Orton Family Foundation
Programs Director
Westminster, Colorado
TFN Board Member and PLACES Advisory Board
PLACES 2013 Cohort

A few years ago, Alice Montez was told in a work setting that she was “too strong.”

Montez said she sat with that comment for a bit and realized the truth had little to do with her perceived strength — it was more of a veiled rebuke for overshadowing someone in a position of power.

“For me, it means I was asserting myself,” said Montez, who said she learned at a young age to find unexpected reservoirs of strength within herself, even when others underestimated her.

Montez describes her childhood as one of survival in the coal-mining town of Lafayette, Colorado.

She was twice diagnosed with cancer as a young girl. Through her teenage years, she would navigate a household that wasn’t always stable.

“I pretty much lived the whole story of poverty,” she said.

Montez said she was always a self-starter and pushed herself even when she didn’t have the backing of a strong support network. She gave birth to her first son when she was in high school and was living on her own by the time she was a junior, all while balancing pre-collegiate courses.

“You tell me I can’t go to college, I’ll show you that I can go and be the best at it,” said Montez, who not only earned a bachelor’s degree but a master’s in public administration. The Colorado native also once served as a firefighter on a high-angle rescue team, which uses special techniques and equipment on steep, mountainous inclines.

She says those moments are integral to who she is today.

“All my life I’ve had to be strong,” she said. “You fend for yourself. This is who I am.”

Why did you get into philanthropy?

I was working at a local city and had only municipal experience and planning. One thing I always gravitated toward was community engagement — going out into the community, having conversations and getting feedback.

One day, I noticed in the police storage locker they had all these bikes they collected and I was like, “Why don’t we fix these bikes and give them back to the community?” And the city manager was like, “I don’t need you to engage with the community.” And if I kept doing that he would reprimand me.

I searched online and I saw the Orton Family Foundation was looking for someone in community engagement. I thought, “This is me. I have to get this job.” I left the city and that was my entryway into philanthropy.

What was your PLACES experience like and how has it impacted your work?

I got into PLACES three years into my work in philanthropy. The fellowship called to me with its focus on equity and connecting with my colleagues in the U.S. doing the same work.

One of the “ah-ha” moments I had at PLACES was seeing that I’m not alone. I would see other people outraged about the things I was outraged about. I saw that it’s OK to be vulnerable. I heard really smart people say, in a really authentic way, “I don’t know what I’m doing, either.”

Then all your guards are down and you’re willing to say what’s on your mind without worrying about being judged.

I’ve been able to leverage the connections and strong relationship I have with people from other organizations when I have what some might call a “wild, harebrained idea.” I can show that other organizations are doing similar work, or I can say there are other organizations who want to do this work. That has given me a lot of leverage in asserting myself.

What is one of the biggest challenges you’re facing right now in this work?

For Orton, a barrier we work with quite often is that we developed a social cohesion model: If a community knows itself and knows what matters most to them, they can collectively be better prepared for current and future challenges. However, funders don’t want to help fund the development of social cohesion, but they love to fund the outcomes of communities that have strong social capital.

We are missing the mark and not funding what towns truly need and value. I understand that many funders are restricted to fund what their donors want or endowments might require, but it puts us in a predicament of not always being able to move the needle.

How are you building for equity?

When I came to the foundation, we were in the beginning stages of building our signature community program, Heart & Soul, which focuses on small towns and rural communities. When we started working with communities 10 years ago, people were asking, “How do you get communities to show up to council meetings?”

You get people to care about city council meetings by first caring for them, showing up for them, and being where they are. There was an economic development official from a community who lived there his entire life and he had no idea there was a mobile home park there. They ended up doing potlucks at the mobile home park and getting people to tell their stories. Storytelling is our way of helping towns build empathy for each other that in turn activates the community for one another.

It’s the modern-day way of activating communities. We’re helping to build leaders without saying you’re going through a leadership program. People find ways to work together when they get to know each other.

If you could write a very short letter —“Dear People In Philanthropy…” What would it say?

Dear People in Philanthropy,
Let’s move away from grant-making and let’s move to making a difference.

We need to be part of the change. Time and time again, as funders, we’ll get together and ask, “Are we moving the needle?” And the reality is, no. We use the same ways of operating while expecting a different outcome.

We have to be on the ground. We have to change the way we fund and the way we think about our grantees. They are the real change agents.

Is there an internal question you’re constantly asking yourself while doing this work? What is it and how do you answer it?

For me it’s, “How do we make sure we’re not creating more inequities?”

I don’t want to walk away from our work knowing that we made things worse.