Priority Funding Areas

The Gates Family Foundation initiates funding activity in four concentrated funding areas: K‐12 Education and Natural Resources, with a secondary emphasis on Community Development. Strategies and approaches will be continually adapted in these areas, but the Foundation expects to maintain a commitment to these initiatives over time. Initiatives will constitute about 60% of the Foundation’s grant making. It should be noted that initiatives are characterized by a portfolio approach to grant making that allows the Foundation to pursue ambitious, large-scale outcomes.

Please note that Gates initiative grant funding is not an opportunity for ongoing operating or program support, nor does the Foundation accept unsolicited proposals for funding in these areas.

  1. primary
    K-12 Education
  2. Natural Resources
  3. secondary
    Rural Communities
  4. Smarter, Greener, Healthier Urbanism
  • While Colorado cities are among the most highly-educated in the country, staggering income-based achievement gaps persist for students across the state. The majority of low-income K-12 students receive an education that fails to prepare them for higher education, the workforce, and life as an adult. Despite this reality, public education remains one of the most effective and powerful tools for creating equity of opportunity and access, and we believe every child deserves a chance to learn and succeed.

    Gates supports initiatives aimed at increasing the quality and equity of the K-12 education system in Colorado. Primary interests of the Foundation include:

    • Growing, replicating, and supporting effective autonomous schools (charter schools, and other schools with sufficient autonomy over the use of time, people, and money) to increase the supply of high-quality schools serving low-income students
    • Seeding innovation and supporting learning across systems to foster new school models and approaches that prepare low-income students’ for long-term success
    • Supporting media and advocacy efforts that build awareness and demand for quality so that decision-makers in schools and systems may be held accountable
    • Increasing the supply of effective talent by developing more robust human capital pipelines and building the capacity of existing teachers and school leaders
    • Reforming systems to create the conditions necessary to spur school and district improvement
    • University Preparatory School - Denver
    • Family Star Montessori School
    • El Sistema (Piton Foundation - Brigid McAuliffe)

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    Autonomous Public Schools

    The Foundation supports high-quality charter schools, charter networks, and other autonomous public schools serving low-income students that demonstrate gains in academic achievement and encourage students’ long-term success. Gates also strategically supports partnering organizations that improve the education ecosystem, allowing autonomous schools to grow and thrive.

    Innovation and Incubation

    The Foundation supports innovative leaders, new school models, and innovation within existing models to better meet the needs of low-income students. Gates also provides strategic support to districts or partnering organizations developing and implementing new approaches to teaching and learning. In combination with these investments, the Foundation supports the dissemination of learning across systems and geographies to share best practices and promote smart risk-taking aimed at further advancing school improvement.


    The Foundation supports grassroots and grasstops advocacy efforts at the school, district, and state levels that push the education system to be more iterative, transparent, and responsive to the needs of students. Gates also supports media efforts that build awareness and empower the public to hold decision-makers accountable.

    Human Capital

    The Foundation supports efforts to recruit, train, and retain effective teachers, school leaders, and district and organizational leadership, as well as efforts to build a talent pool that reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the student population in the state.

    Systems Reform

    The Foundation supports reforms that allow systems to become more responsive and adaptive, and that spur school and district improvement. The Foundation provides targeted support to efforts that aim to encourage large-scale and transformational change.

  • Colorado’s land and water resources will be under enormous pressure in the coming years as the state continues to grow and urbanize. The Foundation's Natural Resource initiative will partner strategically with groups to support land conservation, water resource protection and management, increased land trust capacity, citizen stewardship and ecosystem services demonstration opportunities.

    From 1998-2009, Colorado was the 4th fastest growing state in the nation, adding one million people to its population, which is expected to double again by 2050. This growth has foreseeable consequences for the state's natural inheritance and adds to existing challenges related to climate change, declines in forest health, potential for catastrophic wildfires, and impacts related to energy development and growth of the recreational economy. Continued urbanization creates urgency for protecting land and water resources and natural areas, in addition to finding new and better ways to steward the public and protected lands that are an important part of the state's fabric and character.

    Natural Resources work will be a primary area of grant-making for the Foundation. Approximately 25-30% of the Foundation's annual grant making will be dedicated towards this area, with the majority of expenditures focused on support of land and water conservation.

    • Colorado Cattlemen's Land Trust Basin Ranch
    • Southwest Institute for Education and Conservation
    • Black Canyon Land Trust

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    Land Protection in Focus Landscapes

    In Colorado, approximately 100,000 acres of privately owned farm, ranch or forest lands are lost every year to development. Despite great strides in the past 20 years, land conservation has not kept pace with growth pressure. Landscapes critical for the state’s biodiversity, scenic values, water protection and agricultural production continue to be lost to new development and the impacts of other activities including energy development. These impacts are especially significant in river corridors. Riparian habitat makes up less than 3% of the land in Colorado, but is used by over 90% of wildlife in the state.

