One of the arts and culture initiatives supported last year by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation was artist Thomas Dambo, who stands beside one of his creations, Jakob 2 Trees in Issaquah, Wash., The Pacific Northwest project included six trolls made from scrap materials as part of a public exhibition. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Paul Allen is synonymous with philanthropic giving in the Pacific Northwest. Thirty-six years ago, the late Microsoft co-founder and his sister Jody Allen created their family foundation, which grants more than $55 million annually in charitable funding.

Then in 2018, Paul died suddenly at the age of 65, triggering a reorganization of the effort.

It has been five years now since the philanthropy created a board of directors and brought “more structure and formality” to the organization, said Lara Littlefield, the foundation’s executive director of partnerships and programs.

The foundation’s oversight is still lean — namely Jody and a two-person board — and embraces an approach to giving that aligns with Paul’s original philosophy of using science and technology-led solutions where appropriate, as well as experimenting and changing course as needed to reach their goals.

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation’s focus areas are the environment; community and youth-driven initiatives; arts and culture; and, through the affiliated Allen Institute, biosciences. It has $1.2 billion in assets.

Today the philanthropy is publicly launching a $5 million effort to support nature-based projects to lessen the impacts of climate change. That could include efforts such as forest protection, kelp restoration and urban tree planting. Organizations and nonprofits must submit letters of interest by April 12, and the foundation expects to fund three to five recipients.

Protecting and restoring kelp beds, like the ones offshore of Lopez Island, is one nature-based strategy for addressing climate change. (GeekWire Photo / Brent Roraback)

The organization targets mainstream efforts as well as quirkier initiatives. Some recently funded programs include:

  • The Community Accelerator Grant created in partnership with the nonprofit ArtsFund, which issued $10 million to 671 arts and cultural organizations last year and has $10 million to grant again this year.
  • Support for a public art project by Danish artist Thomas Dambo who creates troll sculptures made from natural and recycled materials.
  • The Rhizome Civic Service Fellowship Washington State Pilot, which supports high school students engaging in public projects.
  • The Slingshot Challenge, an initiative with National Geographic Society to empower youth worldwide working on environmental challenges.
  • A partnership with the Earth Species Project to develop AI-based tools to help people communicate with animals in their own languages.

GeekWire caught up with Littlefield, a former exec at the University of Washington who leads the foundation’s operations, to learn more about its mission and evolution. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

GeekWire: What is the vision for the foundation?

Littlefield: There’s a place-based aspect to it, particularly in the arts and youth and community side of the house. We are focused in the Pacific Northwest — we live here. We start with Washington. The environmental stuff has been global, but also with a North America and Africa preference. There’s an element of “this is our home,” and a kind of the identity for who we are that underlies that vision. We keep coming back to this umbrella of helping to create a thriving and healthy community for ourselves.

Lara Littlefield, executive director of partnerships and programs for the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. (Allen Foundation Photo)

I’m glad you mentioned the place-based aspect. I’ve written about Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his more muted focus on this region philanthropically. Why is there that commitment for the foundation, is it a sense of obligation?

There’s deep family ties here in the Pacific Northwest. From the [historic] family perspective, as well as the current family structure. But when it comes to our DNA, what compels our approach to working, there are a couple of different ways we look at that. One is novel, local solutions that we identify in our own backyard that we think have the opportunity to be scaled and replicated. Because at the end of the day, we don’t want just the Pacific Northwest to thrive, we want our whole world to thrive. But then we’re constantly trying to think from a national or global perspective, what are we seeing out there that can be brought here locally? So it’s bi-directional.

MacKenzie Scott, Bezos’ ex-wife, has turned philanthropy on its head with giving that’s centered on moving money quickly out the door with no strings attached. Has that spurred conversations within the foundation?

What she’s doing is super cool. Trust-based philanthropy and giving unrestricted dollars is not a new approach, but she’s doing it at scale, in a very significant way and making transformative gifts for organizations. It’s absolutely inspiring. It’s one way of supporting an organization, and absolutely is a valuable way.

Because our portfolio spreads among science and tech solutions, it’s not always a one-size-fits-all approach. One area that we shifted or experimented in our approach is with the Community Accelerator Grant through ArtsFund. We spent a year listening to the sector, which was under so much pressure from the pandemic, barely keeping their doors open. ArtsFund was really well positioned so we partnered with them and created a community advisory panel made up of leaders in the arts and culture sector who were helping to develop the selection criteria for awards. That is participatory grant-making that is led by community and ended up being a really successful model, particularly when you need to get money out the door quickly.

You said the foundation experiments and iterates, and I wonder if you can give an example of an effort that didn’t work?

It’s important to remember we’re not the ones closest to the problems, and therefore we aren’t the ones that should be designing the solutions. Where we are today as a foundation is knowing we’re not the only funder. We are part of an ecosystem, and we are here to invest in really smart, creative people that know their communities and know their pain points. A lot of our lessons learned and the shifts have been from some of those learnings in the past.

People were sorry that Seattle’s Cinerama movie theater was a project the organization didn’t carry forward. How do you manage disappointments like that?

Paul passed away and he left his wishes in his estate plan, and he said the vast majority of his wealth will go to philanthropy. Paul made choices, and the estate is obligated to follow those estate plans. So we don’t actually have anything to do with the Cinerama. This foundation is a separate entity and has been for 36 years.

While we understand the community connections and the wishes and the hopes and dreams and how other people would want it to work, it was Paul’s decisions how he wanted things to move forward. And so it’s hard. But also, as time will reveal, his plans were also really exciting about future opportunities. And one day, I think, the estate will be able to share more about that.

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