Give Thanks

Are we having funds yet?

Colorado got a glimpse of hell with Columbine.

It also showed Coloradans what it takes to start making your way back from the abyss: money, and lots of it. And then still more money to manage the money.

"It costs money to give money away," says Phil Nash, director of communications for the Rose Community Foundation.

Last month, the Rose Foundation's board of trustees voted to make a special $50,000 grant to the September 11th Fund Board, created by the New York Community Trust and the United Way of New York to oversee the activities of the September 11th Fund, as well as the September 11th "Tribute to Heroes" Telethon Fund. As of November 8, according to the September 11th Fund's Web page, the organization had given out $48 million in emergency grants for everything from a 24-hour crisis support line for victims and others affected by the events of September 11, to meals and massage therapy for rescue workers, to assistance for firefighters' funerals.

And the funds have collected hundreds of millions of dollars more. But like the American Red Cross, they've also collected complaints that the money isn't going where it's supposed to, as fast as it's supposed to.

"Any way you go, you're going to be criticized," Nash says. "If you take your time, there will be complaints. If you speed up the process, the quality control will go."

Nash got wind early of how massive the relief efforts in New York would be -- and how much help those relief efforts themselves would require -- through an e-mail group. "On September 11, there was a flurry of postings from various foundations," he says. "It was an overnight phenomenon."

The charitable foundations were overwhelmed by the money they were taking in and by the pressure to get the money out.

Certainly that's what happened with the Red Cross, which lost a director and considerable credibility when donors complained that money earmarked for New York relief efforts was instead going to overhead and other Red Cross causes. People inspired to ante up by Hollywood star power were upset when they learned that, despite all the begathon promises, all the monies weren't necessarily headed directly to victims. (Colorado residents Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell were about the only celebrities willing to discuss the charges; they did so on Larry King Live last month.) And to date, America's Fund for Afghan Children, the dollar-donation program for which President George Bush enlisted the efforts of American kids, has collected only $1.5 million -- while administering it has cost the Red Cross close to $2.5 million.

The Rose Community Foundation usually keeps its charitable efforts closer to home, making grants to organizations in the seven-county metro region. "We don't fund New York City," Nash says, "but this was the most thoughtful way we could get involved." The Rose grant will be used strictly to administer the distribution of other donations.

"When disaster struck here with Columbine, our community received support from everywhere," notes Dick Robinson, chairman of the Rose Foundation board. "In this special case, the trustees felt our entire community has been affected by what happened on September 11 and that we needed to find a way to help those who are shouldering the biggest burden."

Giving away that money not only takes money, but it takes considerable organization as well; it helps when an organization is already in place, as the Denver Foundation was when Columbine donations started coming in. "We administered many of the funds from Columbine," says Marlene Casini, vice president for advancement and communications for the Denver Foundation. "Not only did we have to account for the money, but thank every donor who made a gift -- no matter whether it was a dollar or a thousand dollars."

The Denver Foundation, too, stepped outside of its usual grant-making territory to make a $50,000 donation restricted to the administration of the September 11th Fund. "Funding the process means the people who wanted 100 percent of their money to go to the victims will get their wish," Casini says. "This was an exceptional grant. We felt it was important to support them."

At the same time community foundations are paying close attention to New York City, they're keeping a watchful, and wary, eye on the situation back home. Last month, when Casini spoke to the annual gathering of community foundations -- a group 600 strong -- the talk was all about the "community foundations' response in times of crisis," whether in New York, Columbine or communities weathering the shock waves from those crises.

"The big conversation post-September 11 is how the community, speaking broadly, will respond locally to nonprofits," Casini says. "We started to see even back in June that the economy was starting to slide and the donations starting to slip -- specifically corporate donations, which are the first to go.

"The message is that giving is important, and when the economy is bad, giving is more important."

So this holiday season, let us give thanks -- and then something more.

Half-Mast, Half-Assed

Only four more days to see Art Triumphs Over Domestic Violence, the Boulder County Safehouse-sponsored exhibit. Or what's left of it, anyway.

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