In his winter years, Charles Boettcher lived in Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel—a luxury property which, coincidentally, he owned. A man of stern self-discipline and regular work habits, Mr. Boettcher spent most of his days at the office, even into his 90s. Before returning home to the Brown Palace, however, he would stroll across the street to purchase his nightly reward: a bottle of ice-cold Coca-Cola. One night, a hotel staffer asked Boettcher why he didn’t simply order his Coke from room service. “What,” Boettcher exclaimed, “and pay the prices we ask here?”
From somebody else, Boettcher’s remark might have seemed a bit tongue-in-cheek. Not so with Charles Boettcher. For him, it was an expression of the immigrant thrift and industry that characterized his entire life, and which today marks the foundation that bears his name.
Boettcher came to America from Germany in the late 1860s, shortly after he finished high school. He arrived in Cheyenne, where his older brother was already employed at a hardware store. Charles immediately went to work with his brother, and the two of them soon set up their own shop. By 1875, Charles had struck out on his own, moving south and starting another hardware operation in the Colorado territory. When a silver boom erupted in Leadville, he followed the action. Once in Leadville, his interests expanded to include mining, ranching, and banking.
Boettcher weathered and even prospered during the Panic of 1893, so much so that in 1900 he took his family to Germany to retire. But Boettcher soon discovered that retirement didn’t suit him. After just six months, he returned to Colorado with a trunk filled with high-quality sugar-beet seeds and jumpstarted Colorado’s sugar industry by founding the Great Western Sugar Company. Boettcher soon spotted another opportunity. While constructing the Great Western Sugar factories, Boettcher noticed that his most significant expense was the cost of importing concrete from the East Coast and Europe. That, along with rapid industrialization statewide, led him to recognize a tremendous market opening. He founded what would later be known as the Ideal Cement Company. There would be other ventures in the ensuing years—such as the hotel and a financial investment firm—but Ideal became the center of the Boettcher commercial universe.
For generations, the Boettcher family has been the stuff of legend. In 1933, Boettcher’s grandson (also named Charles) was kidnapped, held for two weeks, and ultimately released for $60,000 ransom. What his captors didn’t know, however, was that young Charles, like many gentlemen of the day, was something of an aviation enthusiast. While in captivity, Charles memorized the sounds of planes coming and going. After his release, he reconstructed the flight patterns, pinpointing the location, and led authorities to a house in South Dakota where they arrested his kidnappers. Likewise legendary—if less dramatic—has been the family’s generosity.
The Boettcher Foundation was established in 1937 by Charles and his only son, Claude (along with their friend James Quigg Newton). “My father and I have been successful in Colorado,” Claude explained, “and we owe everything to the state. I am firmly of the belief that I can’t take it with me. But it’s a hard task to give it wisely.” That profound sense of gratitude toward the Centennial State still guides the foundation today: Boettcher limits its grantmaking to programs in Colorado.
Almost from the beginning, Charles and Claude Boettcher concentrated on making grants for capital improvements. “They were builders, and they liked to see things of substance,” explains Timothy Schultz, the executive director of the Boettcher Foundation. By giving money to another nonprofit’s capital project, the Boettcher Foundation acts as a force-multiplier, providing stability and freeing up funds for the nonprofits to spend on services instead of on infrastructure. Boettcher made its first grant in 1937 ($500 to St. Anne’s Convalescent Home), and by 1970 the foundation was awarding over $2 million in grants per year. In 2007, it awarded 231 grants totaling more than $10.5 million, with unpaid grant commitments exceeding $24 million. Its assets have grown accordingly, from just under $50 million in 1970 to nearly $300 million today. As of 2007, the foundation had given more than $270 million to nonprofit organizations serving the people of Colorado.
The foundation splits its giving into four major categories: arts and culture, community and social service, education, and health care. Its capital grants are late-stage funding leadership grants. Recipients are given fundraising challenges and the grants are contingent on their raising a project’s goal before the Boettcher Foundation pays the grant award. From the foundation’s earliest days, the trustees have favored making significant grants toward large and well-conceived projects, rather than dividing their funds into a vast number of smaller gifts.
