As an independent consultant, I get to work from home most of the time. It’s an introvert’s dream: no lengthy staff meetings, no forced small talk, no awkward holiday parties. Unlimited snacks.

Still though, it’s isolating - even for me.

Before we switched to business casual

Before we switched to business casual

Except for the occasional days when I work from neighborhood coffee shops (shout out Denver Bike Cafe and Hooked on Colfax, among others), the stretch when I thought I was hip enough to work at a trendy office share, or when I was on-site at a client’s office a couple days a week for a few months, it’s been four plus years of working from home alone.

That’s why losing both of our dogs over the last 13 months has hit me particularly hard.

They weren’t just pets, and they weren’t just family. They were also my coworkers.

I wrote about losing Boone, the yellow lab, two Decembers ago, which you can read here.

Always watching

Always watching

He was built to be an office dog. He would gladly position himself on the plush dog bed in my home office for an entire day. He adhered to a strict noise policy and did not like to be interrupted with things like bathroom breaks or exercise. And if I lingered too long over my morning coffee in the kitchen, he would scold me with his eyes to let me know I was late to work.

He was my Employee of the Month for 38 straight months.

Business casual it is

Business casual it is

Finn, the golden retriever, was more court jester than office dog.

He didn’t give a shit about my to-do list. While he was content to rest during his morning snoozles and afternoon naps, he had no patience when it came time for his meals, walks, games of fetch in the yard, or even just having class outside under the afternoon sun.

It wasn’t always clear which one of us was the supervisor and which one was the subordinate.

In the mornings, if I didn’t take him on a walk to the park or the coffee shop, he would just stand by the front door and bark at me until I did. If I had a conference call or client meeting and couldn’t walk him, he would pout the rest of the day. If I spent too much uninterrupted time in front of my laptop, he would come plant his big dumb head over my hands and mash them into the keyboard.



When my wife - who typically travels each week for her job - would work from home in her alcove in the basement, her conference calls and webinars were often scored to his snoring or panting. Finn would barrel into her with a stuffed toy or tennis ball, demanding that she pay attention to him and focusing on playing. If her attention were elsewhere, he would bark at her until it was correctly focused.

In late October, after weeks of gradually increased breathing problems, Finn developed a cough. What we thought - or hoped - would just be kennel cough was quickly diagnosed as a large mass in his chest. It was inoperable and untreatable. The vet and the oncologist thought he might only have a month to live.

We canceled some trips and changed Thanksgiving plans. I rush ordered a human-sized tennis ball costume and dressed up as his favorite thing for Halloween. I think I thought I was cheering him up, like a lunatic.  

Fortunately the cancer did not progress very quickly.

Our routine adapted. Morning walks got shorter, but we relished them for longer. Games of fetch were no more, but we still spent afternoons in the backyard - me at my laptop, and him laying in the grass, chewing sticks, under the late fall sky.

November was rocky, but he seemed to rebound over the holidays. He loved Christmas, and once again thought everyone was in town to see him and that all the presents were somehow his.

We enjoyed the frequent snow days with him in January. My wife brought him back an embroidered Mickey Mouse hat from a work trip to Orlando. We spoiled him rotten with people food, had friends over for visits, and even took him to a dog-friendly distillery one snowy night in Salida (shout out Woods).

In those waning weeks before we said goodby to him in early February, Finn mostly just patiently slept next to me, often falling into dreams which were signaled by the tap of his tail or the flinching of his paws, no doubt sprinting down a trail or chasing a tennis ball on a beach.

Finn was my ballast - always wanting to play, always wanting to go outside, and always brightening every day. He was present in every moment and never brought anything to the office but his whole, confident, curious self - which is a pretty great lesson to learn from a coworker.

Things aren’t quite the same without Finn and Boone. But even though I miss them every single day, our lives are a lot warmer and a lot brighter for having had them in it.

Lessons on Leadership and Service

A look back at Governor Joe Kernan’s 1998 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame

Twenty years ago, I lived in what could generously be called a dilapidated house on Corby Street, just a few blocks south of the Notre Dame campus, in South Bend, Indiana.

That’s where my mom called me from across town — on a landline, no less — to ask if she could come over right away. This was an unusual request to say the least (it was one of two times she ever stepped foot in that house), but she needed a working computer and a printer to make last minute revisions to the speech her boss was going to deliver in a couple days at Notre Dame’s graduation.

Her boss was the Lt. Governor of Indiana at the time, Joe Kernan.

The reason for the frantic, last minute changes is indicative of the kind of person Joe is — and the sense of responsibility he has for others. As I recall, there was a joke in the written remarks that included a punch line about a dog going to the bathroom in someone’s yard. The joke itself was not offensive in the least, but the valedictorian of the Class of 1998 was Tim Cordes, who was blind and would be accompanied by his service dog, a German Shepard named Electra.

Joe being Joe did not want to do anything that could be perceived as disrespectful to Tim, so the joke had to be removed from the written text before it was provided to university officials. And while my mom’s computer was not cooperating, my roommate Jason’s Gateway 2000 did the trick.

The lead up to Joe’s speech — which he wrote himself, and included suggested advice for graduates that friends had provided — was not without controversy. Some students complained that he was not prestigious or high profile enough for their liking. Joe could have responded with some sense of entitlement or bitterness, but instead he laughed it off by making a self-deprecating comment in the speech itself.

It’s the kind of magnanimous approach you might not expect from someone who was shot down over Vietnam 46 years and 10 days ago, and imprisoned for the following year. But, that’s Joe — always quick with a joke or a bit of goodwill extended your way.

There are a few more anecdotes in the speech itself that show his sense of responsibility and service. I got to see some of that firsthand, as an intern the summer following his commencement speech and later as a campaign staffer in 2004.

Joe has always favored grace over self-aggrandizement, and in navigating tricky political dynamics he invariably opted for what was right even if it wasn’t good politics. And since I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him walk by a piece of litter without picking it up and putting it in a trash can.

