New Mexico Business Weekly's 2010 Corporate Heroes

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, June 2010


Don Chalmers

Dealer Principal, Don Chalmers Ford

Don Chalmers is one of those names people in Albuquerque just know. It’s also a name they should know, although maybe not for the obvious reason.

Chalmers achieved public recognition mainly through his Ford dealership, but running a business only represents a fraction of his involvement with the Albuquerque community. People might also recognize his name from his current and former roles as a board member of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau, Quality New Mexico, The New Mexico Amigos, New Mexico First, ¡explora!, ACCION New Mexico and many, many more organizations. He also sits on the UNM Board of Regents and the CNM Governing Board. In fact, Chalmers seems to spend every moment that he isn’t working on his business working on his volunteering—he puts more than 1,000 hours a year into giving. It’s a way of life he discovered when he was a kid.

Growing up in Tulsa, Okla., Chalmers remembers a time when he was an “itty-bitty kid” and the Arkansas River flooded. His parents took him to the river so they could all put sand in sandbags that would be used to alleviate flooding in town. Another time, when he was 11 or 12, his parents picked another family to help during the holiday season through their church. Chalmers took it upon himself to bake them a cake. “It was the last cake I ever baked,” he says. “I don’t know if it was very good.”

His parents taught him the spirit of helping others. “I believe in the concept of paying it forward, that involves helping people you don’t know necessarily,” he says. “Now, I’ve been given a whole lot in my life. I was fortunate to grow up with two parents that were good examples to me. They’re gone now, and it would be impossible to pay ‘em back. But even if they weren’t gone, they wouldn’t wanna be paid back, they would expect me to pay it forward, give it to somebody else that’s not as fortunate as we are.”

Chalmers walks the talk. In addition to all the time he spends helping direct organizations, he also underwrites several FFA scholarships along with an annual UNM Presidential Scholarship. He’s also been the local chair for a corporate drive for funding with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation since he moved to Albuquerque 14 years ago. During that time, he’s helped raise more than $25,000 through the drive. And now he’s sitting on the board of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, leading a capital campaign for the organization to renovate the long-vacant Hiland Theater. 

Chalmers inspires his approximately 200 employees to volunteer as well. He estimates that 80 or 90 percent of his employees give time to charity, each giving an average of 40 hours per year. In fact, Chalmers says his Ford dealership is the leading United Way giver in the nation per capita among domestic auto dealers. 

Employees aren’t required to volunteer, just encouraged—and it’s easy to see why they might be motivated to put in the effort. Debbi Moore is the president and CEO of the Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce. She’s know Chalmers for 13 years, and one of her favorite stories about him takes place at a gathering he once had at his dealership. He had won an award, and some of the national Ford people had come to celebrate. All of his more than 300 employees at the time were there, too. “And I was standing there with him,” says Moore, “and his employees were coming in ... and he knew them by name. And he knew their children, he knew their spouses. I remember one employee came up and said, ‘Oh, you don’t know me, I just started yesterday,’ or something. And he looked at her and he said, ‘I’ll remember your name next time.’ And that is a powerful summary of who Don is.” 

Chalmers has been affected by the recession, and it means that sometimes he has to give more time than money. But he makes it clear that he never stops giving. “I want to give and give till it hurts,” he says. “If it’s not a sacrifice when you give, I don’t see anything noble about that. I don’t try to give people my overflow, my leftovers. I try to give ‘em the best that I have.”


LaDonna Hopkins

Vice President and Chief Development Officer, United Way of Central New Mexico

Most nonprofits (along with most everyone) are hurting in the recession. But there’s one nonprofit in town that raised more money last year than ever before. United Way of Central New Mexico brought in $25 million in 2009, more than any other United Way branch of its size in the country. The woman behind the numbers? LaDonna Hopkins, the local nonprofit’s vice president and chief development officer.

Hopkins says that while many people can’t give as much as they did before the recession, there are others who understand the increased need for their donations who are giving even more. “I’ve had such a wonderful time being part of a community that literally leads the country in philanthropy,” she says. “And when I say I get to see the best in people, that’s not just a passing comment. I get to see people taking strong actions to make a difference each and every day.”

