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It Could Have Gone Off the Rails

Colorado Cancer Research Program’s  operating environment is both complex and demanding.  So too are its internal operations. Add to that a group of MDs, PhDs, JDs, researchers, and other smart folks and you have the potential to spend the better part of your retreat down the rabbit hole as you endeavor to address individual needs for clarity, and a desire to understand a few details to the Nth degree.

We sat down recently with board member Ken Dawson to reflect on their most recent board retreat. Ken is retired from the insurance industry. A few years ago, he joined the community engagement committee of CCRP and then was recruited onto the board of directors. This is Ken’s first time serving on a nonprofit board. We initially worked together in February 2018, when I facilitated CCRP’s annual board retreat.

Last year, my eyes rolled when I was told we were using an outside facilitator. It took about 15 minutes for me to see your skills in action. I could see you were different.

When I asked him what had made him change his mind he said,“You had done the hard work of deeply learning and internalizing what we are all about  — and talked to us on our own terms. It was clear you had taken the time and trouble to internalize our culture and what we are all about.”

At this year’s retreat, Ken came up to me following the meeting to shake my hand and praise the group’s success and our work. I wanted to learn more about what he believed made the day impactful. Over the years he had observed that some facilitators lacked depth of knowledge about their client organizations, which meant they weren’t prepared to reboot the process when necessary.

The 2019 retreat was particularly complicated, according to Ken. (And I concurred.) He recalled, “There was a time after lunch when things got stuck. I could almost see you thinking – we are kind of stuck here – how do we sort this out? You brought us back together by framing what you had heard:

  • Let’s take a step back and see where we really are.
  • This is what I am hearing.
  • We have A, B, and C to consider.
  • Tell me if I am right or wrong, and how to adjust my thinking.”

It could have gone off the rails. This is an apropos summary of the sometimes-circular conversation that occurred that day as we worked through a set of complex but related topics. We had a large group, with a few folks on the phone, and a variety of points of view around the table that weren’t completely meshing.

He remarked on the facilitation of that tipping point in the retreat, “That is what impressed me so much. It emboldened me to come up to you after the retreat. You had mastered our organization and culture impressively. By the end of the afternoon, I thought we had made excellent progress.”

I asked what might have transpired without an outside facilitator.  Ken explained that “it would have been all but impossible to do it ourselves. We needed someone who could stand apart from all of it dispassionately. I’ve seen consultants run aground in that situation. It has to be the right facilitator.”

I learned a phrase from you the first time, ‘Only one meeting folks.’

Lyfts and Transit and Bicycles (Oh My!)

Ah, traffic.  There’s almost nothing people love to hate as much.  It seems like such a simple problem, but there are rarely any easy solutions.  While cities across the U.S. regularly struggle with how to most effectively move people around, Colorado (and Denver in particular) has found itself far behind these days due to rapid population growth.  Our transportation planners do their best to make improvements to our roads and highways on a regular basis, but the fact of the matter is that infrastructure improvements take lots of time and lots of money, and we seem to be starved for both these days.

Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash

That said, all hope is not lost.  There are a wide variety of innovative options coming out in recent years that can help.  But at the same time, managing these options can be an enormous challenge for local communities.  We discuss a few of these ideas and offer a few thoughts on ways that local planners can plan for the future effectively.

