Leaving a legacy, Summit Foundation leader reflects as he nears retirement
Ryan Summerlin August 11, 2014
For almost a decade, Lee Zimmerman has thrown himself into his work as the executive director of The Summit Foundation. Now, at 67, Zimmerman has announced his plans to retire from the foundation in 2015.
During his eight-year tenure, grant and scholarship distributions have doubled to more than $1.5 million annually, while donor-advised and scholarship funds have grown from $140,000 to more than $500,000 per year.
For 20 years Zimmerman served as director of the United Way chapter in Walla Walla, Washington. He’s devoted most of his life to charitable work. Last week Zimmerman sat down at his desk in Breckenridge and discussed the successes of the foundation during his time at the helm, and what community needs remain to be addressed.
Summit Daily: Why did you decide to devote most of your professional career to the nonprofit sector?
Zimmerman: It seems like a great fit for me. I enjoy working with people. I enjoy the community. I enjoy building systems that serve the community. I’ve been very happy with what we’ve done. This job had a lot of the kinds of things I have skills in such as fundraising.
How has the foundation changed since you started?
The previous boards and executive directors had built a great foundation. They’d left a legacy. When I came in the organization was just fantastic, and the things it was doing in the community were excellent. It was a wonderful organization to come into.
Most of the fundraising they had been doing was based on events. The board wanted to continue having those events, but also to do additional fundraising by people using The Summit Foundation donor-advised giving.
We also started fundraising within the community in partnership with the ski industry and others. That was a bit of a directional change. We’ve been extremely successful in doing that. One of the first things I did as executive director was go out and hire Kasey Provorse. She’s been just amazing in our fundraising.
One of the goals of the board at that time was to double the amount of money we could give to the community. And we’ve been able to surpass that. We see ourselves as collaborative and partners with nonprofits in the community. So many things are needed, we can’t do all of them. So the idea of partnering was embraced.
How was the foundation able to more than double the amount of money given to charity since you joined in 2006?
We have significantly grown the number of business that do the United Way-type payroll deduction. We’ve increased the number of employees. Our board of trustees has been very energetic and successful in talking with their neighbors and friends and getting more people to donate. And what has always been our biggest source of funds is our ski pass program.
When Kasey and I started we weren’t even selling all the ski passes we got from resorts. But within a few years we not only sold out, but we have a waiting list now.
One of the things that has made The Summit Foundation so successful is the legacy we’ve been able to build on, and the wonderful partnership we have with the ski areas. They feel like they are partners with The Summit Foundation, and they strongly support what we do. It is one of their charitable arms in the community. They do a lot that a lot of the public isn’t even aware of.
What’s it been like working with the people of Summit?
A lot of people come here for the recreation and the beauty. But then they decide to stay because of the community. For me this is truly a community where people care about what is going on with other people, and care enough where they volunteer and/or provide monetary support in the community.
It’s the kind of community that rallies and does things together. From the outside it’s one of those things you hear about Summit County and that organizations are very collaborative and work together to solve problems. You wonder about that, but it’s so true up here. If you talk to people from other parts of Colorado you always hear from them how Summit County organizations work together rather than try to fight one another. And that’s really, really true. I think it’s important that culture we have here continues. We realize no one can do it alone. It takes us all working together and doing it together to address problems and provide good things to people of our community.
What have you learned working in Summit County?
I’ve learned a great deal about the different kinds of charitable vehicles that are available. A foundation can help people meet those charitable desires and be a partner with them. I’ve also learned that when there is an issue that’s important to the community you don’t hunker down and try to solve it yourself. You bring it to others. That approach is the best way. When a need is stated, and it’s based on logic and hard work, the people of this community will come support it.
Is it challenging to fundraise in an area where so many people are second-home owners?
About a third of our donors are second-home owners — so that’s pretty strong. In a resort community they are also part of the community. Nonprofits are involved in so many aspects and events here, be it theater and art, animals, education, music and more. Once they realize that they want to help support those activities. They become aware all this doesn’t just happen. Involving them is something we all want. And we’ve been successful communicating what the needs are. It also makes them feel more connected even if they’re only here for four weeks out of the year.
This community and neighboring communities embrace education. To have a good community and an educated population increases the entire quality of the community.
Is there any area or project you feel best about getting to be a part of during your time here?
Our most successful fundraising has not been funding of an organization but a program that involves multiple organizations. One was a partnership to institute a precollegiate program. It was a partnership between Summit Foundation, Vail Resorts, Colorado Mountain College, University of Colorado at Boulder and the Summit School District to work with students who have the opportunity to be the first from their family to graduate from college or a technical college.
The other thing has been a concern about what activities are available for all of our kids after school. A partnership with Keystone Science School and several other organizations has helped provide a healthy after-school activity. A lot of what we are about is leveling the playing field. Whether the parents have a lot of a disposable income or not we want to make sure kids have the opportunity to get involved if they have the desire.
What are some of the biggest needs out in the community right now that still need to be addressed?
We’re clearly not able to address all of the needs that are out there. There are opportunities for this community to do more for music and performing arts programs for kids.
The ability to provide access to health care is an issue for all of us. While we do an excellent job through the emergency care clinic there is more to be done. The cost of child care and early-learning activities for children is expensive. There is always more that can be done there. There are always additional needs and additional families.
And affordable housing is always an issue. We need to at least be part of the discussion. It’s an issue that is very expensive and no one organization can solve it, but we also don’t need to have a blind eye to the fact that it is a problem for many individuals in the community.
And last, we can do a better job communicating the positive impacts nonprofits have in the community. That might help get even more people involved.
Why have you decided to retire?
Partially because of my age, and it’s the right time. My wife and I are going to return to Walla Walla. I think I’m leaving a good foundation behind. I’m ready to retire, but I’m not in a hurry. I’m going to stay here for six months to a year to help with the transition.
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