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The Guide to Altruism in Colorado

A look at some impressive local philanthropic figures, and tips for how you can become one of them.

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Etched into one of our most hallowed founding documents, the pursuit of happiness has always been a sacred American right. But almost 240 years into this experiment in equality, freedom, and justice for all, our personal quest for fulfillment has often devolved into a culture of “me” that can be indifferent, hostile, and sometimes even cruel to anyone who interrupts that pursuit. Even in the ostensibly upbeat and welcoming oasis of Colorado, our goodwill can be wanting: Although our per capita income regularly ranks among the top 15 in the country, our giving sometimes lags behind our wealth.

Before you write Coloradans off as a bunch of self-involved hedonists, consider that although we haven’t always given tons of money, we do give a lot of ourselves. Centennial Staters donate organs at a rate far higher than the national average, and in 2013, almost 32 percent of us volunteered for a cause—a modest percentage, but enough to rank us 14th in the nation. And a pioneering collection of Colorado nonprofits and individuals is balancing some of our collective ambivalence by performing moving acts of kindness and outreach that transcend mere philanthropy. Among many other things, they help young people forge confident identities, teach underserved communities how to become healthier, and show would-be altruists how they can give more effectively—maybe even for a profit.

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The irony of the uniquely American pursuit of happiness is that it often becomes much easier when the quest is about others rather than about yourself. This is why givers are among the most content people you’ll ever meet; they’ve figured out that the best way to satisfy one’s own passions is by helping others discover and realize theirs. “Our genetic potential for kindness and compassion is hardwired,” says professor James R.  Doty, founder of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “Most of us haven’t maximized these qualities, but if you practice them with intention, your own stress levels decrease and the world becomes a completely different place.”

You’ll see examples of such intentionality in the myriad ways Coloradans are making big impacts. They’re but a small sampling of our real capacity for kindness—one that demonstrates there’s no reason widespread altruism can’t become commonplace. So stow those selfie sticks, turn your lens outward, and prepare to be inspired.


Make It Count

Carrie Morgridge, vice president of Denver’s Morgridge Family Foundation and author of Every Gift Matters, explains what to look for when donating your time or money.

Find your passion. Invest in organizations that match your interests and maximize your dollars. Guidestar.org can help you assess the effectiveness of the organizations you’re looking into.

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Invest in leadership. A great leader has great communication skills and a vision. Leaders who can articulate those visions are the ones most likely to achieve their goals.

Focus on kids. Youth philanthropy instills a lifelong sense of community service. Look for well-run organizations in which kids (under the guidance of committed adults) decide how best to use funds, particularly in situations with a lot of hands-on, empowering projects.

Clone your cash. Many United Way groups (including Colorado’s Mile High chapter) can have their donations matched by state and federal government programs. Find organizations that stretch their incomes by seeking donation-matching opportunities or negotiating discounts on goods and services they use, such as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a national charter school group, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

—Pictured: Author and philanthropist Carrie Morgridge; Courtesy of Getty Images


Kids Care

You don’t have to be an adult to change someone’s life.

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Most of us are teenagers, perhaps even adults, before we recognize how fortunate we are to have been born in a developed country—that is, if we ever figure it out. Ten-year-old Kylan Bain has known how lucky he is for half of his life. When he was five, the Westminster boy began a pen pal correspondence with another boy in Uganda, even though he couldn’t actually write. (Their early correspondence resembled Mad Libs with drawings.) Moved by his friend Haruna’s humble lifestyle and surroundings—the African child shares his open-air 12-by-12-foot home with seven other relatives—Kylan tried to figure out ways to help. A lemonade stand came and went before his great-grandfather’s interest in engineering made Kylan realize the value of collecting scrap metal. He enlisted friends and the principal of his school in gathering cans and other unused items and raised around $300 in his first two years to cover basic expenses for Haruna’s village, including replacing the family’s roof.

With the help of Carrie Morgridge of the Morgridge Family Foundation, Kylan traveled to Uganda with his family last year to meet his friend in person. He then started the Difference Maker Movement (iamthedifferencemaker.org), an organization that shows kids how to start their own philanthropic clubs and projects. So far, he’s helped raise more than $3,600 for Africans in clothes, medicine, food, and other donations—$200 of it bought a much-needed plowing bull for Haruna’s family, which subsists on farming—while inspiring other American kids to discover and pursue their own causes.

