“Colorado Giving Voice” Blog

‘Lasting Impressions’

The Bonfils-Stanton Foundation held an annual ceremony yesterday to honor achievements in the arts and humanities, community service, and science and medicine. The foundation also introduced its 2011 Livingston Fellows. They hail from five different nonprofit organizations and include Alyssa Kopf, CEO of Community Shares of Colorado and a board member of the Colorado Association of Funders.

We’re reprinting the reflections from a past winner of the Bonfils-Stanton community service award. The essay appeared in “Lasting Impressions,” a book published last year about the recipients of a prize that has become known as “Colorado’s Nobel.”

By Sam Gary

It’s an honor to be asked to share my personal philosophy. It’s also a little confusing because, at 83, I’m still trying to figure out if I have one. I don’t exactly have a philosopher’s background.

IBM used to have a one-word motto: Think. I was very young when it occurred to me that maybe I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t do well in school—I was always thinking about fishing when I should have been thinking about geometry. Teachers told me to try “doubly hard,” so I’d try triply hard, but it didn’t seem to get me anywhere.

Somehow I managed to make it through high school and several years in the Coast Guard and the Maritime Service, but I really had no direction. I had friends studying medicine and law, going into business, but there was nothing I felt driven to do. On top of that, I seemed to have a real limitation. Today, they call it dyslexia.

But since they made it easy for veterans to go to college, I ended up at Cazenovia Junior College—for women. I got a good job stoking the furnace in a girls’ dormitory. (An incentive was that my dog could live there with me, in the basement.) I thought no one would realize my major motivation wasn’t education but the opportunity to be around all those girls.

One man did, though—Charles Schwerin, the dorm master. He was smart enough to know what was going on, but we still had a comfortable, open relationship. He knew I was having trouble in school, but he never lectured me or told me to try doubly hard, and eventually he suggested I transfer to Syracuse University, a much more demanding school nearby. “You don’t have to love college,” he said, “you just need to hang in there.”

Hanging in there turned out to be a pretty important skill. I graduated from college in two-and-a-half years, with a grade point average of 2.5, which didn’t exactly catapult me into graduate school but impressed me all the same. In retrospect, I couldn’t have done it if Chuck hadn’t been only twenty miles away, reminding me that I could.

Nearly fifty years later, I called his old number in Massachusetts.

I said, “Chuck?”

After a long pause, he said, “Sam?”

He remembered me!

By this time, I was an established oilman. Since this was a more prestigious career than stoking the furnace in a girl’s dormitory, I’d sometimes been tempted to reinvent myself as an accomplished, hard-working person. But I knew much of my success was due to nothing more than my ability to get up in the morning, and to having gotten to connect with other people like Chuck. By then, I also knew that some people are born on the wrong end of the stick, through no fault of their own, without the basic tools it takes to participate in society. When I got involved in philanthropy, I realized that we have a tendency to put these people in cans, to try to fix them. When that doesn’t work, we tend to dismiss them as hopeless.

Instead of doing that with me, Chuck had given me a little encouragement, a little time to figure out how to think. It’s as if he looked at me and thought: Why not?         

Since then, I’ve approached a number of potentially impossible situations by asking that exact question: Why not? There are usually plenty of reasons not to do something, and it’s never hard to find someone who’s happy to point them out. Others have not only entertained the question, but hung in there with me as I tried to find an answer. I’ve been lucky.

If you want philosophy, how about this:

Recognize potential.

Hang in there.

Why not?


In founding the Piton Foundation, Sam Gary pioneered a model of urban philanthropy that unites neighborhood schools, churches, businesses and nonprofit organizations to improve public education, create economic opportunity, and strengthen civic leadership.

Diamonds in the rough

Posted by Joanne Kelley

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview seven incredible high school seniors competing for Daniels Fund scholarships.

I was so moved by their stories of beating the odds that the old news reporter in me began taking notes all over their applications so I could remember the precise details of their stories and keep them straight.

At the end of the day, I discovered I had to turn in the materials I’d scribbled on all afternoon. Fortunately, Denver Post columnist Tina Griego captured her own interview experience beautifully here.

The students I interviewed weren’t the same students, but they left me with the same impression: the future is brighter than we think.

To see a video about a surprise announcement of a small group of Daniels Scholar finalists in the metro area or for a full list of the 267 scholarship recipients announced today, click here.  

