Eric Sondermann

Eric Sondermann

Once again, Denver Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca seems far more adept at generating heat than shedding light.

A week after equating the gentrification challenges in her north Denver district with the “ethnic cleansing” of the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda and countless other true atrocities, CdeBaca returned to her Twitter and Facebook sphere with a denunciation of the Daniels Fund and the Daniels Scholarship program.

In her never-understated way, CdeBaca stirred the social media pot with a charge that the foundation was acting deplorably by including questions on the scholarship application to gauge a candidate’s understanding and appreciation of concepts such as patriotism and free enterprise. Oh, the horror.

For the past decade, I have had the privilege of serving as a interviewer of finalist candidates for this sought-after scholarship. This interview day every spring is a highlight of my year. It affords an opportunity to meet some remarkable young people (all high school seniors) who have overcome many life challenges — sometimes economic, sometimes family circumstance, sometimes other trauma — and are poised to achieve great things and then themselves pay it forward.

I often talk of this interview day as “inspiring,” but even that word doesn’t do it full justice. It is a chance to see our country’s promising future in all different hues with an array of backgrounds and life stories.

Seven or eight years ago in the course of this day of interviews, I had the wonderful good fortune to meet a young Pakistani-American with whom my wife and I then developed a close friendship and mentoring relationship. Haleema is now like family to us. Her story may make for a separate column someday.

Candi CdeBaca was herself a Daniels Scholar, using the foundation’s generous support to attend the University of Denver. She is part of the ranks of nearly 4,400 Daniels Scholars coming from the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming since the program’s inception 19 years ago.

(Disclosure: When CdeBaca took to social media last Friday to fan these flames, Daniels Fund executives reached out to me for advice based on my familiarity with the program. Additional disclosure: My counsel was provided pro bono without compensation.)

Unlike some other scholarship programs based purely on merit and academic record (Boettcher Scholars, for instance), the Daniels program, consistent with Bill Daniels’ life and values, has always been about finding hidden gems. Or otherwise put, diamonds in the rough with unlimited potential but often lacking social capital. Certainly, applicants need to show the academic wherewithal to succeed in college and to make their dreams practicable. But grades and test scores are often secondary considerations behind character, leadership and commitment to service.

While I met Bill Daniels a couple of times, I cannot claim to have really known him. That was my loss. By all accounts, he was an extraordinary man, made, broken and remade in life and in business. There is seemingly an endless list of people to whom he lent a helping hand, some prominent, most quite anonymous.

Unlike many wealthy individuals who leave behind major philanthropic assets after their death but provide precious little guidance as to their priorities, Bill Daniels was precise and explicit as to the core values and focus of his charitable legacy. This is called donor intent.

Across the country, there are abundant examples of foundations, many far larger than the Daniels Fund, operating rather blindly with respect to the intent of the original funder or, in some cases, blatantly contradicting those values and instructions. More than one benefactor is tossing in the grave at what has become of his or her philanthropy decades later.

Among Bill Daniels’ cherished values was a deep and personal love of country and a core belief in the capitalist system of which he was a product and leading advocate. Why should it surprise or bother anyone that those values are ones his foundation strives to promote through its scholarship program as well as its other grantmaking?

As to the scholarship application and a few of the specific questions, I’ll agree that they are not particularly subtle or refined. That is especially true of the question that seeks a reaction to a handful of different flags. However, I’ve observed this process for enough years to know that the application is frequently revised and may well be so again.

If a few of these questions are more direct than in years past, perhaps it’s a function of the contrary influences so ascendant on so many college campuses. Those influences are hardly subtle or refined either. For now, delicate or not, the queries serve a legitimate purpose in trying to ascertain if the applicant’s fundamental values are even somewhat in sync with those of the scholarship provider.

Whether these values are my values — or, frankly, Candi CdeBaca’s values — is completely beside the point. It’s not my money; nor is it hers. The Daniels Fund is a private foundation created and funded exclusively with private monies. What part of that concept is so difficult to understand and respect?

If years from now the CdeBaca Foundation wishes to only provide scholarships to students who search for alternatives to capitalism, based on that clear directive from its namesake and funder, then that intention should be equally honored.

In the meantime, if CdeBaca or any Daniels Scholar feels compromised by the foundation’s values, they can simply return the scholarship dollars. Instead of taking your torch to social media, Candi, perhaps just write a check to clear your conscience.

For now, the Daniels Fund should be applauded, not scolded and pummeled, for doing their conscientious best to honor Bill Daniels’ wishes and instructions — his donor intent. Meanwhile, we can only hope that with some maturity and time in office, CdeBaca will opt to be a builder rather than a saboteur, and a measured voice rather than a source of predictably volatile hyperbole.

Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. His column appears every Wednesday in ColoradoPolitics. Reach him at; follow him at @EricSondermann .

(5) comments

Cathy Wildman, Guest

Thank you for the clarity of your response. You helped clarify what you believe the intent of Bill Daniels for his scholarship money. Who would he select to carry on his vision and purpose?

Brown Charlie

Excellent analysis as usual Eric! BSC (Bitter Sweet Candy) strikes again. I believe we are now at the point of asking a basic question: Does BSC recite the pledge at the start of Monday night city council meetings?

Jay Clark

Brilliant, Eric!!

The dependence on private donations to fund higher education means that those who can't afford school must learn the minds of the donors. They must learn how to provide answers to questions which agree with people whose interests are counter to their own. The solution is to provide higher education funded by the people via the government. The applicants' opinions should be theirs alone so that humanity can advance on any path that works.


Yes they could lie...or get a job

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