All of this is a long way of saying that there’s something to be said for leaders who consider, and actually care about, how their words and actions affect other people. There’s something to be valued in leaders who understand that not everyone gets a fair shake and we’re all in this together. And there’s something to be truly admired about leaders who accept and act on the kinds of responsibilities we have to one another.

It’s hard to truly account for how broken our collective politics — and our sense of service to others — have become without the contrast of leaders who conduct themselves with humility and empathy, and who treat everyone with the respect and dignity that we all deserve.

And that’s why I’m sharing the following speech, 20 years to the day that it was delivered by someone who served his city, his state, and his country.

Continue Reading…

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

One of the great perks of doing consulting work with foundations and nonprofits is that I get to work with and talk with a lot of very awesome and talented people.

So as we leave 2017 and greet the new year, I asked a few of those people to share their thoughts and insights and perspectives on the year behind and the one ahead.

What was your favorite thing or best moment in 2017?

Julia Coffman, Director, Center for Evaluation Innovation: Sometimes small changes make big differences. In the summer I wrote a piece on how our ability to learn with one another is very connected to the way in which we work. This includes the physical spaces we occupy and how they are configured, the software choices we make, how we communicate with our colleagues working remotely, etc. I realized I needed to make some real changes in how I worked, including small (big to me) changes like ditching my beloved paper calendar and moving to an electronic one. Being cognizant of how I do this work and not just what I produce has been hugely humbling and motivating.

Kristen Grimm, President, Spitfire Strategies: My favorite moment was participating in the March for Science. By far the best signs. Mine is below although it pales in comparison to the cleverness of the scientists who are my role models for braving the rain and standing up for what they believe in.

Kristen Grimm sign.jpg


Deidre Johnson, CEO and Executive Director, Center for African American Health: My favorite moment in 2017 was attending the Colorado Health Symposium and hearing the leadership of the Colorado Health Foundation take the lead in acknowledging that inequity must be addressed and biases overcome if we are to ever achieve health equity.

Deepti Sood, Senior Consultant, TCC Group: All the grassroots work being supported by larger institutions as more and more people become involved in advocacy. Examples include this fabulous twitter thread talking about GOTV activities in the Alabama Senate race and work within philanthropy happening via the Emergent Fund to quickly mobilize resources to orgs in need – and shift the burden of proof of impact from the grantee to the funder.

Michael Booth, Senior Counselor, The Bawmann Group: The best part of 2017 for those who continue to seek progressive change in the way Americans access and receive healthcare was the public outpouring of opinion supporting the most important aspects of the Affordable Care Act when those vital programs were threatened repeatedly by political maneuvering. The massive effort not only sent clear signals to policy leaders what Americans want from their government -- it also served as an invaluable reminder to average Americans that their voice can be heard. Personally, I was honored in 2017 to be asked onto the board of directors of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, which has long been the most powerful voice fighting for the consumers of healthcare in Colorado, as well as those who don't yet have access to the system. They have some exciting things planned for 2018, and I hope to contribute a little.

If you could go back and do one thing differently in 2017, what would it be?

Kristen Grimm: I would have stayed longer in my airstream trailer. After the science march, I decided to get out of DC and bought a trailer and hit the road for four months. With my husband and two dogs, I drove all the way to Oregon and back and tried to get to know Americans better. It was my Bubble Busting Tour 2017. Campgrounds are a great equalizer and it is amazing the conversations you can have with people while borrowing toilet paper and discussing which dumps are the cleanest. I wish I had stayed on the road longer. Much clarity to be gained there.

Deidre Johnson: If I could go back and do one thing differently in 2017 I would have taken more time to always pause, share and celebrate the quiet little day to day victories along the way.

Deepti Sood: Be less scared. Well into Spring, I had total panic around the direction of the country which paralyzed me from taking action. I wish I had taken a breather and reflected more on what sustainable forward progress and movement could look like for me. Turned out to be this (300 postcards and counting)

Michael Booth: Invest in bitcoin? In policy, I would have gone through less personal agony if I had been more optimistic earlier in the year, realizing that people speaking out collectively for progressive healthcare policy can still make a difference even when the political environment appears challenging at first.

Julia Coffman: Worked harder on being “more present” in the situations in which I find myself—in the conversation I’m having, the room I’m in, in the relationships I have, in the broader context in which I find myself. A colleague recently sent this excerpt from Sharon Lebell's Epictetus: The Art of Living a New Interpretation. Yes.

Caretake this moment.

Immerse yourself in its particulars.

Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed.


Quit the evasions.

Stop giving yourself needless trouble.

It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now.

You are not some disinterested bystander.

Exert yourself.


Respect your partnership with providence.

Ask yourself often, How may I perform this particular deed

such that it would be consistent with and acceptable to the divine will?

Heed the answer and get to work.


What are you most looking forward to in 2018?

Julia Coffman: Collaboration on field-building work. I’m an introvert and I like to work alone. But that’s just a personal work style and not what I really love about the work I do. I get the most enjoyment out of working with others, collaborating with other evaluators, funders, and advocates on any number of topics that have a field- or movement-building focus. That’s the way that work has to be done; there’s no other option that has any chance of success. This year will feature multiple opportunities to do that, and it’s where I’ll find my energy.

Kristen Grimm: After the Alabama win, I feel like people everywhere are realizing we decide the direction of this country. And I believe people will stand up against hate, racism, and misogyny when given the choice. And I am really looking forward to Bon Jovi getting inaugurated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here’s hoping it brings big hair back. Man buns are so 2017.

Deidre Johnson:  I am most looking forward to increased partnerships and collaborations with new, nontraditional partners and deliberately celebrating the small victories along the way. Maybe with a monthly silent disco.