    The Foundation has historically been an important source of grants and matching funds for the Colorado land protection community. The Foundation will increase its investment in land conservation. We will place more emphasis on proposed project impact, leverage of other resources, scale and connectivity, degree of collaboration, landowner commitment and community relevance and support.

    While the Foundation will continue to consider all requests for support of land conservation projects in its capital grant making program, the intention is to concentrate initiated investments over a multi‐year period in three to five target landscapes.

    Land Trust Capacity Building

    The land protection community within Colorado has matured significantly within the last 25 years, but many opportunities still exist to improve organizational practices, develop better means to defend perpetual easements, increase stewardship capacity and improve community support and relevance. Colorado has over three dozen nonprofit land trusts, and dozens of local government open space programs, as well as land conservation activity in the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife and the State Land Board. Together, these groups protect an estimated 100,000 acres of land per year in Colorado. The last few years have seen challenges to Colorado’s land conservation tax credit program, and increased scrutiny of easement practices. Diminishing resources have also led to increased interest in potential land trust mergers.

    The Foundation supports continued development of capacity within these groups, to adopt industry best practices through accreditation, defend existing protection mechanisms, develop new tools and continue to achieve organizational excellence.

    Water Resources

    Colorado is home to the headwaters for four major rivers (the Colorado, Rio Grande, Arkansas and South Platte) that flow out of state supplying water to 19 other states and over 35 million people. Colorado is also the source of many major tributaries to the Colorado River system (Yampa, White, Dolores, Gunnison, San Juan, and San Miguel Rivers, among others), and thousands of smaller waterways. No major rivers flow into Colorado. Population growth and urban development in Colorado are intensifying conflicts between the users of this water, including urban, agricultural and recreational users.

    Statewide water supply needs (now at 1.1 million acre feet) are projected to reach 2.1 million acre feet by 2050. Less than one‐third of the state’s rivers and streams are considered “healthy” by basic biological and hydrological indicators, and only 17% have instream flow protection of any kind. A major challenge for the future of the state is to find ways to balance the urban, agricultural and recreational uses of our river systems while protecting the environmental qualities that make the state an attractive place to live and work.

    The Foundation will support projects that advance new tools, processes and ideas to realize a long-term, sustainable balance between future urban, agricultural, recreational and environmental needs in the state’s rivers. The Foundation will work closely with all relevant stakeholders including policy leaders, nonprofit advocates, scientists and water resource managers to identify high leverage, high impact investments to balance competing demands and protect the state’s water resources. Aspects of this program may be complementary with Foundation activities focused on land conservation, citizen stewardship, rural communities and ecosystem services.

    Citizen Stewardship

    36% of the land in Colorado (24 million acres) is public land, 83% of which is open to outdoor recreation. Approximately 1.63 million acres have been protected statewide through conservation easements and acquisitions for local open space programs. More than 75% of Colorado’s residents recreate outdoors on a weekly basis, and recreational activity (including tourism) is estimated to generate annual revenues of $10 billion and support 107,000 jobs.

    The state’s demographics are also changing as the population ages, grows more diverse and more urban. The population segment that has historically been most concerned with stewardship and protection of natural resources is aging and shrinking. At the same time, federal and state land management budgets are being cut dramatically. Most public managers lack the resources and capacities necessary to be effective stewards of the lands they manage. The future health of the state’s public and protected lands is ensured only to the degree that our residents understand their role as stewards. Increasingly, this role requires citizens to participate directly on the ground in stewardship activities and to be advocates for these public resources. Citizen stewardship can also provide an important “gateway experience” for children and young adults, potentially leading to longer-term support and understanding of the state’s natural resources.

    Colorado has a strong existing network of these types of organizations as compared with other states. Examples include Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, the Colorado Youth Corps Association,  multiple “Friends of . . . “ organizations, etc. A 2010 conference led to the creation of a statewide Stewardship Advisory Coalition that comprises many of these groups to identify trends and needs for the future.

    The Foundation will work with the Coalition and others to develop the information, tools and capacities necessary to expand the scale of citizen stewardship activity statewide.

    Ecosystem Services

    Decisions regarding natural resources are often made with limited regard for the real economic cost that can result from damaging or destroying natural systems. The emerging field of ecosystems services valuation and market development represents an effort to protect the environment by quantifying the value of “natural capital” — nature’s goods and services that are fundamental for human life — and using market type mechanisms to link beneficiaries with the stewardship of these resources. These benefits from nature — like flood protection, crop pollination and carbon storage — are not part of the traditional economic calculus.