Kylan’s efforts have netted him various media appearances and speaking invitations, including one from Google, and he and his family have begun expanding the Difference Maker Movement by featuring success stories from other schools’ clubs on the website. “Even if you’re just holding a door for someone,” Kylan says, “a difference maker is just someone who wants to help.”

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—Pictured: Kylan and his pen pal, Haruna, exchange gifts in Uganda.; Courtesy of Sumer Sorenso


The Show Must Go On

How to stage a top-notch fund-raiser.

For 10 years, There With Care has helped families with critically ill children by providing the basics, including paying for groceries, gas cards, and car repairs, and giving rides to appointments. Each fall, the organization honors its families, supporters, and volunteers with dual celebrations—one at the Boulder Theater and one in Denver (2015’s was in Infinity Park). There With Care founder and executive director Paula DuPre’ Pesmen leverages contacts and expertise from her film career—she’s helped produce Mrs. Doubtfire, two Harry Potter films, and numerous documentaries—to create evenings that elicit joy, tears, and renewed commitment to the organization’s mission. She shares her secrets for creating an unforgettable event.

Make sure you have enough comfortable seating and space for the guests. We also do a live show, so we need a stage, audio, and video screens. We find a location that’s best for our community. Safety is important to consider because it’s a nighttime event with families attending. Most facilities have a nonprofit rate, and we work with Oak Foundation in Boulder and American Financing Corp. in Denver to help underwrite those costs.

When setting up a silent auction, don’t have multiple people call the same donor. It’s about being considerate. We also thank them quickly and properly and acknowledge them in the program and email blasts.

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The companies you work with should be connected to your mission. Sweetwave Audio donates equipment and staff so we can put together a professional show without having to pay; the money we save can go to families we serve. This year, Big Red F owner Dave Query is once again a sponsor. Recently some of his staff volunteered for a day, making gift bags. Gateaux Specialty Cakes and Pastries’ Kathleen Kenny Davia makes beautiful custom cookies for our events every year, and she’ll also do custom birthday cakes for our families.

It’s vital to thank volunteers, performers, and the families who attend and show we care about them. When we show them sincere appreciation, they understand how important they are to our mission.


Vision Quest

Re:Vision’s urban gardening is invigorating a Denver neighborhood—as long as gentrification doesn’t undo the work.

Denver’s Westwood neighborhood is home to primarily Hispanic, Vietnamese, and African immigrants and boasts a colorful array of taquerías, bars, liquor stores, boutiques, and small single-family homes. What it lacks is a decent grocery store.

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Enter Re:Vision. The eight-year-old Denver nonprofit has been teaching residents in this urban food desert—an area without ready access to affordable fresh and healthy foods—how to grow and maintain their own gardens. For $40, Re:Vision will set up a backyard garden bed with compost, an automated drip irrigation system, seeds, and seedlings. Once the garden has been built, the group’s “promotoras”—community members with training in gardening and the promotion of healthy lifestyles—check in to offer support and make sure the garden is flourishing. (Plots can be up to 400 square feet and vary depending on the size of the client’s lot and family.)

Re:Vision’s 11 promotoras monitor about 400 gardens in Westwood and nearby areas, and many of them are thriving. Despite extensive flooding during this year’s unusually wet summer, several Re:Vision clients’ gardens grew chest high and produced bounties that included cucumbers the size of bowling pins. “[Our clients] ask a lot of questions every time we visit,” says promotora Matilde Garcia. “They end up trusting us and becoming friends because we’ve spent so much time with them.” Garcia and her colleagues also teach free classes for community members about healthy cooking and food preservation in the Re:Vision facility’s kitchen.

In 2015, Re:Vision used a city grant to purchase a large property across from its Morrison Road offices. It was choked with decades of hoarded debris from the variety of businesses it had hosted. The group took about nine months to clear the site; it plans to develop the main building into a nearly 3,000-square-foot co-op that’s slated to open next spring. (Re:Vision used the space’s once-illegal marijuana grow room for its vegetable starts this past year.)