Deepti Sood: Seeing what happens with the #metoo movement – after Nov 2016, I did not think we would see another woman running for president again soon. Little did I know how much women would rise up this year to take power  

Michael Booth: I'm most hoping for an early reauthorization of the CHP plan for Colorado families so they can get that awful worry off of their backs and refocus on helping their families move forward in the New Year.

Any other predictions for the year ahead?

Julia Coffman: The Republican party will start to re-align and become less asymmetrically polarized. The #metoo movement will gain further momentum and bring new power to women. The Washington Nationals will win the World Series.

Kristen Grimm: After Trump resigns, he goes on SNL and starts his next career as an Alec Baldwin impersonator.

Deidre Johnson: 2018 will be a year of innovation and creativity – not only because that is what happens when you bring diverse, smart and determined minds together, but because we have no choice. We have a white nationalist in the White House working to dismantle government. Whether it will be finding solutions for the 75,000 Colorado children about to lose health coverage or preventing the coming wreckage of other looming impacts - We will find a way.

Deepti Sood: Advocacy – all types of advocacy – becomes a normal and expected part of philanthropic strategy

Michael Booth: Bitcoin is due for a correction. The Broncos are due for a better quarterback. Reading more poetry will be good for just about everyone.

It’s probably only fair that I answer those questions as well.

So, my favorite thing in 2017 was marching with my wife in the MLK Marade and the Women’s March in Denver, within days of one another. It was a terrific reminder of the strength and resolve in the community in a year that needed a lot of it.

If I could do one thing over again in 2017, it would be to ride my bike more. Being on two wheels is good for my body, mind, and soul, and it also makes me better at my job, and an all around nicer person to be around. I sometimes default to feeling like I can’t spare the time to go on a ride, because of guilt or obligations of my own creation. When really there are few things that merit a better use of my time.   

Other than seeing Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and running the 2018 Pikes Peak Ascent with my wife, the thing I’m looking most forward to in 2018 is the uncharted potential of some projects that - as of yet - only exist in my head. And in pursuing those, the opportunity to work with great people to help do some good.

And lastly, in 2018, I predict that most everything will get worse before it gets better. But I also think that more women will be elected to public office than ever before (which would be a very good thing). And eventually there will be a more widespread reckoning that politics isn't something that should exist as separate from our daily lives. And when that happens, change will follow. 

There Is No Finish Line

We often think of policy fights as having a clear beginning and end, that conclude with a bill signing or a court decision. But that's just not the case. We're seeing this now with the Affordable Care Act debate. We've seen it before with issues such as reproductive health and immigration reform. And we'll likely see it again with LGBT rights and marriage equality. 

When I was doing research for an upcoming article, I saw news that Norma McCorvey, who was the then-anonymous Roe in Roe v. Wade, passed away on February 18th. That's 44 years and almost one month to the day that the landmark case was decided by the Supreme Court. However, the battles over reproductive health still carry on with several state legislatures continuing attempts to erode and block women's access to care. 

The same week that McCorvey died, the chairman of the Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee broke a glass table with his gavel while trying to silence reproductive rights advocates during debate over contentious legislation that courts have already deemed unconstitutional. 

Texas was also where Roe v. Wade originated. And - in a remarkable connection of historic events - one of the three judges on the federal panel that first heard the case was the same judge who swore in Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One after John F. Kennedy was shot. 

Her name was Sarah Hughes. In 1930, she was one of the first women elected to the Texas state legislature, and five years later she was appointed as a state judge. At the time, women were not allowed to serve on juries in Texas. Hughes was instrumental in the effort to win that right, though it didn't happen for nearly twenty years. 

In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Hughes to be a federal district judge, though her appointment was almost derailed over concerns about her age. She was 65 at the time, still two years away from playing a central role in a seminal American moment, and a nearly decade away from another. 

All of these policy fights - health care, immigration, education, climate change, reproductive rights, equality, and others - remind me of a poster I had in my room when I was a kid. It was a panoramic view of a high desert valley, with a snow-capped mountain range in a the distance, a guy running on an interminable dirt road, and a caption that read, "there is no finish line." 

Some find that premise discouraging. But to me, it spurs comfort to think there isn't necessarily a conclusion, there is just the journey and the progress it instigates.

Note: This post is excerpted from the Words & Other Things newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

Give A Little Bit. Or A Lot.

Colorado Gives Day is tomorrow, December 6th - marking the seventh edition of the push to expand and increase charitable giving in Colorado, supported in large part by the Community First Foundation and dozens of other philanthropic groups. 

Photo via

Photo via

Colorado is home to thousands of nonprofit organizations that contribute enormously to the communities they represent and serve. No matter what issue you care most about - health, education, living wages, immigration, housing, gender equity, racial justice, civil rights, and equality in all its forms - there is a group in our state doing valuable and important work.

They all are deserving of your support, perhaps this year more than most. So give a little bit, or a lot. But please just give.

Below is a list of organizations that I have worked with, donated to, volunteered at, or otherwise support, that would be worthy of your contribution. This is by no means a complete and comprehensive list of organizations, but the array of choices can be overwhelming. So these are just some of the many exceptional community, policy, advocacy, and service organizations that do meaningful and difficult work in our state on every day. 

Health and Wellness: 

Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved, Center for African American Health, Healthier Colorado, and Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains

Economy, Jobs, Wages, Tax & Budget: 

Colorado Fiscal Institute, CoPIRG, FRESC Good Jobs Strong Communities, and Colorado Center on Law and Policy

Education and Children:

Scholars Unlimited, Colorado Children's Campaign, Tennyson Center for ChildrenRocky Mountain Children's Law Center, and Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver

Civil Rights, LGBT Rights, and Immigration Rights:

One Colorado, Together Colorado, Colorado African Organization, Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, and Colorado ACLU.

