Writers’ Foundation cherishes written word
ASPEN The Aspen Summer Words Festival, the 31st version put on by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, begins Sunday with a focus on Africa. It is the “Sundance Film Festival of literary publishing,” as author Pam Houston puts it – and the festival is the costliest and largest event the foundation stages. Aspen Summer Words is a conglomerate of two main parts – a literary festival and a writing retreat. Lisa Consiglio, executive director of the foundation, said the retreat is basically a break-even proposition with tuition paying the full $38,000 cost. The festival only covers about half of the $100,000 in costs for the week. “We try to keep our ticket prices way, way down,” Consiglio said. “We’re paying people to come from Africa this year, not cheap. It’s worth it when they’re all here and all on that stage. They’re so invested in one thing. It’s very special.”The majority of the funds for the Aspen Writers’ Foundation come from contributed funds, a mixture of memberships, private foundation grants and individual contributions.
Two and a half years ago, the foundation did not have any members, but through a new push the foundation received about $100,000 from members this year. “It is a base – income you can rely on from year to year,” Consiglio said of the membership program. “We want our members to be invested in the foundation. The membership is the best way to have people say ‘I own a chunk of this program and I’m an ambassador.'”Consiglio said members often help out beyond donating money and that many decisions in the foundation involve significant amounts of collaboration. For things like choosing authors, choosing a theme and making the festival as broad as possible, Consiglio said more minds are better.”I’m not a literary expert,” Consiglio said. “We put our heads together, open our minds and try to get as many people together as we can.”Consiglio, who earns an annual salary of $66,000, came to Aspen after working for numerous nonprofits, mostly in Washington, D.C., and including the Aspen Institute.”I don’t do it for the money,” she said. “I absolutely adore this job and the staff.”Still, it’s not all easy. The Writers’ Foundation was in a tough spot about 10 years ago and Consiglio said it almost closed down. The executive director before Consiglio brought them into the black and now she says the books are relatively solid. “We’ve grown my leaps and bounds over the past three years,” Consiglio said. “We are on terra firma when it comes to finances but we always need to plan for that rainy day or rainy year or rainy decade.”She said neither an endowment nor capital campaign are right around the corner, but the idea is on the radar screen. For now, she hopes to continue to grow the foundation and work with the economic side on a strategic basis. For now, the financial focus is on providing programs now. The future will likely bring more of one of the Writers’ Foundation’s newest programs, Lyrically Speaking, with musicians who talk about music. Winter Words, the writing festival for the winter, is the second largest program and Scribes and Scribblers, a writing camp for all ages, is growing as well. Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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