Joanne Kelley is the executive director of the Colorado Association of Funders.

‘Tis the Season

With the approach of “Colorado Gives Day” on December 8, we asked the Community First Foundation if a local donor might be willing to share her experience about online charitable giving. Linda Kirkpatrick tells her own story about what motivates her to give and how she divvied up a significant donation into smaller monthly payments when the economy began struggling a couple of years ago. (For more information about Colorado Gives Day, go to www.coloradogivesday.org)

Helping people who are experiencing difficult times is important to me.  I’m frequently reminded that most of us are ever-so-close to needing that kind of help ourselves.  When I was in third grade back in 1956, I came home from school one day to learn that my father had been hit by a train and was hospitalized in another state.

Our lives changed overnight.

My father was unable to work for many years.  There were no organizations like the Jeffco Action Center to help my family. Instead, friends and neighbors helped with used clothing and transportation. Living on a farm kept us eating well, but many who experience setbacks are not so fortunate to be able to grow food in sufficient amounts to live on.  We even had enough food to occasionally give to others as a way of thanking them for what they did for us.  My mother always said, “No matter how little you have, you always have enough to share.”

Now I give back by volunteering for the Jeffco Action Center, and I was invited to serve on their board a few years ago.  It’s always been important to me when serving on a board to meet the expectations that were outlined to me before accepting that position.  Making a substantial donation of $1,000 or more a year is something I committed to, but meeting that commitment became a bit difficult when the economy turned sour in 2008.

I remembered I could make recurring donations online through GivingFirst.org, by having $85 a month charged to my credit card. Somehow, setting up a regular monthly payment seemed a lot more manageable than writing that $1,000 check once a year. Even though we’d tightened our budget at home substantially, I knew the Action Center had 200-300 families walking through their doors each day seeking help. And I knew they needed my donation more than ever.

– Linda Kirkpatrick

Has the economy, technology, or anything else prompted you to change your own giving habits? We’d like to hear from you. Feel free to post a comment here or share your experience with us.

The next decade

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Posted by Joanne Kelley

If you haven’t seen David Miller’s Next Decade Project blog, we highly recommend it. The Denver Foundation CEO manages to write his own frequent blog posts filled with his thoughts and those of the leaders he’s interviewing during a “year of collecting visions.”

We’re grateful for David’s leadership here at the Colorado Association of Funders, where he serves on the board and is slated to become vice chairman in 2011.

Please feel free to leave your comments both here and on his blog about his recent post, “Boys Face Challenges.” We also encourage you to write your own post or suggest other blog posts that we can share on our Colorado Giving Voice blog.

Train of thoughts

James Skay of the Boettcher Foundation reflects on his recent experience in La Junta, where he joined dozens of other funders to network with local nonprofits and government officials to learn about the most pressing needs in the southeastern corner of our state.

James T. Skay, Jr.

On the last morning of my first Rural Philanthropy Days, I woke before the sun, partly because I wanted to read the Pueblo newspaper being offered at the hotel and partially due to the fact that today was Round Table Day, and I was nervous.  I made my way to the lobby for a cup of coffee, and as I looked up from the Pueblo Chieftain, I noticed the sun beginning to rise.  I walked outside and stood along route 50, appreciating the stillness of such a dusty, orange and blue early morning.  That inertness was broken by the arrival of a coal train, eagerly chugging east towards the nascent sun to help provide us with the power we would need to make it through the day.  With another sip of coffee, however, the train’s unselfconscious motion, its determination to do what it does, fit right in with the essence of the plains I was standing on.  I took another sip, breathed the dew-rich air, and headed back in to prepare for the day’s event.

Tangible was the need to improve a town, build a new center, protect the citizens, renovate a facility, provide a better program, construct a library, lift the veil of poverty, purchase a school, beat a rival town in football, find new efficiencies, rehabilitate an historic building, modernize a youth gathering space, expand services, acquire land, channel water, strengthen a community.

Southeast Colorado was determined to utilize each minute of the three hours allotted to the only event of the third day: the Round Table.  Commonly referred to as “speed-dating,” the Round Table consists of one funder at each table and many, many organizations that rotate around in eight-minute intervals, talking to each funder about their respective projects to hopefully get a “green light” for funding.  With each passing minute the conversations became more colorful and the large, wonderful room on the Otero Junior College Campus was barely able to contain the inspired buzz of ideas.  In fact, the only stopping points were when the event conductor blew a train whistle, signifying it was time to move to the next round table, the next chance to see your project get one step closer to reality.