Environment and Recreation:

Conservation Colorado, Girls on the Run of the Rockies, Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, and Big City Mountaineers

Human Services, Homelessness, Safety, and Food Access:

The Delores Project, St. Francis Center, Denver Rescue Mission, Urban Peak, Colorado Coalition Against Sexual AssaultHunger Free Colorado, and Re:Vision

And last but not least

For the past year, I've had the privilege of serving on the board for BikesTogether, which is Denver's nonprofit community bike shop that provides access to bikes and bike education for thousands of kids and adults who otherwise wouldn't have it. We've seen a ton of growth this year, with an expansion to a second location and the addition of mobile services, and look forward to growing our programs and impact in the years to come. Biking can mean a lot of different things to different people - access to transportation, ability to get to a job, health and wellness, or just the simple untethered freedom of being on two wheels. 

You can visit for a more complete list of all giving options. You can schedule your donations and also search by neighborhood, cause, or other keywords or issues. 

Thank you for your support. 


Philanthropy: Could Foundations Have Mounted A Better Defense of the ACA?

For the latest published product coming out of the Atlas Learning Project, we enlisted the help of journalist Michael Booth to ask select funders and advocates what they would do differently to prepare for advocacy efforts once the Affordable Care Act passed into law.

How would they have better supported advocates for the long fights that now ensnare most any policy debate? What would they do differently if they knew then what they know now? And what lessons can foundations draw on for the ongoing policy battles of today and tomorrow?

More than six years after the passage of the ACA, these questions are no less relevant. Despite historic progress in reducing the number of uninsured people, the ACA faces continued challenges that risk it being cannibalized by the toxic, hyper-partisan environment where policy decisions are now debated. And the ACA is not alone - on any major policy issue, resolution does not come simply from a legislative win or a court ruling. There is seldom a beginning and end to these debate. Finish lines are elusive. So what role can foundations play in preparing themselves and equipping advocates for these challenges? 

Find out what we learned. 

Check out the full article on the Health Affairs Blog


Philanthropy: Stepping into the Fight

Many of the most important social and policy changes that we've seen over the last century have stemmed, at least in part, because of legal advocacy strategies, often supported by philanthropy. 

Civil rights, gender equality, voting rights, health access, and marriage equality are just some of the examples. 

Going forward, the courts will continue to play an instrumental role in how our social, political, and cultural landscape takes shape. 

Which is why I'm so excited about working with TCC Group over the last year, as part of the Atlas Learning Project, on a series of resources to help inform funders and advocates about how to engage in and support legal advocacy strategies. In addition to a gripping and inspiring video, TCC Group is also releasing three briefs to help funders, advocates, and evaluators better understand and support legal advocacy efforts. 

Check it out for yourself

Politics: How the DNC warmed up my cold, dead political heart

Until Michelle Obama delivered a perfect, 14-minute speech on the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, I did not think that I could feel feelings about politics anymore - other than frustration, cynicism, and discouragement. But her ode to her husband's presidency, her family, and their vision of America reignited some dormant political energy in me. 

I had heard some of what she spoke about in her commencement speech at the Santa Fe Indian School, which is an all Native American high school in New Mexico. That's where I first heard the line that stood out on Monday in Philadelphia, like a comet tracing the path from the unjust shackles of the past to her daughters' own promise: 

That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.
And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.

On the heels of all the anger, pessimism, and unmasked narcissism of the Trump convention the week prior, Michelle's speech - and many who have followed this week - was remarkable in its bright vision amid the darker realities of our country. It was striking both for what it said, and what it didn't say. It was one story - hers - that articulated everything about a land of opportunity and an election of generational importance. 

And she did it all without ever uttering the Donald's name. 

The ensuing days of speeches - from Bill and Biden and, oh my, Barack - have furthered this feeling of political optimism. Which is strange, considering my own latent cynicism about political leaders and the long list of recent tragic events and seemingly intractable challenges we face. 

Even so, the speeches and the issues they've focused on have been illuminating in a way I did not entirely expect. From sarcasm to serious to somber, they've laid out the choice we have in November as not just between parties, but between the very notion of a constitutional democracy and inept authoritarianism. They've made the prospect of Trump's candidacy look both big in its danger to us, and small in its pathetic narcissism. And in a bit of speechwriting savagery, the president called Trump out for what he really is: 

They've presented Hillary Clinton (who's endured the widest range of reasons that people don't like her, often unrooted from reality) in a way that slices through the cynical public perception of her, that highlights the remarkable life of public service she's led, and that features her relentlessness to make things better. The president said it best

She knows that sometimes during those 40 years she's made mistakes, just like I have, just like we all do. That's what happens when we try. That's what happens when you're the kind of citizen Teddy Roosevelt once described, not the timid souls who criticize from the sidelines, but someone "who is actually in the arena, who strives valiantly, who errs, but who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement."
Hillary Clinton is that woman in the arena. She's been there for us, even if we haven't always noticed.
And if you're serious about our democracy, you can't afford to stay home just because she might not align with you on every issue. You've got to get in the arena with her, because democracy isn't a spectator sport.

President Obama also laid out the necessity of nuance even in the face of certainty, the capacity we have to hold two conflicting thoughts in our heads, the importance of the gray areas of our politics and policies, and that - as cliche it can sound - there is more that unites us than divides us, more right in us than wrong with us: 

And that’s what Hillary Clinton understands. She knows that this is a big, diverse country, and that most issues are rarely black and white. That even when you’re 100 percent right, getting things done requires compromise. That democracy doesn’t work if we constantly demonize each other. She knows that for progress to happen, we have to listen to each other, see ourselves in each other, fight for our principles but also fight to find common ground, no matter how elusive that may seem.
Hillary knows we can work through racial divides in this country when we realize the worry black parents feel when their son leaves the house isn’t so different than what a brave cop’s family feels when he puts on the blue and goes to work; that we can honor police and treat every community fairly. She knows that acknowledging problems that have festered for decades isn’t making race relations worse – it’s creating the possibility for people of good will to join and make things better.
Hillary knows we can insist on a lawful and orderly immigration system while still seeing striving students and their toiling parents as loving families, not criminals or rapists; families that came here for the same reasons our forebears came – to work, and study, and make a better life, in a place where we can talk and worship and love as we please. She knows their dream is quintessentially American, and the American Dream is something no wall will ever contain.

