Aspen nonprofits grapple with COVID-19 fallout
The public health and economic crises caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic have touched everyone since mid-March, with stay-at-home orders in place and businesses closed to limit spread of the contagion. Aspen’s massive, diverse and well-funded nonprofit sector is responding directly to COVID-19 providing essential services, while all reeling from its effects.
There are upward of 100 designated 501(c)(3) organizations based from Aspen to Basalt that serve local and regional needs ranging from mental health and food stability to education, entertainment, recreation and conservation.
Charitable organizations have been a driving force of valley life since the dawn of modern Aspen, when the founding of what would become the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club coincided with the the birth of the Paepckes’ “Aspen Idea” and the rebirth of the former mining town as a ski resort. In the 21st century, Aspen nonprofits play a vital role in the daily lives of locals; they are a huge economic force, they connect Aspen to the rest of the world and bring visitors here.
How have they continued services during public health restrictions on gatherings and close human contact? How are they attracting donations to stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis? And how are they planning for this summer and the uncertain future ahead?
For many area nonprofits that offer essential human services, operations have shifted during the COVID-19 crisis to include more relief resource referrals for and well-being check-ins with clients.
But while leaders like Lindsay Lofaro, executive director of the Buddy Program in Aspen, said stepping up to help connect individuals and families with the help they may need is important, Lofaro also feels it’s essential for nonprofits to continue offering their normal services.
“One of our main priorities is staying connected to our families and Big Buddies,” Lofaro said. “Not every family has a partner in their lives they can turn to, so we’re really trying to be that partner for families that we work with.”
Ensuring clients and participants have access to the relief assistance and public health information they need to stay well during the COVID-19 crisis, coupled with maintaining and shifting current services, is the current operating trend for most area human services nonprofits.
The valley’s mental health providers like the Aspen Hope Center, Mind Springs Health and Aspen Strong have teamed up to ensure all residents from Aspen to Parachute have access to resources to help maintain mental well-being during this time of social distancing and uncertainty.
Organizations like Response and River Bridge Regional Center are preparing for an increase in domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault cases due to COVID-19, working to maintain all services virtually or in person if needed.
And nonprofits like the Buddy Program, Challenge Aspen, Ascendigo and English in Action are continuing their services virtually and ensuring their clients and participants feel supported socially, emotionally and economically during the pandemic.
Peter Bell, CEO and president of Ascendigo, a Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit that works to support and empower people with autism, said assisting their clients in this time is critical: “Change is typically something that is not easy for someone with autism to go through, so they need our support now more than ever. … We’re doing the very best we can right now to help them be successful and to get them through this very confusing and difficult time we’re all experiencing.”
Financially, many area nonprofits like Ascendigo also are seeking extra funding federally and locally to help keep staff employed, paychecks whole and services as robust as possible during the COVID-19 crisis.
And while spring and early summer fundraising events and summer programming is up in the air, postponed or going virtual, many organizations are still benefiting from local donor support. For example, 22 Aspen-area locals have contributed $3.5 million to a 2020 Rescue Fund aimed at supporting social service nonprofits that can provide timely economic assistance, food access, health care and other essential humanitarian support for people from Aspen to Parachute. The Aspen Community Foundation also is working to establish a relief fund for nonprofits that may need financial support to maintain operations further down the road as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
However, despite continued donations, many nonprofits are bracing for lower charitable contributions and smaller budgets due to COVID-19.
Beyond the common thread of connection and emergency assistance, local human services nonprofit groups also are collaborating and communicating with one another to ensure all organizations are on the same page to identify gaps in services and community needs.
Pitkin County Human Services and the Aspen Community Fund are facilitating this collaboration, with ACF hosting Zoom meetings twice a week that draw an average of 50 to 60 local nonprofits.
Through working as a coordinated team, leaders like Tamara Tormohlen, executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation, and Nan Sundeen, director of Pitkin County Human Services, hope area human services groups can continue to support all residents and ensure no one slips through the cracks.
“We have a very strong commitment to supporting our nonprofits because we are such a small county so we need our nonprofits to help us,” Sundeen said.
“We are all passionate about offering COVID-19 relief all the way to Parachute and are committed to doing our part to continue to make a difference no matter how long this goes.”
ARTS & CULTURE
Aspen’s event-glutted summer season normally runs at a pace set by the programs of arts nonprofits like the Aspen Music Festival and School and Jazz Aspen Snowmass. So the choices those organizations are making, and being forced to make, during the pandemic have economic and social impacts that extend far beyond the organizations’ own balance sheets and calendars.
The latest estimate on record, from 2004, is that arts and culture organizations have an $85 million annual economic impact in Aspen. An updated study, spearheaded by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, has been in the works since April 2019.
Along with entertainment and edification of audiences, the economic health of Aspen as a whole is directly dependent on arts nonprofits’ well-being and programming, which has been thrown into unforeseen crisis.