  • With traffic congestion becoming more and more of a problem in cities, bicycling can be an effective option to get people out of cars.  Corona regularly works with PeopleForBikes to understand the barriers that prevent people from bicycling more often.  Our work regularly suggests that, in order for people to feel comfortable riding a bike around a city, it’s important for it to be convenient and for them to feel safe riding.  That means that cities who want to increase bicycling need to consider adding bicycle-friendly trails, dedicated bicycling lanes on convenient roads, options for storing bicycles near work and retail locations, and more. 
  • Ride sharing is another major trend that cities are experimenting with in recent years.  While people typically think of ride sharing in terms of taxi alternatives like Uber and Lyft, similar offerings are available for bicycles and even scooters as well.  Denver’s B-Cycle program allows people to “rent” a bicycle and return it at convenient locations around town, while new offerings from companies like Lime allow people to do the same with even fewer restrictions on where bicycles can be picked up and returned.  Lime, along with companies like Bird,  also allows people to rent electric-powered scooters to travel between locations that are relatively close together.
  • The above options are relatively simple ways to reduce congestion, but those options alone often won’t make a dramatic impact on traffic.  Sometimes you have to get even more people out of cars, and that often involves increasing the use of public transit.  But, like most problems facing communities, that’s easier said than done.  Mile High Connects is working to improve the quality of life for residents of Metro Denver through access to public transit (among other services), and our work with them helped us to understand that, similar to increasing the use of bicycling, increasing the use of transit requires that it’s easy for people to access transit at their points of origination and destination, that the costs aren’t so high as to be prohibitive, and that it’s easy for people to understand how to get to their destination.
  • If all else fails, sometimes the only option is to improve streets and highways to accommodate a higher volume of traffic.  However, these projects can sometimes be very disruptive to those who use the areas being improved, so it’s often important to understand the needs of users before, during, and after the project.  Corona has recently worked with Communication Infrastructure Group and CDOT, for example, to understand perceptions of the Central 70 project in Denver, which will drastically change how the stretch of I-70 in central Denver operates.

The challenge with all of these options is balancing the sometimes-conflicting needs of these various options for getting around, and that often requires understanding the needs of your community and preferences of residents for prioritizing these options.  For example, adding bike lanes may prevent the expansion of roads for cars, adding more scooters may add congestion to bike lanes, and making an improvement to the roads in one areas may mean there isn’t enough budget to make improvements in other areas.  Corona regularly works with communities to evaluate residents’ needs and to determine the best course of action to meet those needs.  If you’re struggling with understanding how to best help a rapidly-growing population move around your community, don’t hesitate to reach out.  We’d be glad to help you plot an optimal course forward.

Celebrating our community: Colorado Fourteeners Initiative

In honor of Corona’s 20th anniversary, we are celebrating the outstanding people and organizations making a positive contribution to our community.

Each month, Corona is making a $500 donation in honor of a member of our team. For February, David Kennedy selected the Colorado Fourteeners* Initiative (CFI). We chatted with David to learn more about this organization and his relationship with them.

Why did you choose the Colorado Fourteeners Initiatve?

As mentioned in our interview with David, he began volunteering with this organization more than a decade ago. In his early days at Corona, he volunteered on 1–2 projects a year for them. This included his first real volunteer trail work experience, and while he went on to volunteer for other state and national groups, he always stayed in touch with CFI and made them one of his monthly charitable donations.

Hiking in on Mt Elbert. Photo by David Kennedy.

Especially after being involved with some other trail work organizations, David began to see the uniqueness of CFI and the quality of work they do. Trails built by CFI, for instance, are commonly built to a 100+ year standard, meaning that the trail, with minimum maintenance, should hold up for generations to come. This may not seem that special to the average person, or even hiker, but considering the popularity of the fourteeners and resulting wear and tear, the challenges of constructing trails at those altitudes (in often remote settings), and other challenges with trail design in general (e.g., erosion), it becomes clear just how tough CFI’s work is.

David was, and remains, impressed with the standard of trail work provided by CFI, describing them as the Green Berets of trail builders. When an injury a couple of years ago prevented him from doing volunteer trail work, David continued to look for ways to be involved with CFI and other organizations, lending a hand with other skills such as photography and marketing assistance. Most recently, he had the chance to join CFI’s board, an opportunity he quickly accepted.

What is special about CFI?

Beyond the quality of work noted above, one of the main things that David really appreciates about CFI is their single focus on high peaks. While other similar organizations do a variety of trail work, CFI specializes in high alpine trail work. As a result, the level of expertise that CFI brings to their work is both extremely high and unique. Compared to the ecosystems below the tree line, the high peaks of Colorado face unique issues, such as greater exposure and a shorter growing season. Add to the challenge of remote worksites and the altitude, and trail work is much more labor intensive.

