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Charity organization losing longtime head

Allyn Harvey

A peaceful transition of power is currently under way at one of Aspen’s largest charitable organizations, marking the end of a 17-year career for one longtime figure in the local nonprofit world.

Lynn Russell will step down on April 15 from the top job at the Aspen Valley Community Foundation. She will be replaced by Ellen Freedman, who has spent the past three years working under Russell as the organization’s program director.

Russell began with the organization in 1984, when it was known as The Aspen Foundation, which was completely dependent on the Aspen Skiing Co. for its revenues. She started as a secretary and served briefly as assistant director before becoming executive director in 1990.

In a letter to the board members and friends of the organization, community foundation president Marcie Musser wrote, “Lynn has been an exceptional leader. Two years ago we made an enormous shift from primarily a grant-making organization to a community foundation responsible for raising its grant-making dollars. Since 1998, we have increased our assets from $3 million to $14 million and have created a program of donor-advised funds that total almost $4 million.”

Indeed, the last two or three years have been some of the most exciting at the Aspen Valley Community Foundation. Beginning with the announcement from the Crown family that they intended to phase out medallion ski passes, the source of most of the foundation’s funds, the community foundation has been undergoing major changes.

Starting in 1980, when it founded The Aspen Foundation, the Skico donated several hundred medallion passes to the foundation each year. They were sold for several thousand dollars apiece, and the money earned from the medallion pass sales was then donated to a variety of nonprofit organizations around the valley.

In 1998, the company told Russell and others associated with the foundation that they were going to have to find a way to support themselves, because the medallion program was going to end in 2000. At the time, the foundation had about $3 million in the bank, a respectable sum, but nowhere near enough to sustain a community foundation that would be around for years.

Russell and the organization’s board of directors set about redefining its mission and reorganizing its fund-raising. One of their first decisions was to limit donations to organizations involved with health and human services, education and community building. Arts organizations were told not to apply for funding anymore.

They changed the name from The Aspen Foundation to the Aspen Valley Community Foundation. They set up several new programs, such as the Executive Service Corp, which matches retired corporate executives with nonprofits looking for some advice on how to run their organization; the donor-advised funds that allow donors to direct their funding to specific organizations; and the Latino Initiative, a multi-year effort to provide nonprofits that serve the Latino community with the funding needed to better serve their clients.

And then Russell and the board members began soliciting support from new donors. “People have responded really well,” Russell said. “The community really deserves credit for taking over and making it their own foundation.”

A reflection of the community’s support can be seen in the foundation’s decision to increase grants from about $1 million last year to about $1.5 million this year.

Some of the recipients in the last round of grant-making by the foundation include: Columbine Home Health, which received $25,000 to provide homemaker services to low-income seniors and disabled adults; Silt Volunteer Ambulance, which received $14,795 to purchase a new defibulator/monitor for heart attack victims; and Literacy Outreach, which received $16,500 to create a full-time executive director position and expand the 1-on-1 tutoring for people who have trouble reading.

Freedman has been with the Aspen Valley Community Foundation for three years and with other nonprofits for another eight years, including four at the Advocate Safehouse Project in Glenwood Springs, which assists victims of domestic violence.

“That experience was good for me in terms of my work at the community foundation,” Freedman said of her experience in Glenwood. “I met a lot of people and established relationships with other nonprofits in the valley.”

Since joining the community foundation, Freedman has continued establishing relationships with nonprofits as the organization’s program director. Her accomplishments include the Executive Service Corp and the Latino Initiative.

“What we’re doing now is transitional: bringing Ellen into more of the development end of the organization, which is a big part of her new job,” Russell said.

Freedman’s job will be split into two positions. One will manage the Executive Service Corp, which now boasts more than 40 trained consultants who have provided advice and assistance to 26 local nonprofits. The other will manage the other programs.

One of those positions will go to the foundation’s program associate, Cindy Willimon.


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