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Aspen Writers’ Foundation: Why quality counts

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Aspen Writers’ Foundation would seem to have all the odds stacked against it.

There is the competition factor. When the Writers’ Foundation was started – in 1976, with the founding of the Aspen Writers’ Conference – it was just the second organization in the state devoted to the literary arts. Now, it competes with some 40 other Colorado groups that present writers’ workshops and the like.

The Writers’ Foundation has had to cope with its own rough recent past. The 1994 Aspen Writers’ Conference was canceled due to the organization’s financial straits; at one point that year, the AWF shut its doors and mothballed its operations entirely.

Add the fact that Colorado in 2002 ranked dead last in the United States for state legislative support of the arts (it has since risen to 49th), throw in the economic downturn both nationally and locally, and the many fingers in the local arts-funding pie, and it would be to the AWF’s credit merely to have an existence.

In light of the organization’s expansion of programs, vastly increased attendance, higher profile and relatively solid donor base, it’s no wonder marketing director Lara Whitley calls the Writers’ Foundation “the little engine that could.”

By the numbers, Whitley’s turn of phrase actually understates the organization’s achievements. Over the past four years, its audience base, program attendance, budget and staff have all tripled. The roster of featured writers is blue-chip: The upcoming Winter Words 2004 series includes three Pulitzer Prize winners and a recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Presiding over the upturn has been Julie Comins, who started with the AWF as a one-day-a-week volunteer in 1996 and became executive director in 1999. Comins, who recently resigned to spend more time with her toddler son, said that quality programming and quality events has been the foundation on which to build.

“We’ve brought in more top authors, authors with many awards to their credit,” said Comins, who will be succeeded by Lisa Consiglio effective Nov. 3. “And the word has spread among authors. A key to this wave of success is we’ve created a buzz among industry insiders.”

The AWF has also altered its mission to cater to a broader audience. Where the AWF originally focused on writers, two programs introduced in 1998 – the televised book group “Speak Volumes,” and Winter Words, which brings writers to read and talk to general audiences – have expanded its reach.

Such results have spurred donations. Comins has cultivated one family foundation – which she declines to name, for fear the foundation will be overwhelmed with requests – which raised its annual donation from $10,000 to $40,000. The AWF has also seen huge jumps in in-kind donations from local businesses, like lodging for its guests.

“The reason they continue to come back at a higher level is they saw the results they got from their investment,” said Comins. Comins adds that revamping the AWF’s marketing strategies and materials has helped get the word out about their programs and raised their community profile.

Despite the success, the AWF remains vigilant in its efforts. Even a small downturn in donations can have a serious effect on small organization.

“I feel the [economic] climate like a monkey on my back. I feel like it makes me sit up straighter in my chair,” said Whitley. “We show appreciation for our sponsors; I have to send these thank-you letters, we have to get our grant applications in order. Because I feel like every year might be the year it hits the Aspen Writers’ Foundation.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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