Foundations of Colorado Report on Private Non-operating Foundations

Monday, September 12, 2022

Foundations of Colorado, a new report by University of Colorado Denver Public Affairs professor Todd Ely, provides a fresh analysis of private non-operating foundations in Colorado. The report is highlighted in a dedicated Foundations of Colorado website.

University of Colorado at Denver Public Affairs professor Todd Ely talks about his new Foundations of Colorado report in this exclusive Q&A.

Q: What was something in the results that surprised you?

Geography of grantmaking
: While I knew a foundation’s location is tied to the geographic focus of giving, I was surprised to find that Colorado grantees received more than 77% of grants and 73% of grant dollars from the state’s largest foundations. This share of giving remaining local is higher than numbers I’ve seen in other places. Many of Colorado’s foundations, like the Robert Hoag Rawlings Foundation of Pueblo or The Outcalt Foundation based in Alamosa, are tightly linked geographically to the work they do. More than half of the largest 100 foundations primarily or almost exclusively make grants to Colorado recipients (more than 79% of total grant dollars).

Alternatives to traditional grantmaking remain relatively rare: Although still fairly uncommon, some of Colorado’s foundations engage in alternatives to traditional grantmaking that include Program-Related Investments (PRIs) and Mission Related Investments (MRIs), as well as screening of endowment investments for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations. These practices to leverage assets beyond annual payouts are extremely promising, but the additional capacity required may limit broader adoption without creative supports.

Q: What are a few key takeaways for the foundation community?

Publicly available data allow us to consider Colorado’s foundations on a number of meaningful dimensions including how they compare nationally, the concentration of assets, grantmaking patterns, payout rates, estimated economic impact, transparency, and innovative practices. We hope that the information provides some new insights into foundation activity for those doing the work on a daily basis, while also helping to educate the public about foundations.

A national perspective: When compared to other states, Colorado’s number of foundations and foundation assets per capita closely align with Colorado’s population rather than the state’s relatively high median household income. Colorado’s foundation assets per capita of $2,686 rank 21st among the states, which sits above the national median of $1,922, but below the average of $3,008.

Asset concentration: Foundation assets in Colorado, like elsewhere, are heavily concentrated among the largest foundations. The largest 100 foundations by asset size represent 84% of the state’s total foundation assets. The 10 largest foundations hold more than half, 55%, of all foundation assets in Colorado.

Grantmaking patterns: The study used IRS filings to compile nearly 10,000 individual grants made in a single year by Colorado’s 100 largest nonoperating private foundations. The most common grant amount was $10,000, while the average grant amount exceeded $50,000. The variation in giving patterns across foundations is striking with the median foundation making only 36 grants in a year, but the number of grants made ranging from only 1 to a high of 2,248.

Q: The report is intended to inform the public about Colorado grantmaking. How can Philanthropy Colorado and our foundation members build on that goal? 

Reporting on grantmaking activity by the numbers is a start but tells us little about the effectiveness of foundation activities in Colorado. During our study, we saw examples of impact reporting that begin to demonstrate the outcomes of foundation grantmaking but showcasing the successes and failures of grantmaking to the public may require more storytelling than just numbers. Opportunities include the need for in-depth case studies that tell the stories of Colorado’s foundations for a public audience.

Foundations remain a mystery to many. While this might be preferred by some foundations, improved transparency has the potential to improve public trust, collaboration among peers, learning about promising practices, and connections with grantees. We found more than half of Colorado’s largest non-operating foundations host websites, although the comprehensiveness of information provided varies widely.



 The report was supported through the University of Colorado Denver’s Presidential Initiative on Urban and Place-Based Research to examine the activity of Colorado’s private grantmaking foundations. The goals of the project were to document the foundation landscape in Colorado, including the characteristics of foundations and patterns in grantmaking, and to highlight how foundations leverage assets for social impact.

Todd Ely explains, “The hope is that the project can help inform the public and stakeholders about Colorado’s non-operating private foundations and bring light to organizations that are often poorly understood both in their origins and activities.”

Report findings about private non-operating foundations in Colorado include:

  • Colorado’s foundation assets total approximately $15.6 billion, which represents the 16th largest amount for a state. Colorado ranks 20th out of all states for the number of foundations per capita (one foundation for each 3,159 residents with more than 1,800 foundations reporting assets) and 21st for foundation assets per capita ($2,686 per capita compared to the national median of $1,922).
  • Foundation assets in Colorado, like elsewhere, are heavily concentrated among the largest foundations. The largest 100 foundations by asset size represent 84% of the state’s total foundation assets. The 10 largest foundations hold more than half (55%) of all foundation assets in Colorado.
  • Based on a year of activity, the state’s largest 100 foundations made 9,881 distinct grants. The median grant amount of $10,000 fell far below the average grant amount of $53,722 due to the influence of larger grants. These large foundations awarded eighty grants of $1 million or more during the year reviewed.
  • The average 5-year payout rate for Colorado’s largest foundations is 6.86% with a median of 5.24%. More than half of the foundations experienced average payout rates between 4.5% and 6.0%. Both the average and median payout rates of the state’s largest foundations exceed the 5% requirement in the federal tax code.
  • Geographically, foundations, foundation wealth, and grantees are concentrated in Front Range cities, although foundation grantmaking benefits recipients throughout the state.
  • Colorado’s foundations generally direct grantmaking to in-state causes. Colorado grantees received more than 77% of grants and 73% of grant dollars. In other words, 73 cents of every dollar of foundation grants initially remained in Colorado. 
  • Foundation giving targets diverse causes and groups. Human services organizations received the most support based on the number of grants received (30% of grants), followed distantly by education (15%), public and societal benefit (13%), higher education (9%), health (9%), and arts, culture, and humanities (8%) organizations. Examining the amount of giving tells a slightly different story with giving primarily directed to higher education (24% of grant dollars), human services (18%), education (14%), public and societal benefit (12%), health (12%), and arts and culture (6%) organizations.
  • Adopting the methodology from an existing study of foundation economic impact, a recent year of grantmaking by Colorado’s largest 100 foundations resulted in $530.8 million of grants and an estimated $4.68 billion in direct benefits to the economy. Extrapolating beyond the largest foundations, the value of direct benefits for all Colorado foundations is estimated at $5.57 billion.
  • Emerging practices supporting more diverse representation in grantmaking were observed.
  • Most giving by Colorado foundations occurs via grantmaking, but some foundations actively use alternative approaches, including program and mission-related investments, to further leverage assets.
  • Colorado’s largest foundations maintain greater tansparency than foundations nationally. Fifty-one of the largest 100 foundations maintain websites, although the comprehensiveness of information provided varies widely.
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