Aspen Nonprofits Join Forces To Make A Collective Impact

By Christine BenedettiĀ  | November 21, 2019 |

Nonprofits from Aspen to Parachute are frequently taking a systemic approach to critical issues.

AspenCommunityFoundation.jpgA panel of philanthropists from the Aspen Community Foundation’s Coming Together for Our Youth: A Forum to Challenge the Status Quo held this summer. The panelists were speaking on transformative approaches to supporting social change, including flexible funding, investing in people and multisector partnerships. From left: Moderator John Bennett, Laurie Michaels, Susan Crown and Jamie Van Leeuwen.

When Kristin Nelson moved to the Roaring Fork Valley from California in 2003, she immediately got involved with nonprofits helping to serve youth. She donated time and money consistently to five organizations, but by the early 2010s, it was clear that there were still needs. “I met with different nonprofits serving youth in the valley, and asked them where they had gaps,” she says. “They all said teens.”

In 2014, Nelson founded Stepping Stones, a nonprofit that facilitates mentoring at drop-in centers for youth ages 10 to 21 in the Roaring Fork Valley. “It evolved because, at the beginning, we were dealing with so much crisis that we started to work on prevention.” Last year, Stepping Stones had more than 6,000 drop-ins, served more than 6,000 meals, and had 200-plus youths regularly meeting with a mentor to develop and implement long-term goals.

But, Stepping Stones regularly works with and supports other youth organizations in the valley. Those include equine therapy sessions at Windwalkers; visits to the Aspen Youth Center in the summer, which also provides free drop-in services; support from the Aspen Hope Center, which offers crisis prevention and mental health response; events with the Buddy Program, a mentorship organization; and goods and services from Tom’s Door, helping those in emergencies. “The youth organizations work really well together,” says Nelson.

And that—collaboration between nonprofits instead of competition—is something those in the region, from Aspen to Parachute, are continually working toward. “I know people talk about the number of nonprofits and duplication of services,” says Tamara Tormohlen, executive director for the Aspen Community Foundation, which supports nonprofits, connects donors with community needs, and builds permanent charitable funds. “There are what we call core nonprofits—those providing health and human services, enrichment, education, etc. They are not duplicating services, and there are still gaps. There’s a lot of need.”


When talking about how many nonprofits serve the Aspen to Parachute area—the common geographic region used to describe the greater Roaring Fork Valley—many numbers get thrown out. In Pitkin County, there are almost 180 registered 501 (c)3s, according to the Colorado Secretary of State. But, officials say, that’s not an accurate portrayal of how many of them are actually working as a nonprofit—and serving the Aspen area. Some may have achieved nonprofit status, but don’t operate. Others may be based here, but have missions elsewhere. And when moving beyond the upper valley, Aspen to Parachute also includes Eagle County, which is seated in Eagle, near Vail, and Garfield County. Garfield County has close to 200 registered nonprofits, and the Basalt/Carbondale part of Eagle County has around 30. It’s easy to see where people come up with a figure of close to 500 501 (c)3s in the valley.

But the Aspen Community Foundation says the number of nonprofits serving Aspen to Parachute is closer to 240, according to a list it manages. ACF breaks it down into categories: arts and culture, environment, education, health and human services, strengthening community, and youth.

A different way to look at it is the number of people employed in nonprofit work. In Pitkin County, 3% of all jobs, or 728 positions, are directly related to nonprofit, which is below the state average of 5.12%, according to the Colorado Nonprofit Economic Impact Study.

“When someone comes to me and asks if they should start a nonprofit, generally, I say no, but I talk to them about what’s already going on there,” says Michaela Idhammar, who leads a valleywide networking group for people in fundraising and development roles. She is also the executive director for the Aspen Youth Center. “Starting a nonprofit is time consuming, costs money, and it’s not easy.”

Yet, she says the ones that do launch are not repeating services, and they are usually supporting other nonprofits in some way. “I think [people wanting to start nonprofits] think it’s going to be easy to fundraise because of the wealth here,” she says. “It’s not going to be easy to get money if the donors don’t support what you’re doing. … People here are very gracious, but there are lots of asks and a lot of events. That gets frustrating.”

The Aspen Community Foundation advises close to 120 donors on their giving, so Tormohlen and her staff have their pulse on the potential—and limits—of regional philanthropy. “The challenge is that we’re a resort area, and the wealth is from second homeowners and they’re often giving in their primary communities,” she says. “It’s hard to penetrate the message that they have a responsibility to give here.”

