Aspen Center for Envrionmental Studies: Stay true to your mission |

Aspen Center for Envrionmental Studies: Stay true to your mission

When asked how the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies continues to thrive in today’s challenging economic climate, Tom Cardamone defers the compliment.

“One of the primary reasons is that, in general, environmental organizations garner a fair amount of fidelity from donors,” said the nonprofit organization’s longtime executive director. “There is always a certain amount of attrition, but ours is generally pretty low, and I think the nature of the work we do, not to make a pun, is part of it.”

In fact, the work ACES does is a big part of the organization’s ongoing success and continued stability. With Aspen’s Hallam Lake Nature Preserve and the midvalley’s Rock Bottom Ranch under its direction, ACES stays true to its mission of inspiring “a life-long commitment to the earth by educating for environmental responsibility” through myriad programs.

These programs, which range from in-school education to year-round workshops and lectures to environmental stewardship projects, help the organization keep its earned income potential high – a key to staying afloat when grantors and individuals scale back on giving, according to industry experts.

“A goal we set about 10 or 15 years ago was to have our earned income be 50 percent of our budget, and that’s where we are now,” said Cardamone, noting that 30 percent of that amount is generated through programs and the remainder from ACES’ endowment. “With the economy like it is now, though, I’d like those percentages to be even higher.”

Of course it’s not always easy to dream up programs with earned income potential. ACES’ in-school program, for example, doesn’t lend itself to fee-based income; it does, however, count on contributions from the community to survive.

“We said to the community, if you value this program, indicate how much by making a specific contribution … that will send a message,” said Cardamone. “And the message we receive each year is that this is an important program.”

ACES more obvious income earners – snowshoeing and skiing tours in winter; naturalist programs in summer – have also been well received, according to Cardamone.

“We’ve seen small double-digit growth, percentagewise, despite the fact that everything else is down … tourist numbers and such,” he said. “I attribute it to the fact that we are a very small piece of the resort pie, so there’s a lot of room for us to grow if we’re clever about how we market and present our programs.”

Also key to ACES’ success: partnerships. The nonprofit currently partners with organizations as diverse as the Aspen Skiing Co., U.S. Forest Service and Snowmass Resort Association, among others.

“Having several partners keeps you strong, especially when times are tough,” said Cardamone. “We’re very lucky to be involved in so many strong partnerships.”

Still, the bottom line is the bottom line, which means being vigilant about how money is spent and informed about how it is earned.

“Our contributed income is down, but we anticipated this and budgeted accordingly,” said Cardamone. He added that ACES’ long-range planning process includes daylong retreats with both staff and board members, as well as ongoing reviews of the organization’s financial picture.

“One of the hardest things to do is reduce the budget, but we have a great community of people involved with ACES who understand numbers and who help us think clearly.

“When it comes to running ACES, we try to be realistic idealists.”

Jeanne McGovern’s e-mail address is

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