Employee Spotlight: Nicky DeFord
There’s a good reason Nicky Deford is the woman at the helm Vail Resorts’ community giving and engagement. She’s tenacious and friendly, has spent years promoting various Vail Resorts properties as a public relations specialist, and she has great faith in the company’s commitment to strengthen the communities it’s part of.
“We want communities to understand that Vail Resorts is not a corporate monster that wants to take over a town,” says DeFord, who oversees a $6.5 million budget of annual giving. “How do I convince a community that Vail
Resorts does care, and wants to partner with people? We don’t want to just give a blank check. We want to understand the problems and be part of the solution.”
It’s no secret that Vail Resorts must contend with a public perception that can be less than charitable. What isn’t well known—at least not until you talk to DeFord—is how much the company does for communities and its employees.
Most recently, Vail Resorts announced it would donate $100,000, along with $1 for every season pass sold in Colorado, to the American Red Cross to support flood relief for the massive flood that swept Colorado’s front range in mid-September.
“Disaster struck and a lot of our employees live in Boulder and were impacted by the flood,” says DeFord. “And a lot of our guests come from the Front Range. You know yo work for a great company when the CEO says, ‘what can we do?’”
All told, DeFord leads Vail Resort’s community efforts in Colorado, Tahoe area, Wyoming, and Utah, working with 215 non-profit organizations to leverage Vail’s giving for the maximum impact. Most of the programs Vail Resorts supports have nothing to do with recreation and everything to do with bolstering the community.
For instance, Vail Resorts has invested in school initiatives in Tahoe and Summit County to establish free breakfasts for all students, a critical gesture to improve kids’ ability to concentrate and learn. These mountain communities have a significant population that relies on subsidized meals, yet many eligible children were skipping the breakfast because it labeled them as “in-need.” By normalizing a free breakfast, all the kids who didn’t eat at home in the morning could eat at school without being stigmatized.
Currently DeFord is working closely with non-profits in Park City, Utah, location of the Canyons, to develop partnerships, a process she describes as gratifying.
“I can see first hand we are making a difference and communities do rely on us,” she says. “If we’re thoughtful about what we’re doing, we really can move the needle.”
In addition to working with non-profits and strategizing, DeFord works hard to let Vail Resorts employees know about the community engagement initiatives through newsletters, monthly staff meetings, and by spreading the word through her “echo teams,” groups of managers at each resort who act as a liason between her and the non-profits within each community.
She also plans (optional) employee volunteer days, called “Echo Days,” and manages Vail Resorts’ “Epic Volunteers” program. This application-only program grants up to 50 employees a year 40 paid hours to volunteer. Past volunteers have done everything from reading to kids locally to building a school in Nepal.
Making programs like this part of the corporate fabric is critical for keeping employees happy, says DeFord.
And having the opportunity to drive the job, which was created five years ago, in this direction has been supremely satisfying.
“Before, Vail gave money, but not like this,” says DeFord. “In a short time, we created a grant application process, leadership giving counsel, started the community engagement program, and now we have grown that program. I’m excited to see where we take it next.”
— Rachel Walker