Charities face a hard sell across Boulder County

Survey says locals lag metro area in volunteer hours and donations

Charities seeking volunteers for a quick weekend project can find them easily in Boulder County. But when it comes to soliciting donations or sustained volunteer efforts, such as delivering meals to the elderly or mentoring youth, it’s a tougher sell.

Half of metro Denver philanthropists live in either Boulder or Jefferson counties, but still Boulder County falls behind when it comes to charitable giving, according to a survey released by the Denver Foundation on Wednesday.

Residents here devote an average of 2.7 percent of their incomes toward good causes versus the seven-county average of 3.1 percent. Boulder County folks are more likely to volunteer, but on average they give fewer hours: 14.9 hours per household a month, versus the metro-area average of 18.1 hours a month.

“Part of it is people don’t believe there’s a need,” said Josie Heath, president of the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County. Poverty is less visible in Boulder County, but it is here and Heath said it’s important to educate the public.

“We need to find ways for people to connect more to their community,” she said. “Talk to EFAA (Emergency Family Assistance Association) or Community Food Share. They’ll tell you people are hungry. There are 1,200 people who are homeless. Some people think that’s by choice. They don’t realize how many are working homeless.”

The survey results coincide with the beginning of the nonprofit world’s high season Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas are right around the corner.

The telephone poll of 754 people in the seven-county region is a follow-up to a similar survey taken in 2000. Such a tool helps track the reasons why people give and the barriers that keep people from giving then disseminate that information to business leaders and nonprofit groups who can use it to make the community better, said Rich Lopez, a member of the Denver Foundation’s board of trustees, a lawyer and former deputy mayor of Boulder.

This latest survey reinforces trends chronicled several times in the past five years, including a philanthropic survey of Boulder County in 2000.

In 2003, a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey showed Boulder County was ranked 46th out of 63 Colorado counties in giving, based on the percentage of donated “discretionary income” itemized on tax returns. Then, Boulder County residents on average donated 5.9 percent of their discretionary income, or $2,964 of $50,335. Conejas County residents, with an average discretionary income of $28,758, gave the most 18.8 percent, or $5,413.

Today, the good news is that almost everyone in the Denver metro area 96 percent donates money to charities, and 98 percent of residents gives either time or money, Lopez said.

The Denver Foundation’s 2005 survey showed 99 percent of Boulder-area residents donates money to causes ranging from animal shelters to arts organizations, which is higher than the seven-county average of 96 percent; the percentage of Boulderites who volunteer is also above average, 82 percent versus 74 percent.

What’s lacking is how much they give of their time and money.

Laura Kinder, executive director of Volunteer Connection, a volunteer referral service, said organizations seeking volunteers have a tough time finding people willing to make long-term commitments.

“Because of the lifestyles of people, they have so many different things competing for their time families, career, school, taking care of an adult or someone with special needs, they have their own businesses, and of course, there’s recreation,” Kinder said.

Recently, the Boulder County Arts Alliance sought volunteers for its Shoot Out Boulder event, she said. People were able to provide support over a weekend, when most people are available to volunteer.

But organizations such as Meals on Wheels always are seeking volunteers who are able to make a weekly commitment to fix, pack and deliver food. Similarly, various mentoring organizations keep running lists of young people waiting for an adult mentor.

Even so, the numbers support that volunteering is appealing to locals. They just do it in their own way.

“You make a direct change in someone’s life, and you’re not giving money when you don’t necessarily know where it goes,” said Mike Kabjian, founder of Boulder-based Community Buzz, which stages the annual Metro Denver Volunteer-A-Thon.

While studies say Boulder County residents are stingy in their charitable giving, Kabjian says volunteer hours shouldn’t be minimized.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, one volunteer hour is worth about $17.50.

“If you give 10 hours to a nonprofit every month, about $175, that’s no small contribution,” he said. “Those 10 hours spent tutoring a child are valuable.”

This year, Kabjian traveled to Thailand to help with tsunami relief efforts and organized a local drive to airlift supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

But he says it’s important not to be driven simply by newspaper headlines in deciding how to donate time and money to good causes. Nearly a year after the December 2004 tsunami, there’s still much work to be done.

Ideally, he said, everyone should pick four or five causes close to their hearts.

“Give $50 each to three or four nonprofits and volunteer at one or two other nonprofits,” he said. “Then you’re a really engaged community member if you’re doing that. And clearly, if you have more money to give, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘How important is community to me?'”

Lauren Casteel, the Denver Foundation’s vice president of philanthropic partnerships, agreed.

“It feels good to give,” she said. “All people want to give and have something to give.”

Some barriers that limit giving include a person’s perception of what makes a large charitable gift, and when people aren’t asked for money as often and when giving isn’t ingrained as a fundamental value.

For instance, people have consistently called $1,000 a major gift since the 1980s, said David Miller, president of the Denver Foundation.

Also, the number of Boulder County residents attending a house of worship is lower than elsewhere in Denver metro and beyond.

“If you go to your faith community more often, you get asked for money more often,” the Community Foundation’s Heath said. “It’s not that we’re not a spiritual community. But actual church or synagogue attendance here is very low.”

Attending a house of worship imparts a value of having responsibilities beyond your own needs, she said.

“It shouldn’t take a fire or a flood to get to know our neighbors and to want to help out and give money to the people who need it,” Heath said.

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