EAGLE COUNTY — Chupa Nelson used to write donation checks every year to the Youth Foundation and the Vail Valley Foundation. He still does, although the two local nonprofit groups merged about 19 months ago.
Nelson was one of the Youth Foundation’s founding board members in 1997. He and 11 other founders decided the valley needed an organization to bring services to kids that the local school district and other agencies couldn’t provide. For the foundation’s first decade, there were no fund-raising events — Nelson and the other founders wrote checks, and encouraged their friends to do the same. Those board members still write those checks, and still hit up their friends to do the same. But a few years ago the Youth Foundation started holding its “Star Dancing Gala” to raise even more money. This year’s event, held earlier this month, raised nearly $1 million.
Eventually, the nonprofit was raising and spending, about $2.5 million per year on everything from academic help to soccer programs.
But when the smaller and larger foundations merged in 2011, the Youth Foundation’s job got bigger when it took over the Vail Valley Foundation’s educational projects, which includes funding all-day kindergarten for many valley kids.
These days, the Youth Foundation raises and spends about $4 million per year.
“We don’t have any reserves,” Youth Foundation Director Susie Davis said. “We spend it all.”
That could be changing.
Giving back to the valley
The fundraising for youth programs got a big boost recently when longtime Vail Valley Foundation supporters Bjorn Erik and Kathy Borgen pledged $1 million over four years to youth programs.
In a press release about the donation, Bjorn Erik Borgen was quoted as saying, “Education has played such an important role in our lives, and we are happy to give back to educate others.”
Davis said the Borgens’ donation will serve a couple of purposes. It will help current Youth Foundation programs, of course. But Davis said, the Borgens’ donation may also encourage others to contribute.
Ann Smead, the chairwoman of the Vail Valley Foundation’s education committee, said she believes there are more multi-year donations coming for youth programs, a move she said is necessary to keep youth programs on a steady path. Some stability in funding may also allow Davis and others to think about the future.
“We talk about having the ability to help kids’ dreams — now we get to dream, too, about what’s possible,” Davis said.
Davis said part of that dream, at least for now, is simply doing better at what it already does.
“Our focus for the next 12 months is to deepen our relationships with kids, to help them set goals,” Davis said.
The Borgens’ donation may help the Youth Foundation turn another corner, too. Davis acknowledged that donations dipped after the merger with the Vail Valley Foundation.
“I think people tend to sit back and wait to see what’s going to happen,” Davis said.
And Nelson said, it’s taken some time for the two organizations to mesh.
“With any kind of merger you’ll have some challenges,” he said. “But we’re starting to see more strength in both organizations.”
Davis and the Youth Foundation got a heavier workload from the merger, but there have also been benefits, such has having ready access to technical support and the Vail Valley Foundation’s well-oiled marketing operation. That kind of support for what had been a relatively small operation is a big deal, Davis said, and has allowed the Youth Foundation to use more of its resources on programs.
Nelson said both nonprofits were doing good work before the merger, and that the combination “enhanced” what each one could do, with the Youth Foundation focusing on education and the Vail Valley Foundation focusing on athletic and cultural events. He expects that good work to continue, and improve, in the coming years.
To do that, though, there need to be more pledges similar to the Borgens’ Smead said raising money as it was needed was fine in the Youth Foundation’s early days. Now, though, there needs to be some certainty.
“We have a $4 million budget now,” Smead said, adding that ad hoc fundraising simply isn’t sufficient to meet the needs of kids who have come to depend on Youth Foundation programs. One of the first things Smead said committee members talked about was finding multi-year donations for youth programs. That would provide some certainty in planning.
“What the Borgens’ gift has done is point out the need for multi-year donations,” Smead said. “We are getting more (donations) and will be announcing them in the next several months.”