Hopkins is one of those people. Not only have she and her husband given at least $10,000 to United Way every year since 1999, she’s spent her life in service. Her first job out of college was as a teacher. But that job soon carved a path for her in the nonprofit world. Not long after starting teaching, she began working with a program through her church called Women Helping Women, aimed at helping women with children using government assistance attain self-sufficiency. 

After directing the program for two years, Hopkins left teaching to work exclusively with the nonprofit sector. A brief rundown of the organizations she’s worked and volunteered with includes Habitat for Humanity, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Quality New Mexico, the Junior League of Albuquerque and the Center for Nonprofit Excellence. She’s held her post at United Way for 15 years. And this summer, she’s retiring. Even in her retirement, Hopkins plans to continue to work part-time at another nonprofit, the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, to be part of the effort to renovate the Hiland Theater. 

“She’s brilliant when it comes to philanthropy and growing people’s interest in philanthropy and involvement in philanthropy,” says Kathleen Avila, the incoming chair of United Way of Central New Mexico. “She’s not someone who just says, We’d like you to give some more money. LaDonna really exudes the idea of generosity and gratitude. ... That’s just who she is to her toes.” Avila and Hopkins met long ago—“I don’t even know when I didn’t know LaDonna,” says Avila—but they started working together eight years ago to launch a group called Women in Philanthropy, focused on engaging women who donate $1,000 or more to United Way so they stay active with the charity. After working with Hopkins for going on a decade, Avila refers to her as a “humble” woman with “unquestionable integrity.”

“Philanthropy and what it means in my life has blessed me in so many ways,” says Hopkins. “I don’t think there’s a better way to be able to feel like you’re making a difference.”


Brian O'Connell

Executive Director, New Mexico Child Advocacy Networks

When you think about major organizations in the state, New Mexico Child Advocacy Networks (NMCAN) probably isn’t the first that comes to mind. It’s a name most people haven’t heard, despite the fact that it has more than 900 volunteers—more than most, if not all, other local nonprofits can boast. It also helps care for more than 4,000 children in foster care a year—a group as big as the student body of Cibola High School.

One of the reasons you many not have heard of NMCAN is because its name recently changed. It formed in 1990 as the New Mexico CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) Network, with a mission was to train laypeople to speak for neglected and abused kids in court. The organization grew, and in 2005 the state asked it to start managing the New Mexico Child Abuse and Neglect Citizen Review Board, a program that reviews individual foster care cases. That’s when its name changed to NMCAN. It still oversees the CASA volunteer program and the Citizen Review Board, and since that time it’s also taken on the New Mexico Access and Visitation Network. Basically, it’s responsible for all volunteer advocacy for children in New Mexico courts.

Brian O’Connell has been the executive director at NMCAN for 10 years. When he came to the organization after working as a senior fiscal analyst on the Legislative Finance Committee, he had no idea there were so many kids going in and out of foster care in the state every year. “In the early years, it could be pretty gut-wrenching,” he says. From an emotional standpoint, though, O’Connell is able to mostly stay out of the fray, since in his position he doesn’t work directly with kids. With only 12 staff members in the organization, that job falls to the volunteers. “One of the things I love about this job is how humbling and impressive and how generous people are,” he says. “And the fact that I get to do my thing, which is kind of administrative and kind of managerial, and feel like I’m pulling the rope in the same direction as these people that are really committing big chunks of their lives to hard stories and challenging situations and kids that are really going to benefit from it.”

Mary Ann Copas is one of those people. She’s volunteered with the Citizen Review Board for the last five years. She says the work is rewarding and she believes in  NMCAN and its effort to create “a climate of positive advocacy for kids.” By being more aware of children’s needs, she says, not only are the children better off, but society is better off once those children grow up.

“It took me quite a number of months to sort of understand the scope of the problem and to understand just how devastating it is for a kid to, first of all, be injured by a loved one, and then the process of getting removed from that loved one can add just as much trauma as that initial event,” says O’Connell. “We as a culture really need to have a sense of urgency about getting these kids in a safe situation that is going to be permanent for them.”