Some co-op members will be able to sell the produce they’ve grown through the on-site store, which also will include an incubator kitchen to help people with unique products—say, a secret-recipe salsa or green chile—learn how to turn their creations into profitable ventures. “If they’re making something the market is responding to, we’ll help them put together a business plan that could make them see this as a real job,” says Re:Vision co-founder Eric Kornacki.
Since the building only takes up about a quarter of the 1.7-acre lot, there’s room to grow, too. For now, that land will be used as a greenhouse, an outdoor market for food and artisanal goods, a fitness center, and a public square, much like the town plazas common in Central America and South America.

Re:Vision’s plan could suffer, however, if Denver’s real estate boom bleeds into the area, where even officially “affordable” housing usually outpaces current residents’ incomes. The organization is working with city leaders to establish a public land trust, a community-owned agency that would buy area houses and keep them affordable so locals won’t get forced out. (The concept is typically used for parklands and would be innovative for an urban area.) “This is really the last affordable working-class neighborhood in Denver that still has a lot of things going for it,” Kornacki says. “But if the area loses its demographic base over the next five years, there’s really no reason for us to be here.”

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—Pictured: A Westwood family harvesting its Re:Vision-supported backyard garden; Courtesy of Jess Kornacki


Profiles In Altruism

A small sampling of some of Colorado’s do-gooder organizations.

Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club
In addition to being Denver’s newest old-school jazz haunt, RiNo’s Nocturne partners with local nonprofits and makes its stage and performance space available to educational and rehearsal groups that work with youth during nonbusiness hours for free.

Veterans Expeditions
National Geographic named VetEx co-founders Stacy Bare and Nick Watson its “Adventurers of the Year” in 2014 for the way they’ve helped turn veterans—more than 1,500—into outdoor enthusiasts. VetEx leads treks to sites as far-flung as Alaska and New York; it organizes everything from climbing and snowshoeing to biking and white-water rafting trips with the goal of restoring the sort of camaraderie and sense of accomplishment vets loved in the military.

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—Pictured: Nick Watson, Veterans Expeditions executive director, helps Army veteran Tommy Carroll.; Courtesy of Chris Kassar

Colorado Children’s Campaign
A longtime advocate for our state’s most vulnerable populations, the Children’s Campaign publishes an annual Kids Count in Colorado! report that provides and interprets extensive data about Colorado children, particularly those living in poverty. The group also backs legislative efforts that address children’s health and education issues, including ? early childhood education. In 2015, the Children’s Campaign lobbied the Statehouse on behalf of the “Pay for Success” bill, which enables private organizations to invest in social services and be repaid by the government once the investment has met agreed-upon performance benchmarks.

Paradox Sports
Boulder-based Paradox has created programs in adaptive ice and rock climbing, mountaineering, and wilderness exploration for disabled athletes, with a focus on military veterans. The organization has served more than 250 vets since its founding in 2007 and also trains others in how to set up similar programs throughout the United States and Canada.

Humanitarian House International
This nonprofit developed the HHi House, a 180-square-foot structure that can be built within a day to temporarily shelter people rendered homeless by man-made or natural disasters. These primarily plastic-framed homes—which have kitchens, toilets, and showers—can each sleep up to 11 people, and they’re set up and broken down by the organization as needed.

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—Pictured: Humanitarian House International’s HHi House; Courtesy of the Humanitarian House International

Project VOYCE
Project VOYCE, which stands for Voices Of Youth Changing Education, was born after DPS closed Manual High School in 2006 because of chronic underperformance. (Co-founder Candi CdeBaca is a Manual grad.) After a local public outcry, the venerable school—it was founded in 1892—reopened a year later as a centerpiece of DPS reform efforts championed by then-superintendent Michael Bennet. Project VOYCE maintains a crucial role in developing leadership programs for young people that increase educational engagement and better prepare them for college and the job market. Project VOYCE students played a consulting role for Colorado’s Race to the Top applications for federal education grants and have participated in national conferences on subjects such as teen leadership and conflict resolution.

Veterans to Farmers
VTF has helped establish educational programs that teach veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan the necessary farming skills to grow their own food and to potentially make agriculture a new career. Among the recent additions to its curriculum is a greenhouse-oriented program that educates participants on the techniques of dirtless farming inside greenhouses that use aeroponics. In its two-year history, the group has assisted about 50 veterans.