Those three paragraphs are about Hillary's understanding of the world, and they're about so much more. The DNC has been impressive in how the scope of its message has gone beyond her - it's been about all of us, and our role not just in politics, but in democracy. It's been a call not just for a campaign, but for a cause - that we don't just have to succumb to our challenges, that we're all in this together, that we all have a stake, and that we all can have a voice and a role in making our lives, our communities, and our country a better place. 

Last week, I was doing a lot of virtual booing, behind my laptop.

This week, I want to get in the arena. 

Like the president said last night, "Don't boo. Vote." 



Conventional Thinking and Bad Speeches

Don't worry, this is not turning into a political newsletter. But what's happening in politics now is...interesting? Entertaining? Terrifying? Maybe all of the above. The party conventions and presidential race reflect a unique and important point in time in our political, social, and cultural discourse. And some of it hits pretty close to home, as I've worked conventions, managed political campaigns, written speeches, and have been on both the winning and losing sides of those battles. So I wanted to share some thoughts.

You can read more about my take on the communications flaws, terrible speeches, and overall incoherence at Republican National Convention here.

Newsletter: Feel Better Friday

There is a lot of terrible, no good, awful, horrifying stuff in the news lately. At Stanford, in Kalamazoo, in Orlando, and pretty much wherever the presumptive GOP nominee deigns to open his garbage pale of a mouth and spew drivel that "gives voice and legitimacy to some of our darkest thoughts and oldest prejudices." This kind of onslaught of depressing news and tragedy weighs on us all in different ways. Our brains can only take so much, before we need to untangle our thoughts from terrible things. It's science. 

So in this issue, I wanted to share a few stories - some serious, some silly - that might, in some small way, offset the awfulness of recent weeks - stories that reflect who we really are, what we're really made of, and what it looks like when we're actually good humans to one another.

It looks like a vice president openly honoring the courage and bravery it took for a woman to write and speak about her rape and the injustices of our institutions and court systems that failed her - and continues to fail other survivors.

It looks like a group of people on a New York City subway who refused to embrace fear and suspicion or stand idly by, and instead stood up and spoke up for their fellow humans. 

orlando facebook story.jpg


It looks like an incredible, eight-minute rant from Samantha Bee (language warning) questioning how we can possibly continue to accept mass shootings as the cost of simply going to school or a mall or a movie or church or a club on a Saturday night.  

It looks like the kindness and empathy that poured out in a Michigan community following its second battle through tragedy this year. 

It looks like a straight, white, middle-aged, Republican male politician who recognizes his own privilege and his own past transgressions in honoring the LGBTQ victims of the mass shooting in Orlando

It looks like the quick, instinctive actions of a Marine who saved several dozen people by simply thinking beyond himself. 

It looks like the all-too-rare courage it takes to put your country over party politics, and in doing so, stand up to a bully and bigot whose very existence in our democratic process is a cancer to it.  


It looks like a 91-year-old woman who returned to the place in which her own country imprisoned her and her peers 73 years ago, to deliver the same graceful commencement speech that she did back then, about having faith in our collective selves. 

It looks like Shea Serrano - my newsletter spirit animal - who, instead of charging his tens of thousands of subscribers to read his Basketball (And Other Things) newsletter, got people to donate to a nonprofit organization that provides meals for kids in families in extreme poverty, a small act of kindness to help feed those who otherwise might not be able to.  

It looks like a cowboy on a horse, in the middle of a shopping center, who lassoes a bike thief, after responding to a woman's call for help. Because bike thieves are cowards. 

And, it looks like the grace, humility, and kindness expressed by one outgoing president to the man who defeated him. It's hard to imagine right now, but we can still be this.  

There is a lot of tragic and toxic stuff to wade through these days, but examples of kindness, empathy, and generosity are everywhere. We just have to make sure we look for those stories too. 

So don't let the bastards grind you down. And be good to one another. 

Thanks for reading. Hope you have a safe and wonderful weekend. 

Newsletter: "Our summertime don't got no time no more."

Time flies. When I launched this newsletter a year and a half ago, I firmly committed to a frequency of no more than weekly and no less than biannually. The previous issue was ten months ago, so this is right on schedule, sort of. Since then, I got married, bought a house, moved (still in Denver), started writing for a cycling website, helped work on some new and upcoming philanthropy projects, and more. All of which is to say, I can't believe it's June already. 


  • New resources for foundations to support legal advocacy, and what the role of an evaluator looks like.

  • I can't believe I get to write about bikes.

  • Podcasts are some of my best friends. 

  • What's next for Thomas LLC and newsletter naming rights.

Product Placement

Philanthropy's Role in Legal Advocacy

Legal advocacy and strategic litigation have been the cornerstone of some of the most significant social and policy progress over the last sixty years. Yet there are many questions and unknowns about how foundations can engage in and support this kind of work. As part of the Atlas Learning Project, TCC Group examined the legal advocacy field, how advocates employ strategies, and how funders can most effectively support them. Last month, at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations annual conference, TCC Group premiered Step in the Fight: Philanthropy's Role in Legal Advocacy, along with previews of forthcoming briefs to provide funders and advocates with resources and guidance for engaging in these approaches. Check it out at this link. And stay tuned for other upcoming releases from the Atlas Learning Project, including an in-depth look at how funders can best support policy campaigns while also building more lasting advocacy capacity. 

