From Capitol Hill to Corn Fields

Sarah Origer is empowering people to serve their communities in Indiana.

Sarah Origer did not once imagine in college where her typical day would find her now: sitting across the kitchen table from a concerned resident of Starke County, Indiana, to discuss his desires to help his community and help him to achieve those goals.

Born in Nebraska, Sarah left for school at the University of Northern Colorado where she studied Political Science. “My exposure to political philosophy was limited to a little Aristotle, a little Machiavelli, a little Locke, a little Hobbes, a little Kant. So when I say John Jay changed my perspective, I mean that if I'd never gone to John Jay, if it hadn’t been for that eye-opening experience, I have no idea where I'd be or what I'd believe.”

At the John Jay Institute, she was exposed to a far richer understanding of politics, culture, theology, and ethics than she had known existed. Instead of a smattering, she drank from a deep well of conservative thought, discovering new authors like Burke and Kirk. Armed with a sense of cultural responsibility, she moved to Washington, D.C. through the Institute’s externship program to work with The Heritage Foundation; first as an intern and eventually as Strategic Operations Coordinator. Little did she imagine where she’d be in just three years.

From National to Local

Photo credit: Sarah Origer

Photo credit: Sarah Origer

She met her husband Nathan in D.C., who had just attended Notre Dame with a full scholarship from the Lilly Endowment - a foundation that would come to have a large impact on Sarah’s life. After marrying Nathan, she moved with him to his home state of Indiana.

She soon began work as Director of Development with the Northern Indiana Community Foundation - a Foundation established in cooperation with the same Lilly Endowment that had funded her husband’s education. The Lilly Endowmentset up county-level foundations throughout Indiana in 1990 as an attempt to localize their philanthropic efforts. The leaders at the Lilly Foundation had a conservative vision that neighbors could help their own neighbors far better than a group of people sitting in an office in Indianapolis.

This new position was exciting, but Sarah initially struggled with the feeling that leaving her position at a national think tank in D.C. to live in rural Indiana was a step down: “The scale is very different, moving from a national think tank like the Heritage Foundation to NICF. At first, moving felt like I was moving from doing really important work to doing work that wasn’t as important or as glamorous. But these feelings changed and I realized quickly I was doing valuable work in the day-to-day lives of the people I served.”

Sarah’s focus is on Starke County, Indiana, population 23,197. It’s a rural area, a full 90 minutes from downtown Chicago. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and everything that happens. “So many local people attended my wedding that it took me years afterward to actually learn all their names!” Sarah laughs. Five years in, however, she too knows everyone, and feels more connected to this community that she would have thought possible.

Empowering People to Serve Their Communities

The Northern Indiana Community Foundation works in Starke, Miami, and Fulton counties. Together it has distributed over 18 million dollars in grants and scholarships since it began. By holding assets of over 31 million dollars, it is able to help these communities and very small nonprofits who don’t have the sustaining power of large endowments. Sarah’s key role is to make those connections happen.

Her typical day is filled with meetings, emails, and phone calls to the men and women who have set up private funds through NICF. She goes to their homes to talk to them, get their feedback, and ensure their wishes are being honored. She attends the board meetings of the nonprofits, churches, parks, and other groups that receive these funds to ensure the support is being used effectively. She works to find the best opportunities for spreading funds throughout the communities she serves. “Our county has wealth, there's no question, but there are a lot of folks at the bottom. Around 60% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunches here.”

Sarah sees the philanthropists of Starke County as the real heroes and herself as a mere facilitator of their generosity: “I’m just carrying out the work our donors allow us to carry out. It’s a great privilege. Our work is about the lives impacted by the generosity and charity of our donors.”

She’s modest, but her work is essential to the process. The donors she works with need someone like Sarah to make the connections necessary for effective charity. She matches the needs of the community with the interests of prospective donors. Sarah and her colleagues help to fund local food pantries. They help donors who love their churches establish endowments to support the church for years to come. They help to provide preschool scholarships for kids who would otherwise be unable to go. And they are honored to work with the support of donors who love the people of Starke county.

Much of this funding goes to the general operating expenses of local nonprofits. While absolutely necessary, that kind of giving requires a deep involvement from someone like Sarah to make sure it is being used effectively.

Sarah’s only complaint is that there isn’t more time in the day to spend with everyone she wants to meet. Any given year, NICF has 1,200-1,400 donors. Needless to say, it’s a struggle to touch base with that many people. But Sarah is committed to the cause - NICF’s primary goal is to honor donor intent in their investments.

Making a Home

Sarah has been surprised to find how much she loves her work and new home. While she benefited from her time at Heritage (among other duties, she coordinated hundreds of meetings, which certainly helped to prepare her for her current busy schedule), she has found a more fulfilling place as a servant leader in her local community.

One of her most important takeaways from her time at the John Jay Institute was a new understanding that politics is primarily rooted in local culture. She now lives on a family farm that was built by her husband’s grandfather and passed down to her husband’s father. She works every day at the most local of levels to better the lives of her neighbors by connecting people and bringing them together. She believes she is fulfilling the kind of vision for cultural leadership she encountered in her time as a John Jay Fellow:

“I admire what the John Jay Institute is trying to accomplish - to educate and equip a whole generation of leaders in places small and large - to make them well equipped to lead and to serve…. It changed my life. Changed my perspective and my trajectory...  I just hope that I’m doing my part in that mission and vision.”