Denver nonprofit CEOs say doubling down on purpose led to pandemic survival

Sep 28, 2021

Denver-area nonprofits, faced in some cases with even tougher restrictions on revenue-raising than for-profit businesses for the past 18 months, have doubled down on their purpose or in some cases returned to their somewhat lost mission to reestablish relationships with the community and survive the coronavirus pandemic, a panel of sector leaders said Thursday.

Speaking at the Colorado Business Roundtable’s annual “View from the Top” event, a quintet of large-organization CEOs told a crowd at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science that their approach to bringing in money likely wasn’t different from that of for-profit firms. They pivoted to new revenue opportunities while physical businesses were shut down, reimagined key revenue-raising events and focused on employee retention with benefit and pay hikes after they’d recovered from the shock of initial rounds of furloughs.

But a common theme among the five CEOs — Sue Glass of YMCA of Metropolitan Denver, Dave Schunk of Volunteers of America Colorado, Michelle Sie Whitten of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, Janice Sinden of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and George Sparks of DMNS — was that of leading with purpose to attract donations and customers. Sparks, who noted that his museum functions like a business, said he believes corporations too will need to be more upfront about their purpose going forward to elicit sales from a general population that’s looking beyond just their product for where to spend their money.

“The next decade is going to be about purpose. And half of the people out there will not work for a company that has no purpose other than to make a lot of money,” said the former Hewlett Packard sales executive who characterized the themes of the past four decades as being about quality improvement (1980s), lowering costs (1990s), digital revolution (2000s) and social media revolution (2010s). “My advice to everyone is to think hard about your purpose.”

Glass said that doing just that helped an organization that had become known most for its “swim and gym” offerings to return to its roots of serving the community through crisis. It transformed its centers into child-care areas for essential workers, offered food distribution through them and hosted blood drives there when supplies were running low.

While Glass acknowledged the YMCA is still “going through a lot of transformation,” the expanded mission helped it to bring in money by diversifying its avenues of appeal and broadening its opportunities for federal funding.

“Without money there is no mission, and without mission there is no money,” Glass said during the panel discussion, which was moderated by this reporter. “I’ve always taken the perspective that it is a business and there is no apology for being able to make money.”

Whitten shifted gears too from raising awareness of and research money for Down syndrome to raising awareness of the massive coronavirus comorbidity risks faced by people with the condition and paying for things like personal protective equipment in group homes and helping to pay for funerals of the deceased. Though donations to her organization fell significantly over the past 18 months, particularly from former online givers, she was able to make Colorado institutions more of a magnet for federal grants and believes that mission shift will continue.

Sinden said it was important during a time of crisis to understand also what was not part of DCPA’s purpose and mission. Even after having to cut staff from 300 to 35 early in the pandemic through furloughs and layoffs and shut down live performances, the organization chose not to offer online programming because live theater was an essential part of its goals, and it used staffers to offer education and get closer to community groups instead.

Beginning on Oct. 7, DCPA will offer a 30-show season after 20 months away, and it’s used those strengthened connections with customers and community groups to make that possible, Sinden said. For example, many customers opted not to seek refunds on tickets from canceled 2020 shows, and that helped to keep the organization afloat.

Finally, several of the nonprofit executives said that even with the reduction in income, they focused more on helping workers and cutting down on turnover, whether via more flexible schedules or allowing work from home where it previously had only been in-person. Schunk noted that he asked his board for hazard-pay boosts for VOA workers who were operating a motel for the homeless and doing other front-line jobs with high virus exposure risks — and was told by his board that he needed to boost that pay even more than he requested as a reward for those employees.

“We found that when you’re faced with this threat you haven’t been faced with before, you learn what you can do,” Schunk said. “The discussions of things that don’t matter don’t happen anymore. And I think that will be a lasting change for us.”

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