Hope House of Colorado
Named Colorado’s Governor’s Service Award winner in 2015 by Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia’s office, Hope House creates self-sufficiency programs for teen mothers that include parenting classes, counseling sessions, GED and college prep courses, and career- and life skills–building instruction.

Colorado Nonprofit Social Enterprise Exchange
This group acts as an incubator for nascent nonprofit organizations and offers training in areas such as the basics of starting a nonprofit, how and where to find funding resources, and how to scale your organization. It also provides customized programs tailored to individual nonprofits’ unique needs. Among the recent graduates of its training programs are a legal services clinic for people with disabilities, a camp that trains young people in software programming, and a consulting company that helps employers understand and meet the needs of their LGBT employees.

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Harley’s Hope Foundation
Harley’s Hope, which is based in Colorado Springs, supports seniors, the financially needy, and people with disabilities by getting medical care for their pets, many of which are service animals. In addition to helping defray the costs of veterinary treatments, the organization’s network of volunteers performs follow-up visits to clients’ homes to help them administer medications, aid with wound care, or provide transportation to vet appointments.

A New Dimension of Hope
Since 2010, this Denver organization has tackled child poverty and illiteracy, primarily in Liberia, where (in some regions) an estimated 80 percent of children cannot read or write. This past July, the group opened its first school, in Troyah Town, Liberia; its staff of six instructors provides five- to nine-year-olds with daily instruction and two meals. The school currently has more than 100 students and hopes to expand to 350.


Dollar Detective

Ensure your donation is really going to a good cause by examining the organization’s publicly available IRS Form 990, which details how the group spends and allocates its funds. Or visit GiveWell (givewell.org), which provides extensive guidance about charities and how to give, or CharityWatch (charitywatch.org—a pay site), which uses financial data as well as state and federal filings to rate nonprofits’ effectiveness.


Colorado Giving, By The Numbers

We’re excelling in some areas—but could be doing better in others.

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Nine May Not Be Enough

One Colorado family has turned its love for children into an unlikely international relief effort.

When an earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, the temblor killed more than 100,000 people and devastated what was already one of the poorest countries in the world. As its besieged citizens regrouped amid more than 50 aftershocks, in Colorado Rich and Lisa Harris agonized over what might have become of their two Haitian children.

The Harrises were already well into the adoption process for Davinson and Guimara, and following the quake they couldn’t reach the kids’ orphanage for 24 hours. Once they determined the children were safe, the couple spent up to 20 hours every day for three weeks calling or emailing people who might help get their babies to the States. Rich eventually leveraged a connection to the staff of then Governor Bill Ritter to broker a meeting that concluded with the governor assuring the Harrises his office would “find a way” to get the kids home. Within 10 days, the Harris children and about 30 other adoptees, most of them going to Colorado families, had been airlifted out of the ravaged nation.

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This past January, in the kitchen of their south suburban home, Davinson, Guimara, and their seven brothers and sisters introduce themselves one by one, like a multicultural Von Trapp family. The first four Harris adoptees hail from China; Davinson and Guimara joined the family as the fifth and sixth adoptees. (In 2014, Rich and Lisa returned to China to add their seventh, bringing their brood to nine, including their oldest, biological kids, Zach and Rachel.) Although they’re all impeccably courteous, nine kids are nine kids, giving the Harris home a perpetual, joyful din. Over the noise, Rich explains that the couple was always interested in adopting. His family law practice has made him passionate about children’s issues, and his interest turned into this grand pursuit because, he says, “My wife has the biggest heart in the world.”

The Harrises were so moved by the Haitian devastation that they realized they couldn’t just take their kids and leave. Their first exploratory visit to the country inspired them to start the Road to Hope foundation in 2009 (theroadtohope.org). What began as a focus on orphanages quickly shifted toward education: The nonprofit has built one school there and rebuilt another.

The Harrises still visit Haiti regularly to monitor projects and, more important, to reconnect with the people. Before one trip, they collected dozens of musical instruments—each Harris child plays at least one—and the Haitian children “lined up down the block” to take lessons from Zach. For another visit in 2012, then 11-year-old Rachel “stalked” renowned Colorado nature photographer John Fielder until he agreed to join her. She used his photographs, along with art from Haitian kids, to create the children’s book Nadia’s Good Deed: A Story About Haiti.

