Built by donors, the Critical Needs Fund is there when it matters most

July 19, 2022

Hunger, homelessness, and economic insecurity. A global pandemic, a wildfire, a war. Sometimes deeply entrenched problems and events in our world call for extraordinary measures.

Built over time by generous donors, The Denver Foundation is there to provide resources, care, and hope to those facing extreme difficulties. For nearly two decades, the Critical Needs Fund has addressed emergent community needs through flexible and responsive grantmaking. The fund supports initiatives that align with The Denver Foundation’s mission, values, and objectives, but are not typically supported through our core grantmaking. Often, these initiatives arise in moments of crisis.

“The Critical Needs Fund is an essential tool that equips us to be agile and innovative,” says Javier Alberto Soto, president and CEO of The Denver Foundation. “The fund is a consistent example of the many ways that our donors and fundholders show up to support their neighbors and care for their communities, especially when they need it the most.”Noteworthy 2 Snip 7 21

The Critical Needs Fund was established in 2006 by Sarah Harrison and Jeff Hirota, who served at the time as the foundation’s deputy vice president of philanthropic services, and vice president of programs, respectively. Harrison and Hirota saw a need for a fund that proactively addressed the negative impacts of economic trends and other stressors on the community – and that could be  activated for rapid-response grantmaking when necessary.

The fund was initially focused on meeting basic human needs necessary for survival, such as food, heat, and shelter, particularly for the most vulnerable people in Metro Denver, who were feeling the impact of the economic downturn that began in 2001. Donors responded in a major way, contributing approximately $2 million between 2008 and 2009. Early grants were used to provide emergency food aid and support collaboration between local food pantries, which led to the development of the agency that became Hunger Free Colorado, and to establish overnight shelter and permanent  supportive housing for unaccompanied women experiencing homelessness.

Over the last few tumultuous years, millions of dollars in community aid have moved through the Critical Needs Fund.  Within a month of the first reported case of COVID-19 in Colorado, for example, The Denver Foundation received $1 million in gifts to the fund. This infusion catalyzed an immediate round of  grantmaking to nonprofits working to address crisis-level demand for food, health care, housing, cash assistance, and other direct services. Dozens of organizations received general operating  support to keep the doors open.

With steady gifts from fund holders and donors, Critical Needs Fund grantmaking has continued as communities move from acute, pandemic-driven crises into recovery and rebuilding. The fund has also been activated to support those impacted by global conflict, including refugees displaced by war in Afghanistan and Ukraine, and communities reeling from shootings in Boulder, Aurora, and Denver. In the first days of 2022, funding was directed to support those facing the devastating aftermath of the Marshall Fire in Boulder County.

Grantees included La Puente Home Food Bank Network of the San Luis Valley, which provided nutritious emergency food to individuals and families through a coalition of 15 food pantries spread across 8,000 square miles. Colorado Coalition for the Homeless provided testing, safe shelter, vaccinations, and health care to those experiencing homelessness.Noteworthy Snip 7 21

In 2020, The Denver Foundation distributed more than $2.2 million through the Critical Needs Fund an historic high for the fund. In addition to funding programs to stem acute, pandemic-driven crises, the fund also supported longer-term recovery and solutions to systemic inequities that the pandemic laid plain. Through the COVID-19 Recovery & Resilience Fund, an extension of the Critical Needs Fund, the foundation funded 10 “big idea” recovery projects related to legislation, health advocacy, and economic opportunity, with an emphasis on those that served communities of color. For example, a grant to Metro Denver Partnership for Health helped that coalition develop an immunization plan for six counties. The foundation also supported the successful effort to get paid medical and family leave on the 2020 ballot, a measure that was approved by voters, and the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, which helped Coloradans who were at risk of being evicted by the end of 2020 stay in their homes.

“The generosity of our donors keeps the Critical Needs Fund active in creative and innovative ways year-round, ”says Soto. “Perhaps most crucially, it allows us to respond quickly when the community is really hurting.”

The Critical Needs Fund is supported entirely by gifts from donors and fundholders. Past contributors have made gifts from $100 to $1 million. You can make a gift online through TDF Fund Manager, If you would like to learn more or need assistance making your gift, please contact your relationship manager, or call 303.300.1790 and ask to speak to a member of the Engaged Philanthropy team.