Aspen nonprofits brace for slowing economy |

Aspen nonprofits brace for slowing economy

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” When the national economy slows, charities feel the crunch, and representatives from Aspen-area nonprofits are feeling a mixture of hope and trepidation about the future.

Many claim they rely on loyal donors or high-dollar foundations that produce regardless of swings in the economy.

Others say a slowing economy and threat of recession doesn’t bode well for their organizations.

Martha Cochran, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust, said she’s seen a significant drop in contributions in recent months, and that donations make up about 30 percent of her organization’s budget.

The land trust, headquartered in Carbondale, helps people make conservation easements of their properties, Cochran said, and any slump in donations wouldn’t necessarily mean fewer grants of local land for preservation. But it but would mean the organization could be understaffed and unable to process as many new grants.

“It could limit the ability to conserve what we might be able to do,” Cochran said, adding that fears of declining donations are rumbling throughout the nonprofit community.

“People are very wary about it,” Cochran said. “We’re keeping an eye on it.”

Other nonprofits, meanwhile, aren’t yet feeling the pinch.

“I haven’t seen any impacts and I haven’t heard anybody say they’re seeing any decrease in donations,” said Tamara Tormohlen, executive director of the Aspen Valley Community Foundation, which manages donor funds for more than 100 local nonprofits.

Tormohlen said most nonprofits hold their biggest fundraisers toward the end of the year and that it was too early to gauge the situation. She said, however, that she is positive about the future.

In fact, Tormohlen said that if there is an economic slow-down or skyrocketing inflation, the biggest effect is felt among people less fortunate ” the very folks in need of the kind of social services and support that comes from some nonprofits.

“Even if it’s harder to give, it’s even more important to give,” Tormohlen said. “The needs for many people will increase.”

The Aspen Community Foundation, while not immune to tough financial times, is supported by mostly high-dollar donations and foundation grants, Tormohlen said.

While she anticipates some endowments might not perform as well as they have in recent years, Tormohlen said that tightening budgets and the hurried crunch to make annual goals is nothing new in the nonprofit world.

While she is not naive about a possible slowdown, she said, Tormohlen stressed that all nonprofits should be run like a business and make contingencies for both fat and lean years.

Staff at the Aspen Art Museum reported that donations are still strong, and that a recent grant even made it possible to open the museum to visitors at no charge (formerly it cost $5 to enter the museum).

Representatives from the Aspen Center for Environmental Sciences said they have not only a strong donor base but collect fees from members and don’t anticipate any problems.

In fact, one local nonprofit has taken steps to make it more “recession-proof.”

“Seven years ago we started moving toward being a nonprofit ‘business’ and less of a ‘charity’ precisely for this kind of reason,” said John Masters, executive director of GrassRoots TV, Aspen’s community access station.

GrassRoots charges fees for services such as studio rental or location shoots that make up about 50 percent of its revenues, with just 20 percent coming from mostly smaller local donations of $25 to $100 (the balance is made up in grants).

Masters believes that the economic slow-down won’t hit the major donors, but inflation and high gas and grocery prices impact the average consumer, who’ll withhold smaller annual contributions.

“Our donor base is generally local,” Masters said. “We don’t ask a lot and our fundraisers are affordable.”

And because of the money GrassRoots earns from fees, any potential decline in local contributions would hurt but the station would still survive. In fact, Masters said the nonprofit in posting record income this year.

Officials at the Aspen Institute say they have concerns, but have weathered hard times before.

“We have not experienced any decrease as of yet and it’s really not expected to go down,” said Amy Margerum, executive vice president of the Aspen Institute.

Though contributions are still steady, Margerum is concerned, however, about the impact of any potential recession on the Aspen Institute’s conference centers, an important source of revenue.

Hotel chains across the country are reporting losses as people are tightening their belts in the face of skyrocketing fuel prices, Margerum said.

Donations and direct support are vital to the Aspen Institute, she added, but if revenues fall it won’t be the first time the nonprofit has run on a lean budget.

“We’ve certainly been there before,” Margerum said. “We rise and fall based on our funding amounts.”

And Aspen Institute officials follow the example of any good business, making contingencies for lean years, dropping programs that aren’t generating revenue and cutting back as needed.

Many nonprofits that rely heavily on contributions are waiting for upcoming charity events.

Officials from Aspen’s Buddy Program, which matches area kids with adult mentors, are preparing for the upcoming summer Boogie’s Buddy 5 Mile Race and the Boogie’s Bash gala in July.

Catherine Anne Provine, executive director of the Buddy Program, said she’s had plenty of commitment to the events and has high hopes for a good year.

Provine also stressed that any economic slow-down would mean an even greater need from programs like the Buddy Program.

“We’re crossing our fingers and hoping for the best,” Provine said. “It is a little slower, but the responses have been positive.”

If donations slump, Provine said she would be forced to cut programs, then recruitment of new buddies and mentors, and eventually staff.

“We do understand what’s going on out there,” Provine noted. “Everybody’s still waiting and watching.”

She hopes, however, that Aspen’s big-dollar donors are above the effects of economic slump.