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GOCO’s transition to new grant distribution strategy creates avenue for Colorado coronavirus relief

The lottery-funded trust hopes to streamline its grantmaking process to allow larger-scale projects and equitable distribution of funds

Great Outdoors Colorado Executive Director Chris Castilian enjoys biking on Fishers Peak, a 19,200-acre property near Trinidad that is Colorado's newest state park. GOCO pledged $7.5 million toward the purchase of the property. A new strategic plan for GOCO would enable the fund to participate in large, regional projects like the creation of a new state park. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Since voters amended Colorado’s constitution in 1992 to create Great Outdoors Colorado, the trust has directed lottery dollars into 5,300 projects in all 64 of the state’s counties.

Last year GOCO toured the state and crafted a new way to distribute funds through a values-based approach that could stir legacy-type projects across entire regions. 

The plan was to spend the coming fiscal year — July 2020 through June 2021 — transitioning to its new strategic plan. Then came COVID-19. And GOCO is one of the few public entities that can count the arrival of the pandemic as well-timed. With Colorado Lottery expecting nary a blip in the flow of revenue to GOCO, the fund is easily turning its transition year into a year of COVID-19 relief. 

The turn toward values-based funding — with an overarching emphasis on equity — has left GOCO uniquely prepared for this extraordinary moment in Colorado history, where protesters are demanding justice and communities are struggling through a pandemic. 

“It is perfectly coincidental to everything that is happening,” said GOCO chief Chris Castilian, whose board next week will vote on a new strategic plan born from the past 18 months of outreach and study. “It’s weird. I don’t know if it’s luck or by intention, but a lot of the stuff happening right now is directly relevant to what we have been doing at GOCO for the last year and a half.”

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Two years ago Castilian started looking at 27 years of projects supported by GOCO. There’s no question the fund has made a tremendous difference in all of Colorado’s communities, protecting open space and connecting people with outdoor experiences. 

But some of those projects could have been better, Castilian said. And, maybe, the process of asking diverse communities and land trusts to compete against each other in GOCO’s 15 different grant programs was hindering quality, he thought. 

So GOCO’s 17-member governor-appointed board started asking its community partners, land trusts and Colorado Parks and Wildlife how it could be better. Where it could better direct investment? How can it help with grant writing? What kind of values needed to underpin every dollar that was directed into conservation, stewardship and access? 

“The board felt strongly we wanted to become a values-based organization,” Castilian said. 

GOCO has traditionally been guided by these three pillars: Connect, Protect and Inspire. But that, Castilian said, left the board “trying to fund everything all the time.”

“That’s not an effective way to drive higher quality projects for our partners,” he said. 

So the new strategic plan calls for GOCO to be guided by advancing equity, leading with long-term impacts in mind, leveraging innovation and being flexible, evolving its approach to investment and being a responsive and cooperative partner. The new plan expands GOCOs involvement in projects, allowing it to stick around from conception to completion and accommodate specific needs and situations. 

Castilian says GOCO is not turning away from its 15 competitive grant programs but leaning into them and amplifying the best aspects while removing challenges. It recognizes, he says, that some communities have more resources to lure investment while others do not. So GOCO’s three-year-old Generation Wild program that connects underprivileged communities with outdoor recreation is a pillar in the new model. 

“We are committing everything we do to being about equity,” Castilian says. 

The new approach will build a $100 million Centennial Fund with Colorado Parks and Wildlife that will look at entire regions, not just counties or communities, for what the plan calls “once-in-a-lifetime visions and projects.”

Imagine, Castilian said, the communities of the Upper Arkansas Valley from Cañon City to Leadville coming together to work on large-scale conservation projects that respect the agricultural heritage of the valley while increasing recreational access. Or that level of community cooperation could revolve around an urban park, or another river corridor, or a mountain range.

“We want to leave the discussion broad and wide open when it comes to defining a community,” Castilian said. 

These are big-issue plans that promise to increase GOCO’s role as a major player, much as it had in creating the new Fishers Peak State Park outside Trinidad. And it will take a year to turn the ship. So the GOCO board set fiscal year 2021 as a time for transition, when it would wind down some of its traditional programs and start implementing its new vision. 

And as the pandemic settled on Colorado, the board saw an opportunity to adapt its entire grant funding program toward COVID-19 response. The fund sent out a survey to every corner of Colorado last month and began gathering ways it could help.

Instead of asking applicants to divide into GOCO’s specific grant programs, the fund is setting aside as much as $15 million in the next 12 months for communities, partners and conservation groups that simply need to identify their needs in “concept papers,” Castilian said. 

Maybe it could be operational help. Maybe it could be a small park or a big conservation project like Fishers Peak or Sweetwater Lake, the Garfield County mountain lake conservation groups hope to protect. Castilian anticipates breaking up the distribution into three separate tranches, with larger funds available as pandemic-related needs become more clear later this year and next spring. 

“As sad as this is, these kinds of economic downturns create opportunities in land conservation when large swaths of land often come on the market and this allows GOCO to be able to quickly respond to that and, for example, find the next Fishers Peak State Park,” Castilian said. “This gives us a chance to be directly responsive to our partners and help them get through this.”

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