Sharing the Light

By:Richard Male and Rebecca Arno Issue: Collaborative Leadership Section: Community

Collaborative Leadership at The Denver Foundation

Denver Foundation It’s an autumn night in a classroom at Regis University. The lights are off. A match is lit, a candlewick ignited, and one student’s face appears. Everyone looks at her. She is beautiful in the pool of light. Then she turns to the person next to her and dips her candle forward, ignites another wick. Now two people are illuminated. The process continues until all 20 students' candles flicker. The whole room glows, as if the sun has risen.

This is a story of collaborative leadership.

In 1995, The Denver Foundation was celebrating its 70th anniversary. It was created in the 1920s – much like community foundations in other cities – by a group of bankers who pooled charitable trusts and recruited a committee of local leaders to distribute the proceeds. A similar committee served as the Foundation’s Board of Trustees seventy years later. Through gifts from local residents, the Foundation had grown to steward around $50 million for to be used community good.

Concurrently, The Denver Foundation’s board saw an opportunity to set a transformed course for the future through the hiring of a new executive director. They had a unique challenge, as they wanted to find a leader who could foster both continued growth and deeper linkages with the people they served. A report by the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy had recently found that The Denver Foundation suffered from a lack of connection to the region’s low-income communities. girl green

The leader they chose was a fifth generation Denverite named David Miller. Miller served as chief of staff for Mayor Federico Peña, helped run a strategic communications firm, and served as vice president for a private foundation. His mix of experience in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors outfitted him well for the task at hand. Because a board hungry for transformation had hired him, David could count on the board’s support to lead in fresh directions.

Today, The Denver Foundation stewards more than $500 million in charitable assets, including over 800 funds established by living donors. The Foundation has celebrated the 10th anniversary of its Strengthening Neighborhoods Program, which gives grants directly to residents in low-income communities for projects they conceive. The national Council on Foundations recently gave the Foundation a Critical Impact Award for its Inclusiveness Project, which helps nonprofits expand their connections to communities of color. Even during the recent economic downturn, donations remained strong and staff was able to galvanize a million dollar grant program to help front-line food pantries.

And, in fact the transformation that the board sought in 1995 has successfully taken place. Miller is the first to tell you that he is not the sole reason for this. Miller develops and expects leadership at all levels. Today, a board of 19 leaders, 31 staff members, and a cadre of more than 100 volunteers put the assets of the Foundation to work helping the community. To use the analogy shared in the Regis classroom, The Denver Foundation is an organization where new candles are continually lit.

Throughout the United States, organizations from all sectors struggle for sustainable success. Every day, we see the disastrous results when leaders do not foster such an environment – when there is only one candle, or perhaps a few candles in the room, while the rest of the organization orbits in darkness. Yet because collaborative leadership relies on self-reflection and sharing power, such leaders are rarely willing to elaborate their stories and strategies, certain that they personally are not the key.

As we have examined the style of leadership at work in The Denver Foundation, it is clear that David Miller and the Board of Trustees foster several key practices.

These are the elements of collaborative leadership, and they can transform organizations when practiced with thoughtfulness and care.

Learning and listening

Philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Miller is continually self-reflective, asking staff, board, and volunteers for input into decision-making. There is a pervasive culture of learning, with investments in professional development for every staff member.

Besides internal learning, the organization intentionally seeks input from the communities where it works. Back in 2003, a prominent businesswoman left The Foundation a $30 million unrestricted gift through her will. Rather than making decisions about the use of these funds in a vacuum, The Foundation convened over 100 key nonprofit leaders to listen to the needs and expectations within the community. And, one of those community leaders recently said, “You asked for our advice, reported back to us, and then actually changed your practices. That doesn’t happen too often.”


Courageous leaders know when to take action and when to pause and learn. Courage requires foresight and fortitude and the trust of those who are moving forward with you. Despite significant investment losses in the recent economic downturn, The Denver Foundation’s board voted to make the same amount of dollars available through the Community Grants Program in 2009 and 2010, even if it meant dipping into the Foundation’s corpus. This was a risk, but well worth taking to meet increased community needs during the recession.


Two kinds of balance are essential in leadership: personal and organizational. While Miller works hard, he also spends a lot of time exercising and being with his family and friends. He encourages all staff to do the same. On an organizational level, a community foundation in particular must practice balance between the needs of the past and future, between political extremes, between the wide range of community needs and various possible courses of action. Practicing balance means that you will never make everyone happy, and yet, when balance is practiced well and in concert with other collaborative leadership strategies, such as listening and courage, the course of action chosen will be the right one.

Lead with values: equity, inclusiveness, accountability

In 2007, The Denver Foundation created a new strategic plan which solidified and communicated its values of leadership, equity, inclusiveness, and accountability. Equity focuses organizational efforts on those most in need. Inclusiveness requires that the voices of the people served are included, at all levels. Accountability means that the organization is transparent in explaining how decisions are made and funds are managed.

Develop leaders all around you

Denver Foundation

Collaborative leaders know, through listening and instinct, where their weaknesses are, and they do their best to hire people who supply those strengths. A key to The Denver Foundation’s success has been its ability to recruit and retain staff who have been CEOs and have led other teams, even though staff members have frequent offers for other opportunities. The Foundation also invests in leadership development for neighborhood residents and nonprofit executives, understanding that a community of leaders is a community of strength.

As organizations grow and change in the tumultuous information age, they must seek ways to bring the light of collaborative leadership to their work. When they adhere to these key practices, not only will they find the outward signs of success – profits gathered, goals achieved – but they will create organizations that are stable, sustainable, and healthy for everyone involved.

About the authors: Richard Male is an internationally-recognized leader in the fields of leadership development, fundraising, and community organizing, and serves as an adjunct professor in the Master of Nonprofit Management Program at Regis University. Rebecca Arno has served for eight years as the Vice President of Communications for The Denver Foundation and is a graduate of the Regis program.