Q & A with Carly Wier on nonprofits
High Country Business Review
Summit Recycling Project (now known as High Country Conservation Center) was started in 1976 by local Breckenridge activist Tim McClure and his buddies as “an educational-experimental organization to promote resource recovery and to reduce wastefulness.”
After a good run and a lot of grassroots fundraising, Tim was forced to close the organization’s doors due to lack of local government support in 1983. Bob and Rose Wentzell re-opened Summit Recycling Project in 1989 and incorporated the organization as a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization. I was only 3 years old when the organization was founded, but many of the founders and past board and staff members are still in Summit County today!
In the early days, it seems that much of the outreach to the community was done through word-of-mouth ” after all, Summit County was a much smaller place in the late 1970s.
But throughout the years, the local newspaper was an important way to communicate what the organization was about and what programs it was providing to the community.
In fact, our scrapbooks have letters to the editor, guest columns, and advertising that follows the organization from 1976 to the present. Also in the early days, small fundraising events were good tools to spread awareness about the recycling and resource conservation efforts, while raising funds at the same time.
Through its history, this organization (like many nonprofits) has relied on support from the community it serves to survive. From small fundraisers (like bake sales) to our signature event, the Tim McClure Memorial Benefit, events have always played a big role in our overall fundraising efforts.
One thing we have learned is that it takes time to grow big fundraising events. We just held our 18th Annual Tim McClure Benefit this year. I think because there are so many community events in Summit County, it takes time for people to recognize an event and look for it year after year. It takes time for both event organizers and patrons to become familiar enough with an event to make it a big, successful event year after year.
Individual donations from community members and in-kind donations from local businesses have always been essential to keep the organization running. Of course, local government support, either through cash grants, service contracts, or in-kind support is absolutely essential to our survival. When we ran the recycling programs, revenue from material sales supplemented the organizational budget but never quite covered costs. Program fees (revenue from fee-based services that we provide) have been a growing part of our income over the past decade and are areas that we are currently focusing on.
There have been many trials and tribulations in the High Country Conservation Center’s 30 year history. In the early days, finding space for recycling drop-off centers and encouraging local governments to see the value in waste reduction and resource conservation was the biggest challenge we faced. In our later years, keeping pace with our success was our biggest hurdle. At times, it seemed that we were too successful for our own good.
Until the Summit County government absorbed our recycling programs in 2006, our drop-off centers, equipment, staff and budget were running at or above capacity; we just couldn’t keep pace for the growing demands on our services. Now, our biggest challenge is making tough decisions on where to spend our limited resources in the vast world of “resource conservation.” We have big dreams for the future, and we see a lot of needs in our community, but we realize that we have to go slow to develop solid programs.
The first piece of advice would be to roll up your sleeves and get ready to dive in and get dirty!
No matter what field you are working in, you have to be willing to work in many different capacities in a start-up nonprofit. From fundraiser to spokesperson to creative director to doing the actual field work (like sorting recyclables!), you have to be ready to wear many hats and outfits, literally.
The second piece of advice would be to stick to it. If you truly believe that you have a unique service that will fill a true need in this world, you can do anything you want and even survive the inevitable set-backs and turned-down grant proposals.
Finally, I’d say to remember to treat yourself like a human, not just a battery. It’s so easy to get burned out in this sector, because your work is almost always all consuming. Mission-driven work, by its nature, is almost always never done. It’s OK to accept that and celebrate your accomplishments, big and small, as they come!
During the past few years, this organization has gone through a tremendous transition. On Jan. 1, 2006, the Summit County government formally absorbed the recycling operations that we built throughout the past three decades. After much reflection and thought, our board of directors determined that the Summit County government could make recycling more efficient by internalizing operations with landfill operations. But for our organization, this meant that the nature of our programs, our employees, our budget and even our name changed dramatically. On that same date, we officially changed our name from Summit Recycling Project to the High Country Conservation Center.
This change in name reflected our shift in focus, from primarily recycling and waste reduction to broader conservation areas, such as energy and sustainable building. Of course, we are still deeply rooted in recycling and waste reduction, because it is one of the best ways we can all make conserve resources for future generations. We continue to provide support services for the county recycling program, specifically in the areas of education, outreach, program development and research.
A new program for us is the Basic Energy Audit Program, which provides simple inspections and reports that provide residents (and soon businesses) with the tips and tools they need to conserve energy in our mountain climate. We are also completing a 15-month grassroots process of developing a Sustainable Building Code and Resource Guide for Summit County.
We also host a variety of special events to help provide people with the tools and information they need to make choices for a better world, like the Earth Day Action Fair, Bike to Work Day, educational forums, and the Refined, Renatured, and Recycled Arts & Crafts Fair.
I think the High Country Conservation Center is gaining steam. Even though our organization has been around for 30 years, it’s almost like we are a whole new organization, so its been difficult to get our new name out there. I think more people are starting to recognize us as “the Conservation Center” and not “the Recycling Center,” but it takes time.
Our new outreach tools (Eartha Steward’s weekly column in the Summit Daily, the Guide to Green Living in the High Country, our monthly e-newsletters, and Dillon Farmers Market booth) have all been successful tools for promoting our new name and the simple and effective steps we can all take to conserve resources in our mountain community.
We have had a great demand for our Basic Energy Audit Program last fall and our Master Mountain Composter Program this summer, so I hope these early signs are indicators of long term success.
For me, the most rewarding thing has been to look back at the positive difference our small organization has made for our global community over the years. We have a lot of work left to do, but someday I think we can serve as a model for all of our guests not only on what sustainable lifestyles look like but also on setting the example.
As a resort community that depends on our environment for our livelihood, I believe we have a responsibility to set the bar high in terms of environmental stewardship and educate our guests to that fact too.
One thing I think we could do a better job of in the nonprofit sector in the mountain region is to work together and to foster better cooperation between our local governments and each other. Like so many of our “permanent” work force in Summit County, two of our three staff members (including me) live outside of Summit County and commute to work each day to make Summit County a better place to live, even though we don’t live here.
Our “community” boundaries are no longer defined by county lines, but so much of our services and programs still are. Climate change, air and water pollution, pine beetles, and waste don’t abide by county or town boundaries, so why should our programs and services? We are all in this together. We are all lucky to live in this beautiful mountain region, and we can and should do a better job of sharing resources to keep it that way.
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