Giving Thought: How Aspen Skiing Co. looks beyond the slopes
October 10, 2017
It's common knowledge that Aspen Skiing Co. is the biggest employer in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, but many are unaware that Skico also is a powerful engine for philanthropy valley-wide.
As Skico's sustainability director, Matt Hamilton oversees a pair of employee-driven charitable organizations. The Environment Foundation takes employee donations, which are then matched by the company, the Aspen Community Foundation and in part by Lavazza Coffee, and distributes them to various environmental projects. Using that model, the Skico created the Caring for Community Fund in 2016, and gave it more of a human-service focus.
Aspen Community Foundation: How did the Caring for Community Fund come to be?
Matt Hamilton: It's an outgrowth of both the Environment Foundation and a local program that Skico participated in years ago, before I arrived, called Neighbor to Neighbor. As I understand it, Neighbor to Neighbor focused on human and social services, but over time it kind of lost steam. Since then, the Environment Foundation has really picked up steam; we've been around for about 20 years and we've raised more than $3 million for 500 different projects.
So, the combination of the Environment Foundation's success and Neighbor to Neighbor going away led us to ask: "Is there an opportunity for us to create something like the Environment Foundation, where employees can learn about and engage in social issues as Neighbor to Neighbor did?"
In fall 2016, the company gave employees the opportunity to contribute out of their paychecks, as they do with the Environment Foundation, to the Caring for Community Fund. Skico also committed to match those employee contributions 2-to-1. Then we solicited applications for the board, and for the past six months the board members have spent time learning about community issues and meeting with various organizations about the work they do.
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ACF: Describe the mechanics of the Fund, how the dollars come in and go out.
MH: Employees make a small contribution out of their paycheck, say $1 or $2, sometimes more, and for every dollar they contribute, Aspen Skiing Co. contributes $2, up to a total of $65,000. Over the first 12 months, we'll raise about $9,500 from employees, then the company will put in about $25,000 (actually a little more than 2-for-1). Currently there are eight employees on the board, and they're reviewing 22 applications requesting $128,000. They're meeting with the applicants and learning about the various proposals. Soon they'll meet as a board for a robust conversation about how best to spend a limited pool of money, about $34,000.
ACF: The Fund began with a range of social services, but you've since prioritized certain ones. Can you explain?
MH: The Caring for Community idea started broadly with human and social services, but our employee board spent the last six or seven months meeting and talking to various community organizations — Valley Settlement Project, Family Resource Center, Advocate Safehouse Project, Aspen Hope Center, Mountain Family Health Centers and the list goes on — and they learned about the challenges that those organizations and their clients face. Out of that process came a decision by the board to maximize their impact by narrowing the focus to what I would generally call low-income support services, along with mental health.
They may choose in the future to change the focus — it might be early childhood education or affordable housing — but I would guess they'll stick with the current focus for a few years.
ACF: Where in the granting process are you now?
MH: Grant applications were due on or about Sept. 15. The board is currently reviewing those applications till about Oct. 15 and then they'll meet in early November to decide where they'd like to spend the dollars they have available. Really they'll be making decisions on how to prioritize their coworkers' investments in the community.
ACF: How do you define success for the Fund and its mission?
MH: Success would be having a measurable impact by expanding access to mental health services and improving services for the community's low-income individuals and families. But the most important success, and this is sort of longer term, would be when some of our board members rotate off the board and continue to engage in these issues. Maybe they join the Advocate Safehouse board or the Family Resource Centers board, start fundraising and volunteering their time and expertise to work in these organizations.
We as a company and as a community may never be able to meet all the human needs monetarily, but when we sit down together and use all the talents and skills at our disposal, we can make a serious contribution and improve people's health and wellbeing.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation and the Aspen to Parachute Cradle to Career Initiative.