Aspen Center for Environmental Studies lands national accolade |

Aspen Center for Environmental Studies lands national accolade

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Aspen Center for Environmental Studies CEO Chris Lane is proud to say that the majority of donations to the nonprofit are spent on programming.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times |

As its name clearly implies, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ chief focus has been on the environment. But it’s the nonprofit’s ledger books that show a financial focus, too.

This week, New Jersey-based Charity Navigator issued its annual Holiday Giving Guide. The watchdog’s list of 34 causes — which are nonprofit categories — included one for botanical gardens, parks and nature centers. ACES ranked No. 1 in that slot, topping other like-minded nonprofits such as the Shelburne Farms in Vermont and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

The giving guide comes out at a time when donors are making their final contributions of the year so they can get tax deductions. Americans will donate more than $100 billion this year, according to Charity Navigator.

More than 8,000 nonprofits were considered for the Holiday Giving Guide, including 109 in ACES’ category, said Sandra Miniutti, CFO and vice president at Charity Navigator.

“They got a perfect score on accountability and transparency, and that’s certainly commendable,” Miniutti said. “They have the proper procedures in place to prevent unethical behavior and scandals.”

She also pointed to ACES’ dedication of 79.6 percent of its revenue in 2013 to program expenses, a major selling point to Charity Navigator.

“In terms of their financial health, I think that donors can take a vast amount of comfort knowing that much of their spending is on programming, almost 80 percent,” she said.

“We’re so proud of that,” said ACES CEO Chris Lane. “When you give a dollar, most of that dollar is going directly to our cause.”

Charity Navigator gave ACES four out of four stars, based on criteria that includes it having conflict-of-interest and whistle-blower policies, a process for determining CEO salary and having an independent accountant audit of its financials, among other factors. ACES also excelled because its website lists its board members, donor-privacy policy, financials, Form 990 tax return and members of its key staff. ACES also issued its first annual report in 2014, which can be viewed on its website.

Lane, who took the helm of ACES in 2012, said the nonprofit has grown over the years thanks to a strong donor base and solid staff. The nonprofit houses many of its employees — it staffs between 35 and 43 in the high seasons and in the mid-20s in the low seasons. Housing is a strong selling point for its employees, many of whom come from top-notch colleges.

“The people we get come from Yale and Middlebury College and are young, bright minds,” Lane said. “We’re fortunate that we have housing for our naturalists and educators. It allows us to afford to pay them. That’s our secret sauce.”

The nonprofit’s presence is felt throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, as well. It expanded its environmental science programs to Basalt Elementary School in 2012 and to Crystal River Elementary School in 2013.

All told, ACES has programs in 42 schools, hosts 120 after-school lessons, provides 2,000 in-school classes and 350 field programs. That accounts for 4,544 students.

The nonprofit has numerous adult programs as well, including its Potbelly Perspectives and Naturalist Nights lecture series. Some of its benefits include the Harvest Party at Rock Bottom Ranch, Raptor Fair, its Membership Picnic on the Preserve and its Membership Potluck at the Catto Center at Toklat. Its biggest fundraiser is An Evening on the Lake, held in July. Other offerings include guided hikes, snowshoe tours and day camps.

ACES also merged with For the Forest in 2012 and Tomorrow’s Voices in 2013.

“They’re also growing, which is nice to see,” said Miniutti, noting that “they have a very healthy rainy-day fund.”

Lane said the ACES staff takes pride in its mission.

“We’ve worked very hard to get that (Charity Navigator four-star) rating,” he said. “It didn’t happen by accident.”