Colorado runs on volunteerism, from the church groups that adopt and clean a section of highway to the activists who keep watch on the Capitol for those who can’t.
Except for “grassroots” groups that are more astroturf with special interest money, volunteer organizations don’t have the big bucks with which to do battle.
For their ideas to be heard, they do it with a commitment to delivering meals for neighbors, building trails, advocating for the homeless or giving a few bucks to promote their ideology.
“Our whole system of government rests on the idea that everyday people elect officials to represent their interests, but the very wealthy and powerful have done their best to commandeer the process, lobbying and spending obscene amounts of money to hang on to their outsized influence,” said Jenny Davies, who leads the consulting firm Progressive Promotions, which specializes in helping nonprofits and community groups that tend to skew left.
Colorado Politics plans to highlight the nonprofits and do-gooders who make our communities better places to live. By doing so, we hope it gives a clearer picture of how power is shaped in Colorado.
Yes, money talks, but so do people who can rally on the Capitol steps, testify in committees and ensure public policy is shaped just as much by people as it is by money and influence.
In the magazine each week, look for pages that offer news from nonprofits about what’s happening in their ranks and features on the people and groups who power Denver’s nonprofit community. And if you are a nonprofit that has news to share, send it on to email@example.com for consideration.
Rich in help
Through November 2018, there were 11,633 charities registered in Colorado, nearly two-thirds of which were based in the state, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. The total contributions to those groups amounted to $96 billion.
“Studies show that one of the most important factors driving charitable giving is public confidence,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said at the time.
The Colorado Charitable Solicitations Act governs the registration and annual fundraising reports of most nonprofits that solicit donations. Griswold’s office administers the act.
A survey by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019 indicated better than 30% of adults say they volunteer at least once a year.
Volunteering is one of the building blocks of a healthy community, and as the nation’s economy boomed, researchers said people were more able and willing to give back.
Generation X Americans, those born between 1966 and 1980, gave the most time among demographics, women more than men, and Millennials were the worst, the survey suggested.
Colorado ranked above the national average at 32.6% of adults who volunteer, but that was good enough only for 26th among states and only slightly better than Wyoming at 32.7%. In top-ranked Utah, the rate is 51%. (Last is Florida with 22.8%.)
Despite a large number of registered charities and their countless acts in Colorado, complaints are relatively few. The state receives 20 to 30 complaints a year about charities, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
“Over the past five years, the most common subject of a complaint was a misrepresentation to donors about how their donations would be used or what percentage of the donation makes it to the charity or both,” the 2018 report reads. “An organization with a strong, independent board that regularly consults best practices and adopts those best suited to its size and mission can largely avoid missteps that generate official complaints.”
Mile High United Way, like most nonprofits, relies on volunteers, even as it serves as the hub of volunteer organizations, chalking up more than 7,300 unpaid helpers to serve the community between June 2019 and June 2020, according to the most recent data available.
Patrick Walton is the director of volunteer engagement at the Metro Denver social services organization, which advocates for education, health and economic stability.
Although there continues to be a “great need” for volunteers, a scarcity that’s only been heightened in the midst of the pandemic, Walton said not every organization has the resources to manage them.
“We’re learning that some nonprofits just don’t have the capacity to take on some of the volunteers, especially with some of the COVID-19 safety precautions that need to be in place,” he explained. Part of MHUW’s focus in recent months has been working with smaller organizations to “figure out how they can utilize volunteers who are needed in a safe way.”
But volunteers aren’t just sought to help serve residents’ basic needs. The insight and experience volunteers bring to Mile High United Way, Walton noted, are also key to policymaking.
“Volunteerism plays a crucial role in the way that we do policy at Mile High United Way,” Walton said. “It’s being out there, understanding things from a face-to-face or boots-on-the-ground perspective,” that can show community leaders and decision-makers how to “better serve your community and be better informed about the work that needs to be done.”
Although the pandemic has magnified the needs of the metro area and presented challenges in volunteer opportunities and recruiting efforts, Walton has found a silver lining.
Having to move much of the MHUW’s volunteer work online to avoid social gatherings, Walton said the nonprofit has been able to broaden its reach to volunteers “from different areas and regions,” because many of the “barriers to engage” have been lifted.
“Anytime you can remove barriers to access to volunteer and be of service to your community, I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “Unfortunately, it comes out of a really great need in our community and a really tough time, but I am grateful to be in this role and to be able to see how much our community has stepped up.”
Stock show stalled
One of the West’s most enduring traditions is built by volunteers, since its start in 1906.
Under concerns about the pandemic, the National Western Stock Show was canceled in 2021, opting for virtual events and less-public fundraising for scholarship and youth prize money, instead.
That left the Stock Show’s 800 volunteers, however, with all this commitment and not much to do.
Few operations in Colorado depend so much on the goodwill of those who do it to honor the farming and ranching legacy of the West. The passion becomes part of the DNA of volunteers.
“I’m lost, I’m bored,” said Virgil Holtgrewe, 90. “January is going to be a boring month.”
He fell in love with the Stock Show in 1970 after attending for the first time as a member of the Denver Agriculture and Livestock Club. Soon after, he began volunteering, working dozens of jobs over the decades to help the show run smoothly.
As a retired worker in farm management, born and raised on a farm in southeast Nebraska, the Stock Show has provided Holtgrewe with a community within agriculture and livestock.
“It’s really brought me together with a lot of different people in the volunteer program as well as in the Stock Show itself,” he said. “Those things mean a lot.”
