Cable Guy

Bill Daniels made a fortune bringing cable to the West. But would he agree with how his legacy is being spent?

When the real-estate market in Colorado collapsed in the late 1980s, Schuck was virtually wiped out. He and his wife lost their home and soon discovered that many of the people they knew wouldn't talk to them. Not Daniels. He loaned Schuck several million dollars so he could relaunch his business.

"I lost all my so-called friends except Bill Daniels," Schuck says. "He couldn't do enough for me. When everybody else was running away, he redoubled his efforts to help me. There was nothing in it for him financially."

Daniels also sponsored hundreds of charity fundraisers at Cableland and was a big supporter of Father Woody, the legendary priest who offered meals to the homeless at the Holy Ghost Church downtown. He even showed up to serve dinner to the poor one Christmas, spending hours talking to them.

The Community Resource Center's Steve Graham is 
skeptical of the Daniels Fund layoffs, considering Hank 
Brown's and other boardmembers' compensation.
James Glader
The Community Resource Center's Steve Graham is skeptical of the Daniels Fund layoffs, considering Hank Brown's and other boardmembers' compensation.

In the late 1990s, Daniels's respiratory system started to collapse after a lifetime of heavy smoking, and he began laying the groundwork for the foundation that would be entrusted with his fortune. He had already sold off most of Daniels & Associates to employees and other investors, but he still owned several local cable systems. Once his estate was settled, he knew the foundation would immediately become one of the biggest in the West.

For more than a year, he worked on setting up the legal structure for what would be known as the Daniels Fund. He specified that 30 percent of his billion-dollar fund would go to support lower-income college students; the other 70 percent was to be divided among nine categories, including child and youth development, alcoholism and substance abuse, amateur sports, aging, developmental disabilities, equipment for physical disabilities, ethics in education, homeless and disadvantaged, and innovative education. He also ensured that his money would be spent to benefit the states where he had lived, with more than half being reserved for Colorado, 10 percent for Wyoming, 10 percent for New Mexico, 5 percent for Utah, and 10 percent for national initiatives.

"There are very few people who put the kind of thought into philanthropy that Bill Daniels did," says his longtime friend Thompson.

By early last fall, the Daniels Fund had taken big steps toward fulfilling its founder's vision. The first three classes of Daniels scholars -- nearly 400 students -- were enrolled in college, with an unheard-of retention rate of 90 percent. A five-person office was up and running in Sheridan, Wyoming, and dozens of promising students were paired with volunteers who helped steer them through the often-daunting college-application process, since most of the students' parents had never been to college.

"If you're the first one in your family to go to college, it's overwhelming," says Sheridan-based volunteer Fachon Wilson. "They don't know where to start and often fall through the cracks. The young people who were part of the program here were not from a typical white, upper-middle-class background."

The Daniels Fund had just expanded its college program to Rock Springs, Lander and Riverton, and plans were in the works to have a presence in every part of the Cowboy State.

But those plans came to a screeching halt on November 18, when the Wyoming and New Mexico offices were closed and the local staff laid off. The Fund also canceled plans for a conference center to serve nonprofits that was to be built next to the headquarters building.

Brown insists that the layoffs were necessary because the fund had administrative expenses that were far too high. Running the out-of-state offices alone cost $1.25 million per year, and Brown says shrinking the staff will save a total of $2.6 million annually, money that will flow back into non-profit programs.

"We compared ourselves to other foundations of our size, and we came up with three times as many administrative costs as similar foundations," he explains.

Brown also found that the fund had "triple the number of people in grant-making as most Colorado foundations" and says an outside consultant "felt we could operate more efficiently if we operated out of a central office."

Rick Cohen, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, disagrees. He doesn't believe the costs were excessive, because the fund serves such a large territory with a unique mission, something most other foundations don't face. "Their expenses were not out of line," he says.

And outside consultants and economies of scale don't necessarily reflect the man whose generosity was legendary, who conducted "drive-by giving" to friends in financial trouble, who repaid the Utah Stars season-ticket holders the value of their tickets plus 8 percent interest several years after the bankruptcy -- because it was morally right, if not legally required.

"The Daniels Fund held the promise that it would adhere to the values and ethics practiced by Bill Daniels," Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal wrote to Brown after the announcement. "I do not believe this precipitous change in direction lives up to those high standards."

But Brown, who knew Daniels well, says the philanthropist never told anyone he wanted the fund to have offices in each state. Brown says he agreed to head up the fund because he wanted to help bring Daniels's vision to fruition. "I had known Bill for more than thirty years," says Brown. "It was a wonderful opportunity to help him fulfill his legacy. It seemed like a fun thing to do to cap off my career."

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