Assisting with these efforts back home is Colorado Academy, which five of the nine Harris children attend. CA has developed in-school and extracurricular programs that research solutions for sanitation, gardening, water treatment, and electricity that the Haitians can deploy in and around their new schools. In March 2015, a dozen CA students traveled to the country, a visit Rich and Lisa agree was the best one yet.

So is there any chance this outsize family will get even bigger? “I think we’re done adopting,” Rich says—as Lisa reminds him he made the same prediction after each previous child. “My wife has organizational skills that put Martha Stewart to shame,” Rich concedes. “We usually start talking about adoption, she starts researching it, I tell her she’s crazy for a few months, she tells the kids, they’re all on board, and then they gang up on Daddy.”

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—Pictured: The Harris Clan; Courtesy of the Harris Family


Hitting The Right Notes

The Flobots’ Stephen “Brer Rabbit” Brackett on how Youth on Record uses music instruction to help Denver kids find their own voices.

5280: How did this organization grow out of the flobots.org nonprofit?
Brackett: That started around 2007. We ended up having a hit and signing with a national label, so we expanded it into activism workshops, including a national street team in 2008 that registered voters at our shows. After the election it became tough to organize 10,000 budding activists across the country, so we took it local, changed it to Youth on Record, and focused on [music] programs we’d been doing the entire time. We began after-school programs at Denver Public Schools middle schools. Eventually, DPS high schools started inviting us to do the programs during the day, for credit, which was the dream for us.

What does a typical program do?
We’re working in populations where often the music education has been removed. We believe music is powerful, but you don’t get into schools by saying, “Yay music!” We’re trying to use these programs to increase graduation rates and introduce young people to their power and their voices. These schools have to teach to the tests that will keep them getting funded, so there aren’t a lot of open-ended questions or time for critical thinking, reflection, or development. Ours is probably the only class of the day that asks open-ended questions.

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What kind of results have you seen?
Attendance is up 25 percent compared to students in the same school who aren’t taking our classes. We probably need about six more years to show a “scientific” improvement in graduation rates, but there already are indications of upticks.

Who are your teachers?
A large spectrum of Denver musicians who give a damn. We pay them well, which means they get to work a few less shifts at Starbucks or wherever. So it’s empowering them as well and providing a holistic benefit to the local music scene.

Why do you think music education is so important?
The casualty of cutting arts education is we don’t get to see if there’s a Motown or Austin in Denver. These scenes don’t happen by accident; they’re cultivated by a network of folks who create a safety net for art to grow. We need this because there’s so much young talent here—there have been a few performances in our classes when I’ve felt like the amateur in the room.

—Photo courtesy of Getty Images


Deep Impact

The millennial generation is bringing more than rising rents, increased traffic, and cooler co-working spaces to Denver: It’s also helping spur a feel-good vibe in investing. This trend, called “social enterprise investing” or “impact investing,” has spawned both state and private efforts in Colorado that aim to help organizations make a difference while also making a profit for investors. Here’s a look at two.

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—Colorado Impact Fund

Initiated in July 2014 with Governor John Hickenlooper’s support, this $63 million coffer funds Colorado companies that demonstrate a positive social influence. To date, three companies have received investments: Bhakti Chai, a Boulder drink maker that practices zero-waste principles and uses organic and free-trade ingredients; Schoolrunner, software that allows teachers to monitor everything from homework to absences and behavioral issues; and most recently, TeamSnap, an app and website that makes it easier for coaches, parents, and players to track youth sports league participation.

—Impact Finance Center

The IFC is a joint project started by the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business and the Sustainable Endowments Institute, Part of the IFC’s mission is to unite projects with potential investors. “There is somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion looking to invest in Colorado, but the money can’t find the right projects,” says IFC founder and director Stephanie Gripne, a research fellow at DU. On March 3 and 4, the IFC will host its inaugural Colorado Impact Days, bringing together area businesses and nonprofits (selected via a pitch competition) and investors in a farmers’ market format.

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