Despite having spent much of his life away from the Centennial State, Pikes Peak Community Foundation CEO Gary Butterworth actually is a Colorado native.

“It’s a little-known fact, but I was born in Pueblo,” Butterworth said.

The Air Force brat lived in Nebraska and grew up in northern Virginia. His father’s last assignment was at the Pentagon, and Butterworth lived on the East Coast from kindergarten until he relocated to Colorado in 1998.

“I grew up in Virginia but spent summers coming to visit family in Colorado,” he said. “I knew at some point I would be making the pilgrimage west to live. The quality of life was a value of mine.”

This week, the PPCF leader spoke with the Business Journal about his role with the evolving community foundation and his focus for the organization going forward.

What did you study in college?

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Sociology and political science. It was a liberal arts degree. I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d do, but I had a commitment to education and the fortitude to take risks, so I put myself out there and figured I would test a lot of things before figuring it out.

What happened after graduation?

I had a brief stint with the Montreal Expos — now the Washington Nationals — as a catcher. I came home licking my wounds after being released and worked for America Online. This was 1995 and AOL was the thing. I didn’t have a computer background or any real knowledge of the internet or where it was going, but I was intrigued by it.

That was in D.C. I worked there for two years in a variety of capacities — online content producer and working in sports. We were working with Major League Baseball, [professional wrestling], the NFL, all of ABC Sports. A lot of their first foray into internet content production and delivery was in the mid-’90s, and AOL was at the forefront.

It was all community-minded. I have a vivid memory of this vision at AOL of building community through online interface and chat rooms. But these sorts of interactions troubled me a little bit — the idea you would forsake the newspaper or face-to-face interaction. I was in my mid-20s, but it struck me as odd, especially with my sociology background and studying groups and human behavior.

What happened after AOL?

Netscape came on the scene with unlimited usage. AOL had been billing by the minute, so AOL jumped to unlimited but didn’t have the infrastructure. I was in San Francisco, and Fox Sports was going to build a site to compete with ESPN [which is owned by ABC]. … That fell apart at the 11th hour. I had the opportunity to go back to D.C. but didn’t want to. So I went to Sweden, where I had the opportunity to coach baseball and women’s softball. I did that for a year. It was a good break for a number of reasons. It allowed me to come back and understand my values and that I was ultimately misaligned in the long term working in the world I was in.

Is that when you moved to Colorado Springs?

I briefly moved back to D.C. after Sweden. That’s where my parents were. But I’m a social being and wanted to feel more connected to what I was doing. It was a struggle. Yale options are Wall Street, consulting, or medical or law school — none of which resonated with me. …

I was connected with El Pomar when I moved out here. I happened upon El Pomar by being willing to speak with anybody. But I was unaware of private foundation work and certainly of the scope of the nonprofit sector beyond the Salvation Army or United Way. I learned, at that time, about the El Pomar fellowship program and its emphasis on leadership development. I was offered an opportunity to serve in the fellowship for two years.

That was the next step for me. I was overwhelmed with the opportunities and breadth of work at El Pomar. It wasn’t necessarily in-the-trenches nonprofit service delivery work, but acting as a facilitator, convener and leader.

What did your path with El Pomar look like?

I was a fellow, assistant director, director of fellowship, became director of Penrose House and was a grants officer. I left as senior vice president of programs. At El Pomar we wore a variety of hats. But what I enjoyed most was leading the fellowship program. I have a strong passion for developing people and the opportunity to lead highly motivated recent college graduates on the front end of their career — talking about the reality of career-building and making choices.

I like helping people realize [a career] is a journey. Not every decision you’re making at 22 is the end-all, be-all. You can try different things and experiment.

Why did you leave El Pomar?

The community foundation had gone through a couple years of instability and leadership turnover. El Pomar loaned me as an interim while the [PPCF] board regrouped.

My charge was to be an everyday presence and let the board focus on the future and the next steps to stabilize the organization, while I provided some guidance for the day-to-day operations.

The agreement was for six months in January 2016. During that time, I did a crash course on community foundations and their role. I wanted to understand where they fit in the world of private funders and the nonprofit sector, individuals and businesses.

We have a number of strong community foundations in the state — the Northern Colorado Community Foundation, the Colorado Community Foundation in Denver, Community First, Rose Community. It was beneficial to have the ability to reach out to peers locally to help me understand how they operate and create impact. … But it wasn’t without challenges: Venetucci [Farm] and water contamination and repositioning and refocusing. But the vision of what a community foundation can do for this community — it was a compelling case to challenge myself. If we’re able to achieve the vision of what this can be, it will be a boon for the community.

Can you talk about the scope of the foundation now and address recent changes?

The foundation is here to grow and cultivate giving and philanthropy in the community. Foundations do that in a number of ways.

One is to serve individuals who wish to create charitable funds. For many, a community foundation is a more efficient and effective alternative than establishing your own private foundation.

Having a charitable fund can be any size. It’s not just for the ultra-high net worth individuals. I think that’s part of our charge to the community, explaining that the more people we have under the tent of philanthropy and in a meaningful way, the stronger our community will be. Relying only on a handful of private funders isn’t healthy.

There is great opportunity to impact this community, and it isn’t just by being able to write a big check. … Over the last two years, a lot of that hasn’t changed, but what has happened is we’ve had to re-evaluate the assets that took a lot of time, energy and investment, and evaluate those against our expertise and ability to effectively manage and steward those assets.

That includes Venetucci Farm and Aspen Valley Ranch, which is what the foundation, over the last 10 years, was prominently known for.

I think the leadership transition was an appropriate time to look at that. But periodically we have to evaluate what you’re doing, if it’s having the impact you want, and if we are the right ones to continue to deliver that.

Venetucci and the ranch, we have an obligation to the donor to care for these assets. But that doesn’t mean we have to be the ones out there farming and ranching. We have to come up with the plan to make sure we have dollars available to ensure its maintenance and upkeep, and make sure we maintain the highest and best use of these assets for the community. n CSBJ