The Changing Role of Evaluators in Philanthropy

When I was a newbie and first started working in philanthropy as a program officer several years ago, a coworker asked how we would know when we achieve success in a newly launched initiative. "We'll know it when we see it," I semi-jokingly responded. That coworker was an evaluator who helped push our team's thinking in new and more rigorous directions about how we would identify success, how we could capture key lessons and put that learning to use, and how we could communicate about both our failures and successes in a way that pushed the field forward. Some of that work fit in the conventional scope of evaluation, but much of it was the function of an advisor, a theorist, a strategist, and a strategic communicator. This evolution of the role and practice of evaluation in philanthropy is the subject of a terrific essay - Oh for the Love of Sticky Notes: The Changing Role of Evaluators Who Work with Foundations - by Julia Coffman from the Center for Evaluation Innovation. Give it read. 

Bikes. Bikes. Bikes. 

In January, I had the terrific opportunity to join the board of directors for BikesTogether (formerly The Bike Depot), which is a community bike shop in Denver that aims to get more people on bikes and keep them there. BikesTogether promotes better access to bikes and safe, bike-friendly environments and policies. In addition to its shop in north Park Hill, a new shop is opening later this month in the Mariposa development. You can learn more here about volunteering or donating to support more kids and families getting on bikes. 

I also recently started as a contributing writer for 303Cycling News, where I've gotten to interview the unofficial Fat Bike World Champion, witness a world record being broken for how far a woman can ride in one hour, and gotten a first hand account of a crazy bike crash in an even crazier race in New York City. Next week, these adventures will continue when I get to join a small contingent of cycling media for a preview ride of the upcoming Haute Route Rockies event coming to Colorado in 2017. 

As it's summer again, and more people are out and about on two wheels, a friendly reminder for drivers to keep your eyes open, stay alert, and look out for cyclists. They are not your enemy. The horrifying crash in Kalamazoo that left five dead and four injured is a reminder of the vulnerability of people on bikes. In the hands of a belligerent, impaired, or otherwise distracted driver, a vehicle is no less a weapon than a gun or knife or bat. So please be safe, and be good to your fellow humans, regardless of how many wheels they travel on. 

Endorsement: Podcasts

Being self-employed, an introvert, and married to someone who travels the bulk of the time for work, I have found good company in many podcasts. You may know them from Serial fame, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Podcasts are a great source of passive entertainment from which you can learn something too.

This issue's recommendations are two election-themed podcasts that shed some light on and share analyses of the modern political landscape: 

-Keepin' It 1600. Former Obama advisers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer offer surprisingly even-handed analysis and insights into the 2016 presidential election, with weekly guests like David Plouffe, Savannah Guthrie, Jennifer Palmieri, and more. 

-Candidate Confessional. Hosts Sam Stein and Jason Cherkis talk to candidates who fell short of the office they were seeking, providing an unvarnished picture of life on the political trail from different former political candidates and staffers. 

Check them out. Your earholes and brains will thank you for it. More to come in future editions. 

Thomas 2.0

After the first year of Thomas LLC being in existence, I commenced an informal strategic planning process to help sharpen and strengthen my work. So yes, this was kind of like strategic planning with myself, which is somehow maybe even more excruciating than normal strategic planning. But no, it wasn't just me. I talked with and bounced ideas off of friends, colleagues, mentors, a few total strangers, and even my two big dumb yellow dogs, who are exceptional listeners but literally have no advice to offer. 

What's come out of that process is a refined focus on the work I'll be doing going forward, which will include more writing and editorial projects and strategic communications work. What does that mean exactly? 

  • Writing and editing projects. If it can be written, I write it: reports, research papers, issues briefs, op-eds, articles, web content, biographies, profiles, ghostwriting, and more. I have some great new projects in the pipeline and looking forward to more. 
  • Speechwriting. Some of my past work has included serving as a speechwriter for several different elected officials and other community and business leaders. It's a challenging discipline and one that I truly relish working on. I am offering a full suite of highly-tailored speechwriting services and support.  
  • Communications assessments. With countless channels and platforms available to connect with customers, clients, and key audiences, too many organizations and businesses are left guessing who they are reaching and what the value and effect of that really is. We can help you better understand who you are reaching in your communications, who you need to be reaching, and how you can address any gaps that might exist there. 

Naming Rights

Lastly, this newsletter will continue, but in a soon-to-be renamed and revamped version to account for a broader array of topics. The ultimate scope is a bit of a work in progress, but it's likely to include articles, essays, insights, and recommendations from myself and others, covering some mix of culture, media, politics, policy, health and wellness, and philanthropy. And bikes. Think of it like a digital-age clipping service for things you're interested in, and for some things you might not be but should. With occasional dog pictures. 

I'm still thinking about a new name for the newsletter, but it almost certainly will not be a pun like Write It Downes or TakeDownes or First Downes and Ten (Things You Should Know), however unbelievably tempting that might be. 

Thank you for reading. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.




Newsletter: Great Reads for a Good Friday

There was good intention somewhere in the back of my head to do a March Madness-themed newsletter. It turns out that March is already over, my squad lost even though it outplayed one of the best college teams of all time for 38 minutes, and a bracket contest of the top 64 philanthropy reports of the year maybe wouldn’t have as much appeal as your friendly NCAA office pool. 

So, April it is. Onward.

Product Placement

This week, The Colorado Trust released a new report, From Paper to Practice: Key Lessons for Funders Deploying Complex Strategies, which I co-authored with Jewlya Lynn from Spark Policy Institute and Phil Chung, former evaluation officer at The Trust. The report considers implementation lessons for complex strategies through the lens of The Trust’s experience with Project Health Colorado, a three-year, $9.6 million grant strategy to build public will to achieve access to health for all Coloradans, which included a $2 million contribution from the Colorado Health Foundation.

As funders increasingly grapple with designing and deploying effective shared approaches to instigate change, it’s imperative that the lessons and insights drawn from lived experiences be employed going forward, that learning is put to use, and that – as my old man is fond of saying – if mistakes are made, they are new ones, not the same ones again. Project Health Colorado provides a good learning opportunity for the kinds of tactical, strategic, and organizational considerations essential to foundation efforts. 