* For non-Coloradans, a fourteener is a peak above 14,000 feet. There are 53 such peaks in Colorado (depending on how exactly you count them)—the most of any state, including Alaska. They are a popular destination for climbers and hikers alike.

Throughout 2019, to help celebrate our 20th Anniversary, we are profiling our staff and select clients. Corona is also donating $500 on behalf of each staff person to a charitable organization of their choice. Click here to view all of our interviews. 

To stay up to date on all Corona news, and receive useful insights into the world of research, evaluation, and strategy, subscribe to our newsletter.

Staff Interview: David Kennedy

February 2019 marks David Kennedy’s 13th year with Corona. During those 13 years, he has climbed up from quantitative analyst to principal. He also has gone from a local employee to a remote employee to a local employee to a remote employee to (currently) a local employee. But, thanks to his great attention to detail, all of these transitions have been seamless.

David Kennedy, Principal

While pursuing his business degree as an undergrad, David became very interested in market research and ended up focusing on market research and statistics courses. While completing some graduate courses at CSU, he saw an ad for the job at Corona and applied. Like many of us at Corona, David enjoys not just the research aspect of the work but also the variety of our projects. The variety of projects makes the work challenging and engaging, which he enjoys.

At Corona

Although David started as a quantitative analyst, these days his main specialties at Corona are the management of large and complex projects, brand-related research projects (e.g., customer satisfaction, prospective customer research, brand perception research), and membership association projects. In addition to client work, he also manages Corona’s brand and marketing. If you like the look of our website or our reports, then you like his work! Not only do we at Corona benefit from his interest in the company brand, but David also says that his work with the brand has increased his commitment to the company. In 2009, he helped oversee the rebranding of Corona, which won two awards (the 2010 Colorado American Marketing Association Silver Peak Award and the 2010 Business Marketing Association Silver Award).

David also feels very proud of Corona for the work that the company has done to support our employees. In 2008–2009, the company did an organizational design challenge that changed how we think about our benefits and employees’ work–life balance. Since then, Corona has continued to focus on supporting employees by adding additional company holidays, allowing employees to work remotely, and encouraging professional development. David is proud of all these changes.

Having completed more than 110 projects as a project manager, David’s favorite projects are those where he feels like the client really benefitted from the work. These tend to be projects with some of his repeat clients. Additionally, he really enjoys projects that expose him to a wide variety of topics, like the State of Cities and Towns project for CML, projects that he has a personal connection to, like those for Donor Alliance, and projects that touch on a personal interest, like projects with Denver International Airport.

Outside of Work

Outside of work, David has a wide variety of hobbies. From hiking to backpacking to climbing to skiing, he really loves escaping to the outdoors. A love of the outdoors is also what led to his interest in photography. His photography has expanded from a little hobby to a significant one with an Instagram account, a website, a University of Denver course that he is teaching, and even some exhibits. He also loves to travel and has completed 12 trips in 2018 alone, from weekend getaways to three international trips.

David and one of his trusty cameras.

His love of research and spreadsheets is not limited to his work life either. He has impressed many of us with the extensive spreadsheets that he uses to track travel award points or skiing costs to split with his fellow skiers. And several of us have made a decision or purchase informed by David’s research, whether it was an espresso machine, a travel destination, or an outdoor gear purchase.

Charitable Organization

David selected Colorado Fourteeners Initiative as his recipient of Corona’s $500 donation.

David started volunteering with them back in 2006, close to when he started working at Corona. At the time, he didn’t have much money to donate, but he really wanted to give back to an organization that focused on the outdoors. Since finding Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, he has volunteered on trail work projects for them and has just recently joined their board.

Throughout 2019, to help celebrate our 20th Anniversary, we are profiling our staff and select clients. Corona is also donating $500 on behalf of each staff person to a charitable organization of their choice. Click here to view all of our interviews. 

To stay up to date on all Corona news, and receive useful insights into the world of research, evaluation, and strategy, subscribe to our newsletter.