The arts and culture organizations based in Aspen, such as the Aspen Music Festival and School, Aspen Art Museum, and the Aspen Institute, typically get the most funds, she says, because they have a visible product with which second homeowners most directly connect.

MaryNooneIllustration.jpgAn illustration by Colorado native, Mary Noone.


Arts and culture play a major role in Aspen’s identity. And, it’s a driving economic force. How much so is still a big question, but one that the Aspen Chamber Resort Association is trying to answer with an ongoing 12-month study, set to be completed next summer.

“The study will analyze the cumulative impact of arts and culture organizations as a tourism draw and contributor to our local quality of life and the local spending impacts. It will include both tangible and intangible impacts—these organizations contribute significantly to Aspen’s stature, recognition, visibility and brand,” says Sarah Reynolds-Lasser, senior director of business development for ACRA. “There are a variety of economic and community impacts, such as influencing second homeowner purchasing decisions; providing earned media exposure for Aspen; and heightening the perceived quality, uniqueness and prestige of Aspen to prospective visitors.

It’s hard to predict the results, but the hard data and findings will help nonprofits with everything from marketing to fundraising moving forward, she says.

Cristal Logan, the vice president and director of Aspen Community Programs at the Aspen Institute, is the ACRA board president. She represents the nonprofit sector on the board. That voice heavily weighs toward the arts and culture because ACRA is tasked with marketing Aspen in the summer (Aspen Skiing Company handles the winter), and the arts and culture are integral. She says that even these nonprofits have some frustration when it comes to cohesive Aspen-area marketing. “You could walk or bike through Aspen and not realize how robust arts and culture are,” she says. But she acknowledges that essential services organizations struggle. “When things come up around this idea of the health of our economy, that’s when I speak up for the people who rely on year-round work, and, in our community, who are really vulnerable with deep offseasons,” she says.

There are critical needs everywhere from to Aspen to Parachute; nonprofit services are strong in the Roaring Fork Valley but moving west, away from Glenwood, they are more scarce. Sometimes it’s hard for Aspen donors to understand the connection about giving to a nonprofit that serves Glenwood Springs, Rifle or Parachute, even though those communities are providing some of the labor force, particularly in construction, services and hospitality.


For those essential services, the resounding feeling is that it’s better to work together. “I think, overall, when I started in nonprofit, people felt more competitive about donors and brands,” says Idhammar. “But people really try to collaborate, in my opinion. We cannot be all things to all people.”

When it comes to receiving grants or government funds, those funding organizations are frequently looking for collaboration too, to make sure the money is being multiplied. Tormholen, who has been the head of ACF for 18 years, says donors have shifted as well.

“There’s a greater awareness of the issues, the barriers to the issues, and causes,” she says. “Donors want to see more impact and be more engaged. Donors are asking impact questions and wanting to know the landscape. ‘What does the whole system look like and not just the nonprofit?’ No one nonprofit can solve anything,” she says. To that end, ACF launched the Cradle to Career initiative in 2012, a collective impact approach that helps regional youth in making sure they’re ready for kindergarten and, upon graduation, ready for college or a career. Success will be measured not by months or even years, but by decades. Early results, however, show that the system is strengthening.

“If you look at the business model of a nonprofit, they’re supposed to be better than everyone else. That’s how they get money,” says Tormholen. “It’s not in their nature to work together. But the real question is: How are they each valuable in tackling the issue? I want to get away from how many nonprofits, and more toward ‘Are they trying to tackle the issues?’ Nonprofits can be more flexible and adaptive to fill gaps where the bigger system isn’t. And of course, if they have more money, they can do more.”

NewMap.jpgSource: Colorado Nonprofit Economic Impact Study, 2017

People employed in nonprofit work: 189,178

Nonprofit spending: $20 billion
Economic impact: $40 billion
Percentage of all jobs: 5.12%

Pitkin County
People employed in nonprofit work: 728

Nonprofit spending: $93.2 million
Percentage of all jobs: 3%

Eagle County (includes Eagle-Vail)
People employed in nonprofit work: 2,036
Nonprofit spending: $260.9 million
Percentage of all jobs: 4.3%

Garfield County
People employed in nonprofit work: 2,253

Nonprofit spending: $283.7 million
Percentage of all jobs: 5.53%


Photography by: Aspen Community Foundation