Every foundation has a donor in its past, but not every donor remains a living presence in the foundation’s work. Spencer and Julie Penrose are just that for the grantmaking charity they founded, El Pomar Foundation. Based in Colorado Springs, El Pomar continues to abide by their wishes by limiting its work to Colorado causes and organizations. Perhaps equally importantly, the foundation has a connection to its original donors through the two properties they left behind and which are deeply intertwined with its history: the Broadmoor Hotel and Penrose House.
Spencer Penrose was the son of a socially prominent Philadelphia family with roots going back to the 1600s. One of his brothers, Boies Penrose, represented Pennsylvania in the United States Senate from 1897 until 1920. Other Penrose brothers were prominent in science and medicine.
Spencer Penrose, however, took a different path. Following an undistinguished stint at Harvard—where he was best remembered for chugging a gallon of beer in 37 seconds—the youthful Penrose went west in search of fame and fortune. After a brief, unhappy stop in Las Cruces, New Mexico, he moved on to the Cripple Creek mining district in Colorado. There, he and his boyhood friend Charles Tutt formed a partnership that grew into one of the largest mining companies in the world, with interests in gold and copper mines throughout the West. He dabbled in ranching and invested with spectacular success, always alongside Tutt, whose family would eventually help to guide the Penrose interests after the childless Penroses died.
Spencer Penrose’s most visible and enduring venture, however, was the Broadmoor Hotel, a sprawling resort in the shadow of Pike’s Peak, where he built a world-class hotel, golf course, and conference center on the shores of a 2,400-acre man-made lake. Breaking ground in 1916, Penrose oversaw every aspect of construction, finishing just two months behind schedule despite wartime shortages of labor and materials. Both Penroses had a hand in the construction, with Julie directing scores of Italian fresco painters imported to paint ceilings and walls in the public rooms.
Construction continued after the grand gala opening in 1918, attended by 350 friends, neighbors, and guests. Penrose later added polo grounds, a rodeo stadium, an ice rink, and two golf courses. The connections between the Broadmoor and the foundation are enduring and deep. For example, William Hybl, the present chairman and CEO of El Pomar, first came to the foundation after being approached by the vice president and general counsel of the Broadmoor, who also served on El Pomars board. Hybl, a lawyer serving in the Colorado House of Representatives, says he decided to take a “chance on something new.” He joined the foundation as vice president, and today, 36 years later, he remains with the foundation, serving on the Broadmoor’s board, as well.
Penrose was successful, driven, and tough. Among his good friends was boxing legend Jack Dempsey, who got his start in amateur bouts in Colorado mining camps and would train for his famous fight with Gene Tunney at the Broadmoor. Given to extravagant clothes and adventure travel, Penrose was a fierce critic of Prohibition, naming a camel in the Broadmoor’s menagerie “Ethel Volstead,” in mocking tribute of the wife of the Senator who sponsored the enabling legislation for the 18th Amendment. When workers were renovating the Broadmoor in the 1990s, they found vintage liquor buried beneath the pool—evidently forgotten since Penrose stashed it during Prohibition.
It was Spencer’s wife, Julie, who apparently sparked his interest in philanthropy. A widow from a prominent French-Catholic family in Detroit, Julie McMillan married Spencer in 1906. She was known for her religious devotion and supported a number of religious and humanitarian causes. Among her most prominent gifts to the local Catholic community was an exquisite Spanish mission-style chapel in the hills of Colorado, as well as schools, hospitals, and arts institutions throughout the state.
Changing with Colorado
In 1937, Penrose incorporated El Pomar Foundation (the name means “the orchard,” and was the original name of the Penroses’ home, now called Penrose House) with 15,000 shares of stock and $129,500. The foundation served a dual purpose: allowing the couple to continue their giving throughout the state, and uniting the hotel and other properties under one corporate roof, since the foundation would, after Penrose’s death in 1939, become the owner of the hotel under then-existing tax rules that permitted such arrangements. (After a change in tax rules gave foundations 20 years to divest themselves of ownership in for-profit businesses, the foundation gradually sold its ownership in the Broadmoor, with the final sale in 1989 to the Oklahoma Publishing Company.) Since its founding, El Pomar—with approximately $425 million in assets this year, after reaching a high of $569 million in 2007—has given more than 9,200 grants totaling more than $390 million.
The Penroses had a few causes important to them—including the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the Fountain Valley School, and the Central City Opera—that remain grantees of the foundation, but El Pomar has never had a specific giving focus. Instead, its focus is geographic, limiting its grants to Colorado-based organizations and others working in Colorado. The directive comes straight from the Penroses, whose virtually only request was that the foundation remain Colorado-focused, in gratitude to the state they made their home for more than 40 years. “We try to honor the intent of the individuals who made the grants, ”for the benefit of the people of Colorado“, as our mission states,” says Hybl.
This focus on one state has meant that as Colorado changes, El Pomar has necessarily changed. And Colorado has changed a lot. The rapid growth of the state, and especially the rise of the tech industry, has created a number of other funders in Colorado. No longer the only, or even the biggest, funder on the block, the foundation has had to reassess where it fits in the state’s philanthropic community—and what needs it can best serve.
As a result, the foundation has shifted its focus from building institutions through capital grants to funding specific programs that work in targeted areas. Among these, El Pomar is especially involved in Colorado’s rural communities. It is in these communities that the foundation’s trustees feel they can have the greatest impact. “In every smaller community, people are looking toward the next-largest community,” says Hybl. “They see it as a place where there will be more—more jobs, more doctors, more and better schools, more options.” Many of El Pomar’s grants are focused on helping these small communities retain the young people ho are the lifeblood of a community, rather than lose them to the next-largest community.