Other new products to check out:

My friends and consulting partners at the Center for Evaluation Innovation recently put out an Advocacy Strategy Framework, which provides a useful tool for funders considering public policy advocacy strategies. As the Center notes, thinking through - and being able to articulate - the why and how and to-what-end of a change theory can be an arduous task, but it’s very necessary to build out effective advocacy strategies. The Center also put out four assessment tools that can help better gauge grantee contribution to advocacy efforts, which is notoriously tricky area to measure.

I’m not saying you can’t have fun without smart frameworks and helpful tools, I’m just saying why risk it.


Two friends have new books out this spring that are definitely worth the read:

Exposed: Tragedy & Triumph in Mountain Climbing

by Brad McQueen with Melissa McQueen

Brad McQueen, my Leadership Denver classmate, and his wife Melissa share their personal account of a high mountain hike gone bad, after they were stranded on Mt. Evans overnight during a freak blizzard in 2001. It’s a terrific story about adventure, consequences, and overcoming. Half the proceeds from book sales go to four non-profit organizations, including the rescue organization that brought Brad, his dad, Melissa, and their golden retriever to safety. 

rEvolution: Turn Crisis into Clarity and Ignite Growth

by Tim Leman with Larry G. Linne

rEvolution is “true, must-read story of a leader’s transformation as a first time CEO into the head of thriving professional services firm. rEvolution provides personal insights and practical guidance on how to utilize a business crisis in order to bring about change, evolution, and growth.” If you’re a small business owner, entrepreneur, team leader, or part of any kind of growth organization, you’ll want to check this book out. Tim succeeded my dad, Greg Downes, at Gibson, where he worked for more than 30 years. 

You're Doing It Wrong

Mike Pence. Even your fix isn't quite right

Good Reads

Barack and Me. Rembert Browne on traveling to Selma with the president for 50th anniversary of the march. 

Where the Bodies Are Buried. Patrick Radden Keefe on Northern Ireland and the Troubles and old wounds.

A Bigger Deal Than You Think. Josh Marshall on Indiana and the fight over the RFRA.

Away. Chris Jones on the year in space that Scott Kelly just launched. 

What Indiana Basketball Is All About. Bob Kravitz on how Notre Dame and Butler left it all on the court.

Stop coddling your dog - he's 99.9% wolf. Are we sure about this? Does this guy look 99.9% wolf to you? 

Newsletter: Thomas Newsletter Launch

While I realize that the world is calling out for exactly zero more email newsletters, the necessity of reaching clients, colleagues, partners, friends, and acquaintances leaves me no other choice. So you are among the select few who are receiving the inaugural, pilot version of the Thomas Newsletter, which will provide somewhere between weekly and biannual updates about projects we're working on, publications and writing that I'm doing, and other articles and resources of interest. Each edition will be relatively brief, will include compelling content, and will highlight resources and work of partners and other leading voices. And sometimes there will be funny stories about my dogs. 

Consider this a preview: 

In partnership with the Center for Evaluation Innovation, we're up and running on a project with The Atlantic Philanthropies, to capture and synthesize key lessons from their advocacy efforts in the U.S. Stay tuned next month for further announcements about this exciting work. In the meantime, you can read about Atlantic's origins and the unique story of its founder here

Last fall, prior to leaving The Colorado Trust, I had the opportunity to write an essay for the National Civic Review about emerging lessons learned from a new approach to advocacy funding. That article appears in the most recent edition of the journal, which can be seen here

After several years, I recently concluded my service on the Summer Scholars board of directors. It's a terrific organization that does a tremendous amount of good for young students in need. It was a bittersweet (and term-limited) departure, from which I will draw many important lessons that you can read about here

The sudden death of David Carr ripped through the ranks of writers and journalists in profound ways. One of my favorite writers and thinkers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, penned a moving tribute to Carr, which prompted me to write this essay on mentorship and gratitude.

Lastly, this past weekend marked one of my favorite times of year, which is the almost annual ski trip with a group of friends that we've been doing for over a decade. We hit the mountain hard, and try desperately to outlast our own aging, physical limits. We play cards and tell tall, 20-year-old tails of past misadventures. And we laugh harder than almost any other days of the year. It's the kind of trip that makes you grateful for old friends who are hard to shake. And makes you appreciate living some place where you get views like this. 

Be Cool When They Give You A Plaque

Four Takeaways From Serving on a Nonprofit Board

Last month, I attended my final meeting as a member of the Board of Directors for Summer Scholars, which provides literacy and enrichment programs for elementary students from low-income families. It’s a tremendous organization that provides innovative, community-specific learning solutions for kids who need that support.

This meeting concluded my sixth year of term-limited service on the board – which I jokingly though accurately referred to as “my longest relationship” when they gave me and three other outgoing board members customized plaques to commemorate our tenure. My plaque featured a handwritten note from a Summer Scholars student, thanking donors for supporting the program, along with a drawing of a giant bird telling two kids sharing a book to “Be Cool.”

It’s terrific advice for virtually any occasion, especially one as meaningful and bittersweet as this.

In reflecting on my time on the board, I’ve realized just how fulfilling of an experience it has been – not just because it’s an organization that does an incredible amount of good in its community, but also because of what I’ve learned about serving on a board that I will carry forward.

In the six years since I joined the board, the organization experienced periods of both transition and tremendous growth. There were staff changes, budget shortfalls, and a new president to hire. There were various crises to address, new programs and fundraising strategies to implement, and a new strategic vision to carry forward, which includes an exciting rebranding effort that will be unveiled later this year.

Board service is an important part of the social sector, but one that is sometimes treated as an after-thought involving transactional tasks of check-writing and rubber-stamping. But effective board work – which I got to witness and engage in first hand – is not just a question of showing up. It demands having a strong personal belief in an organization, its mission, and its vision. It’s a matter of thoroughly understanding the core work and culture of an organization. And it’s a matter of providing the right balance of guidance and support, and fulfilling the responsibilities of governance and strategic direction.

Having now spent several years working under a board at two different organizations, and serving on one at Summer Scholars, my own understanding of what’s at stake and what makes a strong board has evolved considerably. And in reflecting on this experience, I wanted to share four takeaways to carry forward in future board service and nonprofit involvement.

Get to know where the organization is in its life cycle. There are many iterations of the nonprofit life-cycle to draw on, but understanding your organization’s place on it will be helpful in carving out a role, engaging at the right level, and contributing your expertise. The differences between a startup phase, a growth phase, and an established phase demand different roles and responsibilities from a board, as well as staff. And understanding whether an organization is staff-driven or board-driven or a combination is essential to right-sizing a board member’s role.

Find your niche.  New board members are often recruited with some specific expertise or perspective in mind – whether it’s financial acumen, program expertise, or communications experience. But a board member’s role doesn’t have to be confined to just that. Particularly with leaner, or less established organizations, there are numerous opportunities to engage in and contribute to other areas, whether it’s organizational development, hiring and personnel, fundraising, marketing, volunteer work, or other facets.

Contribute more than a check. The expectation of writing big checks isn’t necessarily a myth when serving on nonprofit boards, but for many organizations, the inability to do that is not a disqualifier. Non-monetary support and contributions are sometimes just as impactful as cutting a check. Providing leadership, sharing program expertise, supporting events, volunteering, and other efforts to support staff are also valuable to the overall growth and effectiveness of an organization.

Trust the staff. This doesn’t mean forgoing accountability and performance management, quite the contrary. It does mean providing the room and space for staff to do their jobs. Each organization has a different board/staff dynamic. For some, the only go-between is the CEO or executive director, which comes with its own tradeoffs in transparency and accountability. For others, it’s a more collaborative relationship, where board members engage with staff around key issues and projects. The latter can often result in a more thorough understanding of the core competencies of staff, help avoid micromanagement, and foster a stronger sense of trust between staff and board.

Serving on a nonprofit board is no small thing. You become an ambassador of sorts. You help set a direction for what is necessary and what is possible. And you take on a collective responsibility for an organization and its mission. It’s a tall order, and finding your way is not always easy. But board service – and strong board leadership – is an essential part of the success and effectiveness of social change and community organizations. It’s also an incredibly fulfilling way to contribute your time, energy, and expertise in supporting issues you care deeply about.

And when your time is up and they recognize your service, just remember what the bird tells the kids in the drawing on the plaque: be cool. 

Field of Themes: Early Lessons from an Innovative Advocacy Approach

Last fall, before I left The Colorado Trust, I had the opportunity to write an article for the National Civic Review that highlighted an innovative approach to grantmaking that supports advocacy. The article – available here: Field of Themes – was published in this month’s NCR journal and focuses on real-time lessons learned during last year’s planning phase of The Trust’s Health Equity Advocacy strategy, which is employing a field-building approach.

Field building is not necessarily a new concept. But its implementation through the initial stages of The Trust’s effort has blended some of the best thinking for supporting advocacy efforts in more efficient, effective, and inclusive ways.

There are also baseball movie references in the article, if you’re into that sort of thing.

In addition to the Field of Themes article, you can also learn more about the concept, practice, and evaluation of field-building at the below resources: 

Advocacy and Public Policy Grantmaking: Matching Process to Purpose, The Colorado Trust    

By Tanya Beer, Pilar Stella Ingargiola, and Meghan Flynn Beer

Assessing and Evaluating Change in Advocacy Fields, Center on Evaluation Innovation 

By Jewlya Lynn, Spark Policy Institute


What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

When I was a kid, growing up in northern Indiana, I was convinced that my career trajectory would lead straight to being the starting point guard for the Chicago Bulls. Despite Derrick Rose’s spotty attendance record, I think it’s probably time to let go of the notion that I’ll ever hoop on West Madison Street.

Instead, I have followed a wonderfully circuitous path into politics, advocacy, and philanthropy. My first job out of school – at a national political committee, doing office and admin work - lasted all of three days, before my supervisor handed me the keys to a large black Buick and a laminated map of the District of Columbia.

“Can you pick up Joe tomorrow morning at 6am in Bethesda?”

Yes I can. Once I figure out where the hell Bethesda is.

And with that, I had a different job, as the chairman’s driver and body man. Which led to writing press statements and speeches. Which led to a job as a congressional communications director and campaign manager. Which led to serving two different governors in Indiana and New Mexico. Which led me to Colorado almost ten years ago, where I carved out a life with two yellow dogs and a girlfriend who I proposed to last month (she said yes!), and where I did communications and advocacy work at an economic justice group. Which led to serving as a program officer at a health foundation, where I spent five years developing and managing grant strategies to build advocacy capacity and advance policy solutions. Which led to today, where I get to announce the launch of my new consulting business – Thomas LLC, which partners with foundations, nonprofits and other social change organizations to design, develop, and manage strategies and projects that can solve complex problems.

What does that mean exactly? We’ll help your organization get done what you or your staff don’t have the time or space or capacity to do yourselves. The great idea that you haven’t had time to research or conceptualize on paper? The proposal that you want to take to your board for approval? The project that you haven’t had a chance to get off the ground? The strategy you’re implementing that requires external leadership, support, or coordination? We can help.

The work you do matters. The role your organization serves matters. And the meaningful difference that you’re capable of making for individuals and communities matters. And that’s why Thomas LLC exists, to help you on that journey, to help you cut through clutter to meet your goals, and to help you better advance your mission. 

With unique skills, expertise and capacity, and a network of researchers, evaluators, designers, and communicators that we partner with, Thomas LLC can help get you where you want to go.

Over the past 15 years, I have been lucky to work with and learn from many smart, talented people across different organizations that made a meaningful difference. It’s been an extraordinary education to see what’s possible, to see what can be achieved, and to help figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

And this is it. So let’s get to work.

Learn more here. Connect with us hereAnd let us know where you want to go.