Husband and wife Rick and Nancy Hammans were both raised going to the Stock Show every year. When Nancy retired in 2005, the couple decided to start volunteering for the event that had brought them so much happiness.
Rick, 64, volunteers with the children showing livestock during the Stock Show and Nancy, 69, works year-round on the volunteer committee.
“It’s been absolutely, phenomenally wonderful. I look forward to it every year,” Nancy said. “I miss it terribly. It feels like January’s not right.”
‘We’ve lost a lot’
“We’ve lost a lot this year and it’s just another thing,” Rick said. “It’s a loss but that’s just the reality of now.”
Both retired school teachers, the Hammans use the Stock Show to reconnect with their former students and families, who they frequently run into during the show.
“It’s been a real loss for families because it’s a family event that brings everyone in to have something they can all enjoy,” Nancy said. “It’s very hard on a lot of people.”
The National Western Stock Show has served as a unifying event for Coloradans since its inception.
Over his more than four decades of service for the show, Holtgrewe said one moment stands out to him the most.
It was in the early 2000s, recently after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Holtgrewe, then chairman of the volunteer committee, was escorting a group of soldiers from the Fort Carson military base around the Stock Show. Holtgrewe brought the soldiers to a Night of the Dancing Horses performance.
At the end of the performance, the announcer declared there would be a special surprise. The Fort Collins Symphony Orchestra then began to play the service song and 30 wounded soldiers from Fort Carson walked into the arena.
All at once, the crowd erupted into cheers and tears, celebrating together as a community.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful experience,” Holtgrewe said.
Some of the best known think tanks in Colorado are staffed by policy fellows, but they carry that message on the wings of volunteers.
Each year the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, the largest political gathering of its kind outside metro Washington, D.C., happens because of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University.
The school and its affiliated think tank are where the senior statesmen of the Colorado GOP can usually be found.
“It creates opportunities for our state so that the grassroots can see these people, and we’re able to bring together some experts with pretty serious policy analysis of the issues facing our state,” said Jeff Hunt, the Centennial Institute’s director since 2015 and the vice president of public policy for Colorado Christian.
Intellectual perspective, he said, is critical in the arena of discourse and police.
The institute opposes abortion and social drug use, while it defends constitutional rights.
“These are issues that are being discussed in the heat of public policy battles, and I think people want guidance and the best intellectual perspectives to draw from to make up their own minds.”
Bridging the gap
Former state Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat, has crossed the bridge from volunteer to policymaker, community activist to influential decider.
The way he sees it, he never stopped being a community activist, although “when you have a title in front of your name, it takes on a different flavor.”
Singer started off as an activist during the early years of the Iraq war, when he marched for peace. He also got interested in affordable housing issues through social work.
He had his first taste of public policy when he was finishing up his degrees in psychology and social work at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. It was there that he began doing fieldwork with the Catholic Church, which he called “a lot of fun for a Jewish kid.”
Mondays, they helped people find assistance for a variety of problems. Tuesdays, it was on to collecting data on who they saw and why. “We figured out people couldn’t afford to live in Fort Collins anymore.” That led to organizing the mid-town ministries around the affordable housing issue, then influencing city policy.
It’s also where he got his first look at the state Capitol, alongside another future legislator, John Kefalas, who was then with Catholic Charities Northern, and with whom he carpooled to the state Capitol to shape public policy. Eleven years later, both were serving in the Colorado House, although at the time it was the furthest thing from Singer’s mind.
That was in 2001. By 2004, Singer registered to vote as a Democrat and was elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
“I realized if you want to make change, you can work from the outside,” he said, “but if you don’t change the internal power structures, there’s a ceiling.”
Policy over pay
By 2009, Singer was marching for Dreamers and the Dream Act in Longmont, where he said those in the Latinx community felt like they were political pawns. It was then that Singer was chosen by a vacancy committee for the state House. “I had a huge sense of ‘impostor syndrome’ and felt more comfortable holding a rally sign then pressing the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ button,” he said.
But his years of working on social justice issues made him a go-to for communities fighting for increasing the minimum wage, combating wage theft, or advocating for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
As an activist, “we would sit with our activist groups and mourn the disappointment every year” when those bills didn’t pass. He also started to see some of his legislative colleagues showing up at rallies, such as for minimum age or other worker issues. Those colleagues started realizing the political power those groups wielded. “You can’t ignore it.”
Eventually, most of those bills passed. The first bill he ran, on wage theft, died the first and second times he sponsored it. But two years ago, the wage theft bill he ran in his first session passed almost unanimously, with the help of community activists fighting against human trafficking.
“There’s true power in the conjunction of activism and policymaking,” Singer said.
A paycheck can’t replace an experience like that.
Volunteers and community groups also provide balance to public policy, making sure the decision-makers know there are faces behind their choices.
Exerting the power of the people is the only way for society to promote justice for all and really mean it, said Davies, the Denver-based organizer and publicist for challenging causes.
“Nonprofits and neighborhood organizations play a crucial role in achieving some balance in the political equation,” she said. “While nonprofits typically don’t have a lot of cash to throw around, they do organize hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of supporters to make calls to legislators, show up to a rally and vote in elections.
“Even though special interest money does talk in politics, delivering the votes that elect candidates and generating the constituent contacts that keep them accountable is ultimately what matters the most.”
Story by Alayna Alvarez, Joey Bunch, Marianne Goodland, Michael Karlik and Hannah Metzger.