Helping young communities thrive starts, of course, with understanding them—their strengths, their needs, and the kinds of organizations that can work successfully in areas where everyone knows everyone and things have been done the same way for a long time. To that end, El Pomar employs an unusual system of local councils, whose members are drawn from business, education, and politics. The system originally began with one council in the southeast. Now it has grown to nine councils that cover the entire state, save the Front Range, from Colorado Springs to Denver. These councils each make about $200,000 in direct grants on their own, and also recommend grants to the full board that filter up through the normal application process.
The strength of these councils, says Hybl, is “bottom-up intelligence. From them, we’re able to determine—still imperfectly, but we think better—needs in rural communities where nonprofits may not have development offices or grantwriters.” Since a member of the board sits on each council, members “know they have someone at the governance level listening to them,” he adds.
The work of the councils dovetails neatly with El Pomar’s efforts to develop nonprofit leadership and build capacity among the state’s nonprofits. One such effort, the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Program (run by the Center for Creative Leadership), operates a four-day boot camp for nonprofit executives heading organizations with budgets of $500,000 or more. Program participants receive development and administrative coaching and make connections with other nonprofit leaders. The councils help the foundation to spread the word about this innovative program and also identify promising leaders who can benefit from the training. In turn, El Pomar uses a similar curriculum at its annual program for smaller organizations.
The board has given the councils a special charge to find programs that help build viable rural communities by creating and maintaining employment, especially in agricultural areas. The strength of the council system shows in grants that might not have made it through the normal approval process, but which got a second look because a local council went to bat for it. One example is the Organic Seed Alliance, which seeks to develop and distribute organic vegetable seeds for use by small- and medium-sized farmers in Colorado’s Arkansas Valley. The $30,000 El Pomar grant leveraged an additional $19,000 from other private donors and a number of in-kind commitments. The combined funds mostly went to support workshops to sign farmers up and teach them how to use the seed.
Continuing grants will build the alliance’s capacity to reach out and coordinate farmers, seed suppliers, and organic crop distributors. The high-margin products produced by farmers in the alliance make it more likely that small farmers can survive and provide employment for field hands, suppliers, and others further down the distribution chain. For Hybl, the Alliance brings together all the disparate strands of the foundations philanthropic efforts: building the capacity of the states nonprofits, developing a new generation of state leadership, and supporting employment in rural areas hard hit by generational flight.
Continuing the Course
With the Broadmoor no longer owned by the foundation, perhaps the greatest impact the Penroses have on the nonprofit community today is through Penrose House. The gracious Mediterranean-style home was built in 1910 and purchased by the Penroses six years later. Julie Penrose gave the home to the Sisters of Charity in 1944, moving into the Penrose suite at the Broadmoor until her death in 1956. In 1992, the foundation purchased and renovated the property, using some of it as office space for foundation staff and opening the rest as a retreat and conference center for nonprofits (and their government equivalents). Penrose House is open for use, free of charge except for food, for trustee meetings, staff retreats, and planning sessions—but absolutely no fundraising, notes Hybl. “Penrose House is there for groups to recharge and reset,” he says, and more than 30,000 people per year take advantage of the foundations hospitality.
While focused on Colorado, El Pomar’s work has had real impact outside the Centennial State. Penrose’s love of sports is reflected in the many athletic pursuits offered at the Broadmoor, and is echoed in El Pomar’s critical role in attracting the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to Colorado Springs. Since the late 1970s, the foundation has given more than $9 million in grants to support the nearby USOC headquarters, training facilities, and national governing bodies of Olympic sports organizations located in Colorado Springs. Hybl is presently president emeritus of the USOC, after having served two terms as president. He led the U.S. team to Olympic Games in Albertville, France (Winter 92); Barcelona, Spain (Summer 92); Nagano, Japan (Winter 98); and Sydney, Australia (Summer 00). Hybl continues to chair the Olympic Foundation to this day.
Another example of El Pomar’s local grantmaking having global effects can be found in its support of national security. Within a 10-mile radius of PenroseHouse, one finds Peterson Air Force Base (home of the U.S. Northern Command), Fort Carson (home of the Fourth Infantry Division), and the Cheyenne Mountain Air Station (home of NORAD). Surrounded by such a large military population, it is not surprising that El Pomar has created a special Military Family Assistance Fund to aid local families in need. It has also had a hand in creating the National Homeland Defense Foundation (NHDF), established after the 9/11 attacks, which aims to educate citizens and corporations about threats to national security.
For seven years running, NHDF has held a symposium at the Broadmoor for first responders, academics, and local and state government officials. Attendees mingle with representatives from Northern Command and NORAD, and discuss how to prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Hybl is also active in American efforts to improve the nations image abroad by chairing the State Department’s Advisory omission on Public Diplomacy, which advises the President, Secretary of State, and other government officials and agencies on how to advance American interests through overseas public diplomacy efforts in the arts, music, culture, and sports.
Despite the changes to its list of grantees and areas of focus, El Pomar remains unimpressed with philanthropic fads. “We don’t get into what some might call an activist mode,” says Hybl. “We try to stick to basics.” To Hybl, that means an emphasis on human services, medicine, and educationthe bread and butter of American philanthropy. It’s what the Penroses meant when they endowed the foundation in gratitude to the Centennial State and for the benefit of its citizens, and it remains El Pomar’s guiding principle more than 70 years later.
Contributing editor Justin Torres is an attorney in New Orleans, Louisiana.