Since mid-March, the cancellations have mounted and eaten ever further into the summer culture season. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet canceled its final spring performances and tour, the Music Fest canceled the first two weeks of its season, Theatre Aspen dropped a show from its summer and moved its start date to July 6, and the Aspen Art Museum its three-day of ArtCrush, which typically raised between $2 million and $3 million and had become a tentpole midsummer happening with countless ancillary gallery openings and other nonprofit events built around it.
The Jazz Aspen Snowmass canceled its multi-venue June Experience, but is keeping its JAS Cafe season (July 9 to Aug. 16) and Labor Day Experience (Sept. 4 to 6) on the books for now.
“If we can, we will,” Jazz Aspen President Jim Horowitz said. “The urge to gather is powerful and so is the desire to do so safely.”
While canceled events mean substantial lost earned income from ticket sales for these nonprofits, they have given ticket-buyers the option of converting ticket purchases for canceled events into donations. Arts nonprofits also have the ability to recuperate losses with the help of loyal donors who are weathering the COVID-19 economic crisis. A deep-pocketed supporter or two can carry an arts nonprofit into the post-coronavirus world.
To that end, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet launched an Emergency Relief Fund last month to keep itself solvent.
“Even in the best of times, arts organizations are fragile,” reads the company’s appeal for donations. “Losing every source of earned income for the next several months will severely impact our viability going forward.”
Arts nonprofits are all grappling with lost earned income from canceled events, while they mount fundraising efforts to mitigate the damage. Music Fest CEO Alan Fletcher, for instance, said canceling the first two weeks of the 2020 summer season cost the organization about $1 million. But he was hopeful supporters would step up to triage the losses.
“With the board’s support, we are feeling the public and donors will stay with us, and we will be OK,” Fletcher said.
The National Endowment for the Arts CARES Act also is awarding funds to nonprofit arts organizations, helping them avoid layoffs and program cuts.
Though event insurance generally doesn’t cover pandemics, many arts nonprofit leaders said that vendors they’d contracted with for canceled events have returned deposits and allowed financial agreements to be voided or moved to 2021, to offer economic relief to the charitable organizations.
“Hotels and venues are being so generous and accommodating,” said Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur, whose organization canceled its 2020 Summer Words literary festival in Aspen and moved its New York Aspen Words Literary Prize event online.
But these mission-driven organizations also have quickly taken action to continue serving their communities in quarantine with efforts like the Aspen Music Festival’s virtual AfterWorks music lessons, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s virtual dance classes and the Aspen Art Museum’s virtual opening of its Young Curators of the Roaring Fork exhibition.
THE INSTITUTE & EDUCATION
The coronavirus pandemic is reverberating from the Aspen Meadows campus that houses the Aspen Institute to the Aspen School District campus that houses four public learning facilities.
The school district gets a significant boost from the Aspen Education Foundation, its fundraising arm that brought in more than $1 million at its Flamingo benefit in November.
Like the Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank with a strong educational component, the foundation has adjusted its programming and schedule but kept pushing ahead with its mission.
The same goes for another local nonprofit immersed in the academic world; Aspen Center for Physics canceled two conferences in March and one in May, said administrative vice president Amanda Jenkins.
“We canceled our summer program for the first time in 59 years of operation,” she said in an email. “We canceled a two-day conference in September. We are managing our budget by minimizing our campus expenditures. We are planning to host conferences again in December 2020.”
With its Flamingo fundraiser behind it, the Aspen Education Foundation had its sights set for May, which is Mental Health Month, to hold a benefit aimed at raising $75,000 to fund a new mental health counselor position at Aspen Elementary. The campaign is being taken online, but AEF Executive Director Cynthia Chase said the pandemic has ushered in more immediate concerns.
“Part of the fallout will be that our mental health needs will be greater,” Chase said. “I think that adding a mental health counselor will be even more important, but that’s in the future. So each week we try to look at what our immediate needs are now.”
That includes supporting Aspen Family Connections, headquartered at Aspen Middle School, which has been feeding hundreds of local residents through its food-assistance program during the pandemic.
Eventually AEF will return to its work helping fund college counseling, outdoor and experiential education, STEAM, robotics, math and literacy support, and mental health, Chase said.
The Aspen Institute canceled its summer Aspen events including the Ideas Fest and Security Forum, both of which attract international guests and attention. It is spinning off the events into online programming.
“It has been heartbreaking to have to make the decision to cancel much of our summer programming because of the health risks associated with convening in person,” said Dan Porterfield, president of The Aspen Institute, in response to a set of questions by email. “Overall, this pandemic cannot stop us from pursuing our calling, which is to foster inclusive dialogue, promote values-based leadership in all sectors of society, and drive change on the most important issues of the day — around the country, around the world, and very definitely in Aspen, Colorado.”
ACES & ENVIRONMENT
Aspen Center for Environmental Studies executive director Chris Lane is an eternal optimist but he won’t sugarcoat the likely affects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are going to take a significant hit on the revenue side of the budget,” he said.