The Challenging Landscape of Public Education

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

While Denver Public Schools has managed to limit its first teacher strike in 25 years to three days, the reality that it had to come to that is an indicator of a fact that has become common knowledge around the country: public education is hard.  While most agree that teachers are chronically underpaid in many areas of the country, few agree on what can be done about it.  In Colorado, there is an unending debate about how to pay for education, roads, and healthcare, and most of the ballot initiatives aimed at raising taxes to support these priorities fail.  While we at Corona won’t be solving all these problems in this blog, we wanted to highlight a few of our clients who have made moves to improve the educational landscape in recent years.

  • The Big Idea Project is a nonprofit organization started by a teacher who felt that high school students need to learn not only how to solve problems in the world but how to become leaders who can really make a difference in their communities. The project asks teams of high school students to partner with a mentor from the business community to identify a problem they see in their community and to take action to help solve it.  The program is in place at many high schools in the Denver area, allowing hundreds of students each year to learn not from a book, but from getting out in the world and trying to improve it.  As great as the program sounds in principle, it is always important to evaluate whether a program is resulting in the desired impact.  To that end, Corona has helped the Big Idea Project to understand the program’s impact over the years through a thorough evaluation of the changes it makes in student participants’ abilities.
  • The Logan School for Creative Learningis a private school that focuses on allowing high-performing students to be at the center of their own education.  The program allows students to pick topics that interest them each school year and builds their entire curriculum around those interests.  There are very few closed-ended questions at Logan.  Instead, the program helps to create students who can think creatively and solve problems by using their own knowledge and skills.  True to this philosophy, Logan asked Corona to assist in helping to understand how the school can tell its story in a way that the broader public will value and understand.
  • DSST Public Schools is a charter school network built on one of Corona’s own core philosophies: they use data extensively to help make decisions.  Originally built with science and technology at the core of their approach, DSST has been very successful at achieving high student performance and college placement, which has helped them become one of the largest charter school networks in the state.  True to its philosophy of data-driven decision-making, DSST has looked to Corona for assistance in helping to understand how people feel about charter schools in general, and DSST specifically, in its efforts to ensure it is meeting the needs of families in the region.

These three organizations have dramatically different approaches to improving student outcomes, and all of them may work for some types of students and not work for others.  In many ways, these organizations’ approaches are a microcosm of some of the broad debates about strategies in education these days.  Will 4-day school weeks, all-day kindergarten, or performance-based pay solve issues of student performance and teacher retention?  Unfortunately, we don’t know.  But if your organization needs help in coming up with a plan to try some new things out, figure out what works, and understand how to communicate the impact you are making to your stakeholders, we’re here to help.

Communities Seek Creative Solutions to the Country’s Housing Affordability Crisis

While working on a recent project assessing the housing market for the City of Fort Collins, we were struck by how communities across the state and the country were pursuing diverse strategies to the current housing affordability crisis. The fourth quarter of 2018 saw national home affordability drop to a 10-year low. Residents in our hometown of Denver are all too familiar with this dynamic. A recent report identified the city as hosting the most competitive housing market in the nation. Members of the country’s middle class are increasingly viewing home ownership as unfeasible. The vast majority of Americans find themselves in markets where home prices are rising faster than wages. It should not be surprising that renting is more affordable than owning in 59% of the nation’s counties. That number jumps to 93% of the country’s most populated areas (those with more than 1 million people).

Photo by Breno Assis on Unsplash

Nonetheless, the rental market is not much more forgiving. Nationwide, median rent has increased by 11% over the last five years. Half of all renters find themselves spending more than 30% of their income on rent and one quarter of renters spend more than 50% of their income on rent. While the housing market has demonstrated an impressive recovery from the great recession, construction has been focused on the high and low ends of the market. Meanwhile, those in the middle are becoming accustomed to tight markets with few options.

The breadth and depth of the affordability crisis has brought creative responses from communities across the country. Denver has attempted to address affordability with the creation of the Affordable Housing Revolving Loan Fund. The initial $10 million effort to support the development and creation of multifamily rentals for low income individuals that has since been expanded. In a similar effort, Portland Oregon’s Inclusionary Housing Zoning Code Project requires that all new development projects above 20 units have housing available to individuals of different income levels.

