Innovation is a term thrown around a lot in today’s business world. Companies want to innovate and change, to adapt to what consumers and customers need. Most companies miss one key element–in order to innovate, a company must have leaders who also believe in innovating themselves. Since its establishment, the Women’s Foundation of Colorado has invested millions of dollars in nonprofit organizations throughout the state to dramatically change the lives of women and girls. Its mission is clear: to build resources and lead change so that every woman and girl in Colorado achieves her full potential. The Women’s Foundation mission is met through research, education, advocacy and collaboration; the agenda is intended to lead systemic change, creating greater opportunities for success in the 21st-century economy. The scope of what the foundation faces and the efforts made over many years have been challenging at many levels.
“The issues have existed for years. The barriers are far more complex,” said Louise Atkinson, president and CEO of the Colorado’s Women’s Foundation. High school dropout rates, the numbers and plight of single mothers, and the number of women in poverty in Colorado are the reality for the Women’s Foundation of Colorado.
The issues are mirrored by disturbing numbers. Last September at the twenty-fifth anniversary luncheon, former and current board chairs delivered the current statistics in a ceremonial fashion by pouring sand into a vase while delivering the numbers in a solemn manner.
- Each year, 32,000 girls are born in Colorado (Colorado Department of Education).
- Of those 32,000 girls born each year in Colorado, at the current dropout rate, 20 percent will not graduate from high school (Colorado Department of Education).
- Another 5,479 of those in the 20 percent will have babies of their own before they turn 20 years old.
- There are 346,000 women in Colorado living in poverty (Colorado Center for Law and Policy).
While the numbers are daunting, board members present and past spoke about a call-to action for the Women’s Foundation work and a commitment to the following principles:
- Boldly leading systemic change that will advance economic opportunities for all women and girls in Colorado;
- Using exceptional research to build a knowledge base and guide the actions of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado;
- Building up a community of philanthropy that supports and advocates for women and girls in Colorado;
- Prompting inclusiveness and dedication to diversity in the people and causes the Women’s Foundation works for, including the partners the foundation works with and the ideas the foundation champions;
- Creating strategic partners across the state in order to fulfill the foundation’s mission.
The foundation has worked tirelessly and successfully to affect state legislation and provides struggling women with a chance of self-sufficiency. One example is the long effort that resulted from the Cliff Effects Study. This study provided evidence that a full-time job at low wages is not enough to make ends meet. The cause lies in the current structure of work support programs, including rapid “phaseout” rates, which lead to what is known as “cliff effects.”
Although federal and state work supports assist low-wage workers and their families with benefits such as earned income tax credits, child care subsidies, health care coverage and food stamps, the benefits are means-tested.
As earnings increase–particularly as they rise above the official poverty level–families begin to lose eligibility even though they are not yet self-sufficient. The result is that parents can work and earn more without their families achieving financial security.
In 2012, Senator Suzanne Williams (D-Aurora) and Representative Tom Massey (R-Poncha Springs) co-sponsored SB22, bipartisan legislation that creates an optional pilot program allowing county governments to extend the eligibility period for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program within their county from six months to two years.
The pilot program allows children to remain in important early child care, gives parents the ability to work and advance their careers, provides employers with stable workers, and will hopefully mitigate the “cliff effect” and help struggling families.
The measure was signed by Governor Hickenlooper on Friday, April 13, 2012. The Women’s Foundation of Colorado plans ongoing investment and management of collaborative efforts to bring these issues to fruition in the form of systemic reform legislation, building on the impact of SB22’s pilot project.
In September at the Colorado Convention Center, the founding group of the Colorado Women’s Foundation, and the many who have followed, were part of the 25th anniversary celebration luncheon. At the luncheon, Academy Award–winning actress Geena Davis complemented the advocacy for women theme. Davis shared the realities of the film industry today and women’s roles.
“Of the characters in movies, 17 percent are women,” Davis said. Her advocacy work including the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media has incorporated studies reflecting gender equality in the media and the portrayal of women.
“There is more TV, yet girls have less options,” Davis added. “In 1920, 57 percent of movies had women leads; in 2011, it is down to almost 15 percent. We need to add women on the screen and behind the camera.” Davis, who is raising one daughter and two sons, noted. “Young girls are being hyper-sexualized by the media, and women and girls often appear without value.
The work to reach some balance will take many years and an ongoing effort,” she said.
For someone who was cast in a television role as the first female president of the United States, Davis’s challenging message resonated with the audience of more than 2,000. It was fitting that she delivered that message at the 25th anniversary luncheon of the Colorado Women’s Foundation.
Indeed, the future is challenging, but already the Colorado Women’s Foundation is planning to unveil a 2013 advocacy agenda based on updated research from the Institute of Women’s Policy. The agency was hired by the foundation to conduct in-depth research throughout Colorado.
“The data that we get drive us,” Atkinson said. “Economic security, education and women’s leadership are key top areas. We are very excited to help more women reach their full potential.”