Today, even as the foundation holds to that formula, it gives to a wide variety of programs, ranging from the restoration of amphitheaters to the building of libraries to the construction of school buildings. In recent years, for instance, it has contributed $100,000 to aid in the creation of a new Hospice Inpatient Facility in Grand Junction and $25,000 to renovate a community center in Dolores.
In 2006, the foundation unveiled a new program: the large-scale “Impact Grants.” Every other year, it will give one program a giant, concentrated grant of between $4 and $5 million. That same year, Boettcher announced the winner of its first Impact Grant: the Clayton Foundation and Qualistar Early Learning received a $4 million grant for their collaborative project, the Clayton Campus for Early Childhood Education. Originally the Clayton Orphanage, the Clayton Foundation was no longer serving as a permanent residence for Colorado’s orphans. (Happily, that particular need has ceased to be pressing.) Clayton saw its mission shifting, and wanted to build an early childhood learning center, an interest that Qualistar Early Learning shared.
But as the staff and trustees of Boettcher and Clayton reviewed the proposal, both parties came to realize that with more funding they could expand the scope of the project and achieve more highly leveraged results. Instead of building a childhood learning center, the Clayton Foundation created a campus to train early childhood educators—a laboratory school. “It’s really become a model, not only for doing best practices in early childhood learning, but for training people to go out and teach best practices throughout the area,” Schultz explains.
Unlike the normal capital grants, the Impact Grants are initiated as partnerships. “We found the Clayton Campus grant,” Schultz explains, “but the Clayton grant found us as well. They talked to us about a much smaller grant but we were able to say, ‘Wow, if this idea were to get larger, it would really be something we could be excited about.’” The next Impact Grant isn’t scheduled until 2009. Boettcher’s trustees, all of whom are active in the community, are working closely with the staff to find another project that will allow them to help fundamentally reshape the delivery of some service to the people of Colorado. Only seven other full-time staffers assist Schultz in the effort. These eight employees manage all of the operations for the foundation, including oversight of its $300 million in assets. The idea of keeping the staff lean and overhead low is one of the Boettchers’ founding principles. (Recall Charles Boettcher’s reluctance to pay room-service prices for his Coca-Cola.) And the foundation is fixed on preserving the original donors’ intentions, even though the scope of its work has broadened.
“We are fortunate because we have such history,” Schultz explains. “Going back to 1937, we have records for every grant we’ve ever given . . .[And] when we have new trustees, we have a set of guiding principles that were written by the group of trustees who were still here when they knew our founders. We ask our new trustees to sign a document that says they will abide by these principles, which talk about things like capital grants and low overhead.” In 1952, the foundation expanded its grantmaking into investments in human capital. Worried that Colorado might suffer from a “brain drain,” Claude Boettcher established the Boettcher Scholarships, which pay full tuition and expenses for exceptional Colorado high school seniors who attend college in-state. Claude believed that promising students who did their undergraduate work in Colorado would be more likely to build their careers in the state, too. His intuition was right. In the last 56 years, some 2,000 students have received Boettcher scholarships. More than half of them have remained in Colorado, many becoming professional and community leaders.
Schultz acknowledges that “one of the things our founders did give us was latitude.” So in 2002, the foundation expanded on Claude Boettcher’s initial vision by creating a sister scholarship program for teachers. The Boettcher Teachers Program is a hybrid fellowship, designed to increase the achievement levels of high-needs students by providing them with a greater number of highly qualified teachers. The fellows, mostly young teachers, make a five-year commitment to teaching in one of the program’s partner districts; in return they are given intense mentoring, entrance to a fully funded master’s program, and a living stipend. While 50 percent of teachers in the state leave the profession within their first five years, every graduate of the fellowship program is still teaching in Colorado.
The Boettcher Foundation prides itself on achieving the delicate balance of staying loyal to the founder’s original wishes while at the same time applying those principles to new social problems. It remains committed to a regime of local capital grants and the student scholarship program, while having the vision to establish the larger Impact Grants and the Boettcher Teachers Program. And striking this balance may be the most important thing the foundation does. As Claude Boettcher explained, “Luxury and wealth are all very well if you use them properly, and all very bad if you don’t.”
Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer for The Weekly Standard and a weekly columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.