ISAIAH BRANCH-BOYLE/Durango Herald
ISAIAH BRANCH-BOYLE/Durango Herald
A familiar face in the nonprofit sector, Lon Erwin is changing causes, but not his focus on community.
After nine years as executive director of the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado, he has accepted the same position at Habitat for Humanity of La Plata County. It will be his third stint heading up a La Plata County nonprofit organization – he had previously been the executive director of Community Connections for 17 years.
The foundation he leaves behind is a far different organization than when he arrived in 2003.
“We had grown our original gift of $20,000 in 1998 to a little over $300,000 when Lon started,” foundation Board President Chuck Fredrick said. “Since then, we have more than $2 million in funds being managed. But he also helped bring in close to $6 million in funds that have been turned around and put back in the community.”
Fredrick credits that success to Erwin’s presence and reputation.
“Overall, he really raised our profile,” Fredrick said. “Not many people knew the foundation even existed, and only some who came from a community where there already is one understood it.”
The foundation, one of nearly 650 in the country, serves La Plata, Archuleta, Montezuma, San Juan and Dolores counties. It provides inexpensive administration and investment management to more than 90 family funds and nonprofit endowments as well as having its own general fund for granting to local causes.
“It’s a way for nonprofits to save for future big projects,” said Tim Walsworth, United Way of Southwest Colorado president and CEO, who also sits on the foundation’s board. “And it serves as an umbrella for fledgling nonprofits and programs. United Way is primarily a checkbook charity, spending what we bring in. This is a savings book for charity.”
United Way was one of the first nonprofits to create an endowment through the community foundation. The endowment is currently worth about $133,000.
“Our board made a long-term decision to grow it over time to $2 million,” Walsworth said. “Someday, the endowment will fund operating costs, so there’s no overhead, and 100 percent of donations will go to the programs we are supporting. Having the foundation solidly in place made it super-easy.”
Rising to the occasion
Erwin’s leadership was key when the community faced the disastrous fire in the 700 block of Main Avenue in 2008. The fire destroyed Seasons Rotisserie and Grill, Le Rendezvous restaurant, Half-Price Tees and Durango Embroidery and Print.
“After the Seasons fire, he was instrumental in saying we need to have a community fund for times like this, not just for the owners, but for the employees,” Fredrick said. “We raised about $100,000 fast. About $80,000 went out during the next six to eight months for rent, utilities, food and grocery cards for employees displaced by the fire.”
Erwin credits Steve Short, then president of First National Bank of Durango, with instigating the foundation’s Emergency Fund after the bank was approached to do it. He underplays the part he played, spending the weekend calling the people he thought would be key players in forming and administering such a fund.
“We met Monday morning at 8 a.m. at the Business Improvement District office to determine how the money was going to come in and how it would go out,” he said.
Walsworth said Erwin and the foundation’s leadership was the central component of the Emergency Fund’s success.
“He helped us be responsible with people’s money,” Walsworth said.
Teaching what he knows
When Erwin wasn’t running the foundation, he was counseling other nonprofit leaders and sitting on the Advisory Board of the Nonprofit Certificate Program at Fort Lewis College.
“On a personal level, he’s been a great mentor to me and a lot of other people in the nonprofit community,” Walsworth said. “He showed me how to get the most bang for the buck, shared best practices, gave me specific information on how to review grant requests.”
The foundation is currently seeking a new executive director, who will have big shoes to fill, Walsworth said.
“We expect to have a continuing presence and keep the profile high,” he said, “but at the same time, it’s an opportunity for the foundation to take another step with fresh people taking a look at it.”
Erwin is beginning his third week at Habitat for Humanity, where he is passionate about his new organization’s mission.
“Home ownership makes us a stronger community,” he said about Habitat, which is building its 35th and 36th homes in Bayfield this summer. “Research shows kids get better grades and parents get better jobs when the family owns it own home. Our biggest challenge is finding affordable land in Durango, so if someone wants to donate a lot ...”
But he leaves the community foundation with a hope.
“I have a fantasy that every nonprofit in town has a $1 million endowment and some stability,” he said.
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald