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Changing tack, the Gay and Lesbian Fund moves into some unexpected areas 

The science of giving

A year and a half ago, the announcement that the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado offices would close was shocking to many in Colorado Springs, who viewed the orange stucco building as a downtown fixture.

But the Fund's parent organization, the national Gill Foundation, said it was time for a change. The offices, which also served as a community center of sorts, were seen as tied to a time when most straight Coloradans said they didn't know any gay people; when anti-LGBT laws were being put in place; and when Colorado Springs was known as the de facto capital of the "Hate State." Specifically, this was the mid-'90s.

With even gay marriage a mainstream issue 15 years later, Tim Gill, the software magnate behind the GLF, thought there were better uses of his money, though he wouldn't say what they were at the time.

Well, now we know.

The reinvented GLF focuses on many of the same issues as the old one — the fight against HIV, LGBT services and advocacy — but is also using its money strategically to effect statewide change, rather than handing out small gifts to tiny grassroots organizations. And the GLF is also delving into a new area that seems rather unlikely: STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

"The Gill Foundation, through our Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado program, remains committed to our home state," Gill spokesperson Bobby Clark says in an email. "We've focused on becoming more efficient and expanding our impact in Colorado so that we can help build a better state for everyone — our new funding area in STEM is a great example of that focus."

GLF rebirth

Aside from the introduction of grants for STEM, the biggest change to the GLF has been somewhat structural.

From now on, the GLF will be home to all the Gill Foundation's Colorado-based grants, which have long comprised about a quarter of the Foundation's giving. The GLF won't be funding arts and culture events, or general health-related initiatives anymore. Instead, it plans to focus larger grants on six key areas: making schools more inclusive and battling bullying; promoting equality-minded civic engagement and communication; supporting Colorado public broadcasting; providing services for HIV patients; providing services and advocacy for the LGBT community; and funding STEM education solutions.

Amber Ptak, Gill's director of education programs, says the GLF is still going strong.

"There will always be a special emphasis in Colorado because Tim [Gill] and [husband] Scott [Miller] live here, and we have a goal with respect to a progressive and inclusive state," she says. "And so it made sense to really just pull all of these Colorado programs under one brand for Colorado, so that it's a little bit easier to work within the state and to measure our progress."

Most of the programs now funded by the GLF have been in place for years, but the grants are larger and more strategic.

"Our average grant size was $3,200. We weren't making an impact in any particular area, and we heard that from our grantees," Ptak notes. "... [That] was one of the reasons why Tim and the board decided, let's stop funding 280 organizations per year, and funding almost everything without making an impact. And let's really find an area that means something for Colorado, that means something to Tim and Scott, that we can have a dramatic impact in."

Education matters

From that mindset, the new STEM grant program was born.

While it may seem a bizarre deviation from work done mainly for the LGBT cause, it's important to factor in Gill's background. He invented Quark, software that transformed the publishing industry.

Gill also sees STEM education as a fundamental equality issue, one that fits well with GLF's overall mission. Ptak notes that women and minorities are often neglected in STEM education, and that can affect their career trajectories, particularly as high-salary jobs in STEM careers multiply in Colorado. According to a Georgetown University study, Colorado will offer 219,850 STEM jobs by 2018, up from 172,560 in 2010.

Meanwhile, Colorado ranks second-highest in the country for the percentage of adults with college degrees, but 47th for college-bound high school graduates.

"There's a lack of skilled workers to fill STEM positions in Colorado," Ptak says, noting that Gov. John Hickenlooper's office has been working with GLF to address the growing problem. "The other piece is our donor, Tim Gill, was very interested in and concerned about the lack of critical thinking and the lack of the ability to solve complex problems, and those skills and abilities are tied very closely to STEM education."

GLF is tackling the problem through a three-step process, working through a series of partnerships with governmental offices and departments, as well as education-based nonprofits. The steps include: creating a plan for improving STEM education that incorporates a scorecard, so that the state can measure yearly progress; assisting in recruiting and retaining the best STEM teachers, as well as offering professional development to current teachers; and developing a public relations campaign to get the community on board. The plan could be ready as early as autumn.

In regard to the second step, with some GLF funding the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study educational nonprofit just began a pilot program that offers STEM teachers two years of professional development.

Executive director Janet Carlson says the goal of the Springs-based Colorado Champions for STEM Education Leadership Academy is to help teachers teach critical thinking. This, and taking a scientific approach to problem-solving, are key skills that a child can use throughout her life, she says. What's more, the method is much more effective for kids from less affluent backgrounds who may not "know how to be successful at the game of school."

"Being scientifically literate is a lot more than what I would consider the 'Trivial Pursuit' perspective of science," she says. "You know, 'Can you name all the parts of the plant?'"

stanley@csindy.com

At the old HQ

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