simplified Rapid Response Application was developed, and grants were awarded monthly for unrestricted general operating support for nonprofits in Lincoln and throughout Nebraska. Between March and September 2020, the Foundation held 7 grant cycles and awarded 63 grants, totaling nearly $478,000.