ACES hosts numerous programs that bring kids, adults or both together to learn about and love nature. Large gatherings won’t be happening this year.
Evening on the Lake, a signature event in July that brings together 250 people and raises $500,000, is canceled. Numerous kids’ camps planned in the forests of Independence Pass to the sheep pens of Rock Bottom Ranch will likely have to be pared down or compressed into a tighter timeframe. They might have to be smaller and organized over six weeks rather than spread over 12 weeks.
ACES remains staffed up in hopes of a busy, if altered, summer.
“We may have a busy July and August or everything gets canceled,” Lane said.
The bottom line is simple.
“We’re trying to take a nimble approach to this,” he said.
For example, they started the ACES’ Nature Challenge on April 1, a thrice-weekly video series suggesting ways families can discover nature in their backyard. They’re an online curricula for young kids from Aspen to Rifle to replace canceled spring field programs, which engage hundreds of students, and events that have historically attracted 100-plus people might have to be remade as several smaller events for 25 people each.
ACES’ staff is assuming the earned income from programs will take a 40% to 50% hit. It’s probably the same on the contributions side, though Lane said several loyal donors realize it is an important time for nonprofits.
He and his staff have taken a conservative budgetary approach over the years and have a reserve fund for just this type of situation, Lane said.
Nimbleness is the name of the game for all environmentally oriented nonprofit organizations. Groups from Wilderness Workshop to Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers depend on gatherings for programs or work on trails. Plans will have to be pared down.
Independence Pass Foundation canceled its signature fundraising event — the Ride for the Pass —which was supposed to be held May 16.
IPF executive director Karin Teague said she’s working on other options for later in the summer. She acknowledged there is a lot of wait-and-see to the year. The big question: can workdays proceed or will they fall the way of the Ride for the Pass?
“We absolutely rely on volunteers and volunteer projects,” Teague said.
Typical projects range from using labor from inmates in the state correctional facility in Buena Vista to work on bank stabilization and other projects up the Pass to tree plantings by Aspen school kids. One advantage for IPF is projects don’t start until late June because of lingering snow at high elevations.
“We’re continuing to make plans for summer work,” Teague said.
Groups may be limited to five or so people instead of bigger gatherings, she said.
On the donations side, many of the sponsors for Ride for the Pass still sent their checks. That takes a big step toward paying for projects in summer and fall, Teague said.
In addition, overhead is limited, so no drastic cuts are being eyed.
“We’re thinking creatively like every other group in the valley,” she said.
SPORTS & RECREATION
The sports world, both near and far, has been hit as hard as any other industry because of the pandemic. Grandstands are empty and fields remain untouched by cleats, the lust for competition shackled by the new coronavirus.
Some of the Roaring Fork Valley’s largest athletics nonprofits, like the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and Aspen Junior Hockey, were wrapping up their seasons when the shutdowns hit and escaped the worst of the fallout.
AVSC remains optimistic it will be able to implement some of its summer programming.
“We are sitting by and waiting and hoping we can still run a glacier and trampoline camp, and we are hoping we can kick off our mountain biking on June 6, but I think that’s really a wait-and-see,” AVSC executive director Mark Godomsky said. “I’m hopeful we can do something with kids, but also realistic that this is bigger than what we are trying to do right now.”
AVSC’s main fundraiser is the Audi Ajax Cup, held just before the new year, while AJH gets the bulk of its fundraising done in the fall through the Stirling Cup and the Fall Faceoff. Meaning, they are in a better position to withstand the current situation over the coming months than others.
Spring- and summer-focused nonprofits such as the Aspen Lacrosse Club and the Aspen Cycling Club are in a tougher spot. The cycling club has already canceled its races for the month of May and expects to lose about 15% of its operating budget, which comes primarily from sponsorships.
“We are doing a lot of different budget scenarios here just to see what we can sustainability and realistically offer this summer,” Aspen Cycling Club President Andy Ralston said. “It’s certainly a balancing act between being conservative and erring on the side of caution and also recognizing the value of our events.”
The Aspen Lacrosse Club is even worse off, having officially canceled its entire spring season, which had been slated to start at the beginning of April. This includes its primary fundraiser, the Aspen Shootout, a tournament held in May at Crown Mountain Park that hosts teams from all over the state and region.
“We moved forward with the decision. Let’s close a chapter on 2020 spring and get creative and stay focused on a different look and feel for lacrosse as soon as the doors are ready to be open to the fields,” said Meredith Elwell, the club’s co-director alongside Graham McMahon.
The lacrosse club typically doesn’t operate heavily in the summer, but has a growing fall season that is nearly on par with spring. The club will able to handle the fallout of losing its spring season despite its small budget, but could run into more serious financial issues should the autumn season also fall to the wayside.
“The money is definitely an issue,” McMahon said. “We are exploring other options, too, with some local businesses in the valley to maybe fundraise outside of the Aspen Shootout.”