    One local example is 2011 agreement between Denver Water and the US Forest Service, whereby Denver Water will pay the U.S. Forest Service to manage forest resources in the watersheds that feed Denver’s reservoirs in order to avoid the high costs of mitigating forest fires and the floods and siltation that can result. Restoration of the Hayman Burn area is an important part of that project.

    This emerging field has great potential, but the practical implementation of these concepts is still in its infancy.

    The Foundation will consider support for research and pilot projects in Colorado that advance valuation and market development for ecosystem services, and the integration of these tools into public and private decision-making. There appears to be strong potential to continue to advance the understanding of drinking water quality and flood prevention as a forest‐related ecosystem services market.

  • Rural communities and rural culture are an essential part of the identity and character of Colorado. But the future facing rural communities is full of challenges. Many face unprecedented growth pressures, while others are struggling to survive.

    Rural communities within Colorado face two very different circumstances. Much of eastern and southern Colorado continues to experience population declines and a contraction of agriculturally-based economies, as young people seek careers in population centers. For many other rural areas, particularly on the West Slope, communities face unprecedented changes due to population growth, increased urbanization, energy development and the growth of the recreational economy. Given this changing reality, the Foundation will work to maximize the impact of its grants to rural communities by focusing on projects that best contribute to the quality of life and long‐term health and viability of rural communities. The Foundation will continue to invest in facilities that reinforce the strength of rural main streets and downtown areas.

    In addition to capital facilities, grants and investments will focus on three areas (more detail provided at right):

    • Alternative Economic Futures
    • Community Planning, Public Engagement and Leadership Development
    • Urban-Rural Food Linkages
    • Community Viz in Rifle, CO
    • Crawford Library

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    Community Planning, Public Engagement and Leadership Development

    The Foundation is interested in providing support for the development of tools and local leadership that assist rural communities facing growth pressures to develop in a smart, sustainable fashion consistent with local values and priorities.

    Alternative Economic Futures

    The Foundation is interested in grant investments that include revitalization of main streets, value added strategies for agriculture, heritage and agricultural tourism and other entrepreneurial opportunities.

    Urban‐Rural Food Linkages

    The Foundation is interested in food system investments that can serve economic development, food security and environmental health objectives. It will invest in urban‐rural agriculture linkages, agricultural infrastructure in rural communities that supports direct access to nearby urban markets, possibly with pilot programs focused on certain types of rural entrepreneurs. In exploring the urban‐rural food linkage and alternative economic futures opportunities, the Foundation will be looking for cases where the investment appears to have potential for meaningful economic impact – either in job creation or income growth.

  • Colorado’s population is anticipated to double within the next 40 years. The kinds of communities we create to accommodate the needs of this much larger population will have profound implications for a variety of aspects of life in urban and rural communities throughout the state.

    Building on the Foundation’s history of involvement with land use, community planning and public space, the Foundation will explore opportunities to impact the form and character of urbanizing environments in all parts of Colorado.  These opportunities may include:

    • Catalytic public spaces that serve multiple health, recreation, place making and urban agriculture objectives
    • Expansion of green building and sustainable development practices, particularly in the nonprofit sector
    • Mobility options that enhance bike, pedestrian, transit and other alternatives to the personal automobile
    • Maximizing the benefits of the build-out of the Denver region’s rail transit system through participation in a regional transit oriented development (TOD) strategy including a commitment to housing and economic opportunities for low-income households in proximity to station sites

    Where possible, the Foundation will encourage the use of market forces to address goals (i.e. the adoption of green building technologies or sustainable practices). The Foundation will have less grant making capacity in this area than in P‐12 Education or Natural Resources. Because of this reality, high leverage strategies, projects involving multiple partners and PRIs may be the most effective approaches to making a meaningful difference in this area.

    • Denver Bike Share
    • South Platte River Greenway - Confluence Park

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    Catalytic Public Spaces

    The Foundation will pursue the creation of catalytic urban spaces that serve multiple functions – addressing health, recreation, place making, urban agriculture and community gathering needs. These projects will generally require the participation of multiple partners.

    Sustainable Development

    The Foundation will look for high impact opportunities to encourage green building and sustainable development practices throughout Colorado.

    Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)

    The Foundation will explore ways to maximize the benefits of the build‐out of the Denver region’s rail transit system through participation in a regional transit oriented development strategy with particular focus using transit to increase access to affordable housing and job opportunities and improve health and educational outcomes for low-income households.

    Multi-Modal Access

    The Foundation will support innovative projects that promote multi-modal transportation options as alternatives to use of personal automobiles.  These options may include bike, pedestrian, transit and other types of alternatives.

    Urban Agriculture

    The Foundation will support high impact urban agriculture projects that address food security and community development needs.  The Foundation is also interested in projects that create direct connections between rural producers and urban consumers and that build infrastructure in rural areas, facilitating direct access to urban markets.  These types of projects will generally require participation by multiple partners.