A national watchdog of charitable donations on behalf of the nation's disadvantaged trotted into town Tuesday to sink its teeth into one of Denver's largest philanthropic foundations.

But Robert Lee, the executive director of the Denver Foundation, says it was a case of a bark being worse than a bite. At least so far.

Representatives of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), which made a name for itself in the Eighties by attacking the United Way, met with Lee and other boardmembers to discuss its "audit" of the foundation. The NCRP is backed locally by an umbrella organization of grassroots activists and social-agency representatives that calls itself the Colorado Philanthropic Audit Committee.

The Denver Foundation is the sixth-largest foundation in the state, with assets of about $45 million. According to a general overview of the NCRP audit obtained by Westword, the foundation received a "performance report card" average grade of C+. The overview found fault with the foundation's leadership, structure and targeting of resources with respect to assisting disadvantaged people, including minorities, women and the disabled.

The NCRP has been in existence almost twenty years. It has performed similar reviews of foundations in half a dozen other cities and brought them to heel. Its agenda calls for at least 50 percent of a foundation's discretionary funds (those funds not designated by donors for specific purposes) to be given to the disadvantaged.

Some members of the Colorado audit committee complain that the Denver Foundation is out of touch with the people who need the money the most.

"They're a bunch of white male bankers," says one member who asked not to be identified because of concerns about that member's organization losing funding. "They only fund `safe' organizations--organizations that are not political, especially when it comes to people of color. But politics at the grassroots level is what is important to people of color."

"I'm a retired banker, so they must be talking about me," Lee says. "But otherwise, half the boardmembers are women, one is African-American and one is Hispanic. And of the six people on the staff, one is African-American and one is Chinese."

Last year the Denver Foundation administered about half a million dollars of the city's so-called Tier III funds to small groups and gave $1.5 million more to 200 organizations. Some past recipients include a Hispanic arts program, summer school for inner-city children, the Samaritan House and shelters for battered women.

But the Colorado committee member says funding also went to such groups as bridge clubs to the exclusion of fledgling social-action groups organized by community activists.

Requests by Westword to see the audit of the Denver Foundation last week were declined by Richard Male, director of Denver's Community Resource Center. Male sits on the board of the NCRP and helped organize the Colorado audit committee last spring.

"We wouldn't feel comfortable giving it to the press before we have had a chance to sit down with the Denver Foundation and discuss our concerns," Male said.

Other Colorado committee members also refused to discuss the audit's specific findings. And Sally Covington, an official with the national group in Washington, D.C., said she would not discuss the audit or even the overview, which includes a series of recommendations for the Denver Foundation to consider.

"That report has not been publicly released," she said. "It's still being reviewed internally."

According to the Colorado audit committee member who would talk, the reluctance to release the audit stems from the two sides jockeying for position. In particular, the committee member said, the foundation is concerned about negative publicity before the public votes November 8 whether to renew the Scientific and Cultural Funding District sales tax.

In 1988 voters approved a penny-per-$10-purchase sales tax to go to various arts and cultural groups in the six-county metro area. The money, which in 1993 totaled about $20 million, is distributed to three "tiers" of organizations. Tier I encompasses the Big Four: the Denver Museum of Natural History, the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Zoo and the Denver Botanic Gardens. Tier II includes the Denver Performing Arts Complex, the Colorado Ballet, the Arvada Center, Opera Colorado and the Children's Museum.

Tier III consists of several hundred grassroots efforts that range from small theater troupes to educational programs for children. In the other counties, the grants for Tier III are administered by cultural councils set up for that purpose; in Denver, the Denver Foundation, which operates on the income from donations, administers the Tier III funds on behalf of the city.

"The Denver Foundation board is aware of the audit, and [it] asked to delay releasing the report until after the vote because of concerns about negative publicity," the committee member said. "The national committee and our committee hope to use that leverage to get the upper hand."

But Lee says he wasn't even aware of the Colorado committee, although the foundation board has been talking to the NCRP for six months.

"I find it curious that these local people are doing this from a distance and haven't even attempted to contact us to discuss our philosophy," Lee says. He adds that it is "absolutely untrue" that the foundation asked the committee to delay releasing the report.

The national committee's report card gave the Denver Foundation grades of C or C- in the areas of services, communications, leadership and board/staff composition. There was a D for risk-taking. But there also were A's for "pattern of giving" and fundraising.

The Colorado committee member says the A for pattern of giving was awarded before the national committee discovered that grants to minorities and other disenfranchised groups were made only to "safe," nonpolitical groups. "I'm told they will be downgraded," the member says.

The overview report faults the foundation for a lack of leadership and recommends that it conduct neighborhood meetings to establish priorities and develop funding strategies.

"The problem with the Denver Foundation is that they have few if any people on their board of directors who understand, relate to, identify, or help solve critical issues which impact the disadvantaged people in Denver," according to the overview. The committee recommends that the foundation appoint two representatives to the board from the disenfranchised communities and hold public board meetings.

"There are almost no resources going to emerging organizations, social change, public policy initiatives or social justice groups," the report states. "There are significant gaps in funding for certain constituencies such as persons with disabilities, Native Americans, and the Asian communities." Recommendations include "setting aside money to support emerging and risk-taking groups and reserving 20 percent of grants funds for social action, social justice and risk-taking issues."

Lee says that the foundation has cooperated with the NCRP. He believes that the differences are minor and that the board will study the recommendations, "though we are beholden to no one to follow them."

He says his only concern is that the NCRP's political agenda of championing the disadvantaged could get in the way of a fair review.

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy is the child of efforts in the mid-Seventies to study the role of philanthropic giving, particularly from the view of those on the outside looking in.

Its early doctrine stated: "We view the issues of private philanthropy and public needs in the context of a society in which power and resources are grossly misallocated. Ours is a society in which racial, ethnic, sexual and other forms of discrimination deny many the political, economic and social advantages enjoyed by other Americans...To remedy these evils, philanthropy must live up to the ideal of an innovative fearless agent of social change."

A 1978 report on the committee by the conservative Heritage Foundation (a Washington, D.C., think tank started with Coors money) described the group as subscribing to "a thorough redistributionist economic theory and anti-corporation psychology, redolent in analysis (though with somewhat muted rhetoric) of commentary of the 1960's," which condemned the "Establishment" and sought "empowerment" for "helpless minorities outside the system" through "creating new structures" and fostering "radical social change.


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