Many believe the solution to affordability lies in zoning. Last month, the Minneapolis City Council took a bold step and became the first major metro area in the country to eliminate single-family zoning. With plenty of resistance from home owners in these areas, Minneapolis is on the path to significantly increasing housing supply, reducing travel times, and even potentially rectifying a history of racial segregation. Regardless of potential larger downstream effects, adding triplexes and apartment buildings to these neighborhoods is likely to mitigate high rents and housing costs by allowing more choice in the market and providing many with the ability to downsize while remaining close to desired amenities.

Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

A less drastic, but more widely pursued, strategy has been the expansion of “mother-in-law apartments” or “granny flats”. These units, formally called accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are separate entry add-ons to single-family home properties averaging around 850 square feet.  ADUs offer a potential respite from high costs for both owners and renters. The former can get help with their mortgage and the latter can find a smaller housing option near work, public transit, or other desired amenities. Owners can also rent these units on short-term sites like Airbnb or VRBO between long-term renters or if they desire greater flexibility. While zoning laws have traditionally been a barrier to these kinds of rental options, that is starting to change. Los Angeles has set a goal of having 10,000 new ADU units by 2021 and increased the number of issued permits from 142 in 2016 to 2,000 in 2017. In Utah, proposed legislation SB34 hopes to allow for more ADU apartments and to encourage high-density housing near transit corridors. The crisis has even spurred some innovative private sector efforts toward affordability. Google, Facebook, and Apple have all made headlines by investing tens of millions of dollars into housing for their employees. Similarly, Microsoft just announced $500 million to support affordable housing in the Seattle area. This project includes around half of that sum to be put toward below-market-rate loans so that developers can target construction in the surrounding area. In addition to this direct attempt to shape affordability, Microsoft has also been active in lobbying nearby mayors to consider changing zoning laws to waive fees and allow for greater density, especially around public transit. While none of these efforts are going to be a panacea, we need to collect as much data as possible to evaluate if and how these programs mitigate the rising costs of housing. Any undertaking to solve this problem on a local level needs to start with a systematic assessment of what has worked elsewhere.

How the (now ended) Government Shutdown is Affecting Colorado Communities

Beginning on December 22, 2018, parts of the federal government were shut down due to insufficient funding. After 35 days, the longest government shutdown in United States history came to an end on the afternoon of January 25, 2019. Although the shutdown has now ended, the effects of it will continue to reverberate in Colorado.

One agency affected by the shutdown was the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park system, including Colorado’s own Rocky Mountain National Park. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, “on an average day in January, 425,000 park visitors spend $20 million in nearby communities.” Rocky Mountain National Park technically remained open during the shutdown. However, without federal workers to maintain the park, trashcans cans were deluged with trash and roads remained unplowed, creating hazardous conditions for visitors. In communities near Rocky Mountain National Park, such as Estes Park, business owners noted they experienced a decrease in sales and business in general as tourists and locals alike were unable to safely fully experience the national park. While the winter season may not be the most lucrative time of year, the decrease in revenue will undoubtedly leave some business owners with a financial burden.

Quinn Nietfeld via

The Department of Agriculture was also affected by the government shutdown. This department oversees the U.S. Forest Service, who maintains around 65% of the forestlands in Colorado. Oftentimes the winter season gives Forest Service agents the opportunity to safely burn debris and brush that fuel summer wildfires. In the midst of the shutdown, Forest Service agents were unable to complete this work, raising questions about the potential environmental effects the state may experience in the warming months.

Colorado is not a stranger to the negative impacts of a federal government shutdown. In Fall 2013, the government was shutdown for 17 days. Unfortunately, that time period coincided with recovery efforts in Colorado following massive damaging flooding in several communities. Through the shutdown, emergency aid funds were unavailable, leaving communities to take charge of the emergency response and recovery themselves.