That night, back in Denver, I could not stop thinking how involved in the community everyone was; how they cared about the success of not only their projects, but their neighbors’ as well.  How in the midst of this vast land the people of southeast Colorado have stitched together a common ideal based on values like respect and compassion.  And how intense it all was, a coal-train in its own right, determined to power the community for one more day. — James T. Skay, Jr.

Do you have thoughts to share about your personal experiences with philanthropy? Please leave a comment or let us know if you’d be willing to blog about them here at Colorado Giving Voice.

Bringing it home

Posted by: Joanne Kelley

Everybody has a story waiting to be told.

The word “stories” came up a lot this week at our social media workshop for 300 funders and nonprofits.

As Daniel Weinshenker of the Center for Digital Storytelling told us, the best stories are the ones that only you can tell.

And then he showed us what he meant, with one powerful story montage after another. One in particular, called “Tanya,” showed that stories don’t need to be polished, flashy or long to make a lasting impression – or to get you thinking, “I’ve got a story, too.”

(To find “Tanya,” visit the Center’s online story page and use the horizonal scrollbar at the bottom of the page to move to the right.)

We launched this new Colorado Association of Funders blog last week with a story I wrote about my own personal experience with giving, Moment of a Lifetime.

We encourage you to contribute your own reflections about how giving has touched your life. Can you think of a story you’d like to share?

Let us know how we can help.

Moment of a Lifetime

Posted by: Joanne Kelley

I found a FedEx box waiting on my doorstep when I returned home from my summer vacation last month. In it: a single test tube with two cotton swabs. My younger brother Tom had just been diagnosed with a rare condition that required an urgent bone marrow transplant. His doctors told him that a sibling match would give him his best chance for survival. My two other brothers and I, spread out across the country, sent back our tissue samples and waited.

Tom towered over me by the time we were teenagers, but I could only picture him now as my little brother. I pulled out old photos of us as kids to show my own children while we waited for news.

The day we lost our beach ball, we couldn’t help but wonder whether Tom had swallowed it whole.

A week later my brother got the call. “Well, your brothers aren’t a match, but we think your sister is.” I boarded a flight to New York City for more tests at Sloan-Kettering hospital.

Two weeks would pass before I returned to Manhattan so that doctors could remove some of my bone marrow cells and transfer them to Tom. He, meanwhile, checked into the hospital and passed the time in relative isolation to prepare for the transplant through chemotherapy.

I can’t say I knew what to expect once my part of the procedure was over and the anesthesia began to wear off. I got in a wheelchair and put on a face mask, gloves and special clothing so I could visit my brother in his hospital room.

My brother published this picture of us on his blog about his “summer odyssey at Sloan-Kettering." The title of his update on transplant day was simply, “Wow.” The caption on this photo: “Moment of a lifetime.”

As tears filled his eyes, my brother pointed to a bag of fluid hanging from his IV “tree”. It was a sight I won’t forget — my bone marrow cells slowing moving drop by drop, through a tube and into him.

He thanked me. And there was really only one way to respond – with gratitude, for being able to help out and give our family hope. Back at you brother. Thank you.

I’m grateful to be able to work with people who commit themselves every day to making a difference in the lives of others. Not only the funders, of course, but the many nonprofits whose work they support.

Philanthropy strikes me as intensely personal and tough to pin down with a simple definition. I’m hoping we can start telling more personal stories to help express the meaning of the word, which can be broadly defined as people demonstrating compassion for others.

I s­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­tumbled across this video on the website of our colleagues at the Minnesota Council on Foundations. It summed up what I hear so often from those who make a donation in hopes of making a difference in a community or a life. These are the sound bites that resonated with me: “The more you give, the more you get,” “People don’t know the joy,” and “I’m such a different person than I was.”

We gathered up a handful of stories about the reach and impact of Colorado philanthropy in a report and a short documentary this year.  But in this age of social media, we know we can do far more to spread the word and inspire others to come together and make a difference.

Do you have a story to share? We’d like to hear from you. I invite you to contribute a blog post or add a comment here.

Joanne Kelley is the executive director of the Colorado Association of Funders.