In 2004, just one year after El Pomar Foundation established Regional Partnerships, the program held its first gathering of council members from around the state. In the years since, El Pomar’s Statewide Meeting has convened its regional council members and other philanthropic leaders to connect with one another, learn about issues affecting the state, and celebrate their shared impact across Colorado. This year’s Statewide Meeting was particularly special as it marked the 20th anniversary of our Regional Partnerships program and celebrated the 85th anniversary of El Pomar Foundation. Throughout the event’s programming, we celebrated these two important milestones and reflected on the ways the Regional Partnerships program has fundamentally shifted our work.
Twenty Years of Community-Informed Grant Making
Reflecting on two decades of work through Regional Partnerships, we celebrated a central theme of the program: community engagement. Throughout the two-day event, we invited council members to reflect on the program and their accomplishments, as well as learn how others are centering community engagement in their statewide work.
The formal programming began with our annual El Pomar Update, where attendees heard about 85 years of El Pomar’s investments and grant making, as well as the historical legacies of El Pomar founders Spencer and Julie Penrose. During the event’s general session, we revisited the history and goals of the Regional Partnerships program, in particular how we’ve cultivated community relationships, centered local voices in community-informed grant making, and expanded the Foundation’s impact in rural Colorado. Since the inception of the Regional Partnerships program, the councils have collectively recommended more than $34M through more than 3,100 individual grants, to nearly 1,100 unique grant partners. The Foundation’s number of rural grants has increased from 12 percent (versus urban grants) in the early decades to 34 percent most recently, with some years reaching closer to 50 percent. In 2022, the Foundation made more than 580 grants to rural communities, which was more than a third of all grants made during the year.
Celebrating Community Engagement
El Pomar is one of many entities and organizations across the state engaging in this work. To better understand the importance of community engagement, we invited several other Colorado leaders who center community engagement to share how they incorporate local community voices in their work.
Keynote speaker, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, shared the work of his office and emphasized the value of collaborative service-minded efforts. He described the successes of the state’s Safe2Tell Colorado and Opioid Response programs through transparent communication and building
connections of trust with communities across the state. He also shared his office’s efforts to assist rural communities in Colorado, including the progress of the Colorado Partnership for Education and Rural Revitalization (COPERR) in developing skilled trades programs in rural, southern Colorado.
Following the keynote address, we hosted a panel of chief executive officers from Colorado funders who engage communities and conduct grant making across the state. Aligned with the theme of this year’s Statewide Meeting, this discussion illustrated various approaches to community-informed grant making. Matt Carpenter, Chief Operating Officer of El Pomar Foundation, served as moderator for the conversation with Karen McNeil-Miller of The Colorado Health Foundation, Katie Kramer of Boettcher Foundation, Don Mares of The Colorado Trust, and Kyle Hybl of El Pomar Foundation.
The panel addressed a number of topics, including strategies for engaging communities for effective grant making, garnering localized knowledge, key criteria for grant decision-making, and recent trends in philanthropy. One major thread from all the panelists was the necessity of being actively present in the communities they support. Karen McNeil-Miller noted context is critical when responding to communities, as not every strategy is applicable across even geographically close counties or cities.
When asked about important qualities in grant partners, strong leadership emerged as a central theme. Honesty, transparency, and a willingness to take risks are a few indicators of exemplary leadership in the nonprofit sector. Some funders also seek grant opportunities that may provide the initial funding needed for an organization or initiative to launch. There was also recognition that not all nonprofits have the resources for professional grant writing staff, and that leeway may be valuable when reviewing applications.
We are grateful for the participation of several statewide funders and value the opportunity to learn from other philanthropic organizations about the many challenges and opportunities that lay before our Colorado communities.
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For 20 years, the Regional Partnerships program has enabled us to enhance our grant making across the state by centering our efforts in local communities’ perspectives. Our council members provide invaluable local knowledge and experience, enabling us to pursue proactive, community-informed projects and initiatives. Our annual Statewide Meeting is an opportunity to gather these voices and celebrate the impact council members and other philanthropic leaders have made by engaging with local communities to solve local challenges.
We hope that through Regional Partnerships and other programmatic work at El Pomar Foundation, we can continue these critical conversations in pursuit of our mission to enhance, encourage, and promote the current and future well-being of the people of Colorado.