In addition to the environmental impact, the shutdown also resulted in approximately 800,000 federal employees nationwide to work without pay. In Colorado, around 2,500 furloughed federal employees filed for unemployment benefits to help them get by while they were not receiving a paycheck. National Congressional leaders, as well as Colorado legislators, have promised federal workers they will receive backpay wages lost during the shutdown. However, federal contractor employees have not been guaranteed the same assurances, leaving many in a dire financial situation.

It is important to note that this is not a full accounting of all of the known immediate impacts of the shutdown either. For a state steeped in a pioneering and resilient spirit, we know our communities will recover in the end. It remains to be seen in totality how the 35-day government shutdown will leave lasting impacts on our state. However, one lesson we can learn from this shutdown is the need to be proactive instead of reactive. In communities that are vulnerable to the immediate and long-lasting effects of government shutdowns, it is crucial for local governments to engage in robust conversations about the challenges their residents are vulnerable to and that they are currently facing. This could be achieved through a needs assessment or through facilitated community input sessions. In addition to enabling communities to better prepare for the future, these approaches also create an environment where every community member matters and their experiences are valued. This shutdown has ended, but it seems almost inevitable that another one will come along sometime in the future. 

Celebrating our community: Wild Plum Center of Longmont, Colorado

In honor of Corona’s 20th anniversary, we are celebrating the outstanding people and organizations making a positive contribution to our community.

Each month, Corona is making a $500 donation in honor of a member of our team. To kick us off in January, Matt Bruce selected Wild Plum Center. We sat down with Matt to learn more about the organization and his giving experience.

What is it about Wild Plum Center that made them stand out for you?

I believe that all families should be allowed to achieve their potential, and Wild Plum Center helps families do just that. We know from research that kids begin developing cognitively and socially at a very early age. I’ve seen it in my own kids. When they are in a nurturing, safe, and stimulating environment, like at Wild Plum Center, they have positive experiences that dramatically impact their growing brains. In addition to serving youth, Wild Plum Center serves parents by allowing them to work or go to school so they can make a better life for their families. Although there are many great community organizations here in Northern Colorado, Wild Plum stood out to me because they meet a critical need of hard-working families—when a helping hand can make a world of difference.

When a helping hand can make a world of difference.

What would you like others to know about their mission and impact?

Whereas we typically think of early childhood education in the zero to five age range, Wild Plum acknowledges that their impact goes far beyond preschool. Their mission is to prepare children for a lifetime of learning and self-sufficiency by providing a comprehensive, individualized approach to early learning and family wellness. Wild Plum is doing more than preparing kids for Kindergarten; they are preparing them (and their families) for a lifetime of learning and wellness.

You’ve noted that this was a really wonderful experience for you. We’d love to hear more.

First, I had a lot of fun thinking about which community organization I’d like Corona to support. I considered a handful of organizations, and I enjoyed learning about each one. When I decided on Wild Plum, it was a great experience chatting with Keri Davis, their community partnership director, about the financial gift Corona could offer. Keri said Corona’s donation would go directly to serving youth and families. She sent me some photos of kids in their classroom, and I loved looking at all those smiling faces.

Throughout 2019, to help celebrate our 20th Anniversary, we are profiling our staff and select clients. Corona is also donating $500 on behalf of each staff person to a charitable organization of their choice. Click here to view all of our interviews. 

To stay up to date on all Corona news, and receive useful insights into the world of research, evaluation, and strategy, subscribe to our newsletter.

The issues facing our communities

Though we at Corona serve clients of all shapes and sizes, we particularly love helping local governments and nonprofits to improve the lives of people in the communities in which we live, work, and play.  This quarter, we will be focusing on some of the issues that local communities are facing this year. While the specific topics may shift as the quarter goes on, you can likely expect to hear from us about topics such as:

  • How the impacts of government shutdown might linger long after the shutdown ends
  • The challenges with providing housing for an ever-changing population
  • Trends in population growth and where we expect things to go in the future
  • The rapidly shifting landscape of public education and the impacts that Governor Polis might have in Colorado

Stay tuned this quarter for discussions on many other topics.  We hope to shed some light on not only what some of these challenges are, but also how some communities can get ahead of these trends to positively impact their communities, so we hope you will enjoy the conversation!