An Agency’s Near-Fatal Drift Ends with an Unlikely Rescue

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In 1999, the Columbine High School shooting claimed the lives of 14 youths and changed the lives of millions of Americans. It also nearly killed the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the state’s chief child advocacy group.

But the Columbine tragedy also set in motion a series of events that led to this: The campaign’s annual budget has grown from $200,000 to $1.1 million, its staff has grown from six to 18, and it spends far more time carrying out its stated mission rather than scurrying to fulfill project requests for a slew of funders. In fact, the campaign now lives completely on general operating support – a seemingly unattainable dream for the vast majority of the nation’s nonprofits.

The fall and rise of the campaign illustrates what can happen when youth organizations drift off mission in their chase for dollars, but also how funders can put such organizations on more solid financial footing.

Founded in 1985, the campaign – the state affiliate of Voices for America’s Children – lobbied state and local governments on budget decisions and legislation on health, education and economic security. It seemed to be a bargain for funders. But to draw even that much money, the campaign had taken on such projects as conducting evaluations of its funders’ initiatives, carrying out phone surveys about prenatal care and producing parenting brochures on early childhood development. Those are not unworthy projects, says Executive Director Barbara O’Brien, but “in a perfect world, we’d be at the legislature trying to get more money for prenatal care and advocating for parents.”

In the late 1990s, O’Brien estimates, 75 percent of her staff’s time was spent on fund-raising or non-advocacy work. Advocacy “had to be done on nights and weekends,” she says.

Then the Columbine shootings occurred in April 1999, at the start of O’Brien’s usual fund-raising period.

Tearful Director

The campaign dove into lobbying on the flood of state legislation that was introduced in response to the shootings, such as closing loopholes in gun-purchasing laws that allowed the Columbine shooters to acquire much of their arsenal. By the time she began reaching out to her usual financial supporters, O’Brien says, “everyone was telling me they earmarked everything in their youth budget for Columbine help.”

That even included long-time funder and friend Elsa Holguin, senior program officer at the Rose Community Foundation. “I just put my head down on table and started crying,” O’Brien recalls. “We were going into the last six months of the year with almost no funding and no endowment. How do you survive something like this?”

That brought a simmering problem to a boil. CCC was struggling under the yoke of projects it wasn’t designed to carry out and structurally hampered in trying to fulfill its real mission.

Holguin and another CCC funder, Chambers Family Fund Executive Director Letty Bass, saw the grave situation, but saw a solution as well: Convince funders to stop sending the campaign in different directions, and to provide CCC instead with general operating support.

“Some organizations are suited to receiving general support – they need to be flexible,” says Bass. “If you’re working on public policy or advocacy, you don’t know what particular project you’ll need to do, what barriers or state program cuts they need to respond to. There’s just lack of predictability.”

Holguin, Bass and O’Brien invited 20 state foundations to a meeting to discuss CCC’s woes. About 11, including Rose and Chambers, showed up. Four were already CCC funders.

“We needed to be brutally honest and had to tell them how bad it had gotten there,” Holguin says.

The major problem: CCC was an advocacy group trying to keep afloat by providing other services. “They weren’t sharing enough information” about what they really needed money for, Bass says. “But we weren’t, as foundations, asking the right questions, either. Foundations just assumed that, since CCC applied for project funding, that’s what type of funding they wanted.”

Holguin made a pitch to the other funders: “We need to have CCC because nobody else is doing this advocacy work. Their work is keeping the rest of the [youth-serving] nonprofits alive.”

The group of 11 agreed to keep meeting, and the Rose Foundation paid a consultant $15,000 for an organizational analysis.

Nervous Funders

Several of the foundations saw a major stumbling block to general support: They weren’t supposed to fund lobbying efforts, and they weren’t sure where the line was between lobbying and CCC’s advocacy and policy activities.

The program officers “got it,” O’Brien says, “but it was unclear whether they could sell it to trustees. … They heard me talk about it and they felt they could trust me, but had trouble explaining that to trustees.”

Holguin brought in Don Hopkins, a lawyer who represents nonprofits in Colorado, to discuss how much lobbying a nonprofit advocate such as CCC can legally carry out.

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service limits what share of their budgets nonprofits can spend on direct lobbying: fifteen percent for direct lobbying of the state legislature and 5 percent for “grassroots lobbying.”

Hopkins found that CCC was well within those limits. Even if it weren’t, he told the funders, their foundations wouldn’t be penalized if they gave general support. In fact, Holguin says, Hopkins advised funders that the best way to protect themselves against ties to lobbying was to avoid project support

“They had been thinking specific projects would protect them. It was the opposite,” she says.

She says each foundation representative got a letter from Hopkins explaining this, so they could show it to their trustees. Then came the consultant’s assessment. Funders were dismayed by the findings.

“It was a 12-year-old organization that looked like a startup,” Holguin says. The programming aspect was very strong; everything else needed fixing.”

Lack of communication among funders, coupled with CCC’s past hesitation to report bad news, left most funders at the meeting shocked to see how much the nonprofit was struggling.

In order to fix CCC, the consultant called for doubling its budget, from $200,000 to $400,000 over two years. Holguin and Bass believed even more was necessary.

As all this was happening, by the way, CCC had stopped applying for project funding at the suggestion of Holguin and Bass. The campaign was on the brink of shutting down. The Colorado Trust, which usually funds only its own initiatives, kicked in a small bridge grant to keep the agency afloat.

The overhaul began to bear fruit in 2000. The Colorado Trust came through with another $300,000 over three years. Holguin’s Rose Foundation added another $300,000, then $300,000 more in a 2001 grant. By December of 2000, all 11 of the Colorado funders that attended that first meeting in 1999 had contributed – to the tune of $1.3 million.

The campaign has since expanded its grassroots network from three Colorado counties to 11. Instead of one major publication each year, CCC released 13 targeted policy assessments in 2003. Instead of O’Brien being the agency’s lone pubic face, she has two vice presidents and several department directors who can speak for the organization.

The true measure of improvement, says O’Brien, came 14 months after the funding shift started. Around Labor Day of 2001, a local group asked the CCC to get behind a ballot initiative that would require the state legislature to raise funding for public education each year by the amount of the inflation rate.

“In the past, I could no sooner decide to get behind it than fly,” O’Brien says. But without contract work or project deadlines looming, CCC took on a media and lobbying campaign to support the measure.

That campaign was credited with helping to pass Amendment 23 two months later.

Talk about success breeding success: Seeing the CCC’s impact, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made CCC the overseer of an $8 million grant under its Small Schools Initiative grant. Had the shift to general support not happened, O’Brien says, “Colorado would not have gotten money” at all. Contact: CCC (303) 839-1580,