Q&A with Aspen Institute CEO Dan Porterfield

Daniel Porterfield, the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, introduces Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer prior to Saturday's McCloskey Speaker Series conversation at the Greenwald Pavilion in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

This week’s Aspen Times Weekly cover story focuses on the challenges nonprofits face during the coronavirus pandemic. Dan Porterfield, president and CEO of The Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization with local roots and year-round programming in Aspen, responded to the following questions from this newspaper by email.

Aspen Times: While some of the Institute’s biggest events of the summer in Aspen — Ideas Fest, Security Forum — have been postponed or canceled, it’s our understanding that digital programming has been considered. Are there any updates on that idea or are there other possibilities of alternative programming in the works?

Dan Porterfield: 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. We treasure our opportunities to bring together the Aspen community and support the local economy.

Even though many of our in-person events will not happen this summer, we are pivoting to offer a robust series of digital and online convenings. For example, led by Aspen Ideas Festival Executive Director Kitty Boone, we have launched Aspen Ideas Now, a new online platform to showcase the best of the Aspen Institute. We’ll be presenting programming on this platform each Thursday, and every day that the 2020 Aspen Ideas Festival would have been held — both to serve the public and to make sure that next year’s summer convenings are well-attended.

Led by Vice President Cristal Logan, we are also booking exciting speakers for our McCloskey, Hurst, and Murdock Speaker Series, which will be featured online through Aspen Ideas Now. As soon as we’re able to host visitors to the Aspen Meadows campus, we will present a special art exhibit in the Paepcke Gallery featuring newly acquired Herbert Bayer artwork and a model of the recently approved Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies.

We’re also working with other local arts organizations and the chamber to host special community programming that will send the message that Aspen is open for business while supporting our business community.

AT: What type of impact has the pandemic, so far, had on the Institute’s fundraising efforts? How has the Institute changed its fundraising efforts because of the pandemic?

DP: Let me make three main points:

First, rather than fundraising from the local community during this time, our Aspen Community Programs department led by Cristal Logan has been donating to nonprofit groups and designated a member of its staff to work pro bono for the new 2020 Rescue Fund led by three of the Institute’s trustees, Bob Hurst, Jerry Greenwald and Melony Lewis.

Second, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, we received funding to launch the new Hurst Community Initiative, which will fund a new staff member to partner with local organizations on community-led problem solving. This new colleague will work closely with Cristal Logan to enrich the Institute’s service to the greater Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.

Third, at the national level, the Aspen Institute has been reaching out to our donors to seek their support to help us make up for significant financial losses coming from the cancellation of many events so that we can continue them as soon as the era of social distancing is over. We are so grateful for the philanthropic support we’ve received and are deeply committed to continuing our vital mission.

AT: Has the Institute cut any staff or wages because of the pandemic, or has it furloughed any employees?

DP: As a mission-driven, values-based organization, our people are our most valuable asset. We are focusing intensively on ensuring that our employees are able to work safely from their homes and that we utilize our financial resources to keep them employed during this terrible time. We have not cut any staff or wages, nor have we furloughed any employees.

However, in compliance with state requirements, our partner the Aspen Meadows has been closed to guests and events and has thus had to furlough 47 staff members. We are doing our best to help those employees by paying for nine weeks of the employee portion of their medical benefits. Also, the Institute’s employees have donated to an emergency fund to support those 47 Aspen Meadows staff members.

As we look forward to reopening the campus, the Aspen Meadows will be a leader in implementing new ways to safely take care of all of its guests.

AT: As a major organization connected or associated with some of the world’s most influential people, how does The Aspen Institute view its role during this crisis?

DP: Our mission has not changed but our circumstances have. This crisis has shown the need for real leadership and real solutions to longstanding challenges.

We are excited to move more of our programming online and into virtual spaces and to constantly reach out to our stakeholders to see how they’re doing and to offer our help. 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.


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