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What is the role of philanthropy in Seattle?

Philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, right, and his wife Melinda listen to the speech of France's President Francois Hollande, prior to being awarded of the Legion of Honour at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Friday, April 21, 2017.
AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu, Pool
Philanthropists Melinda Gates and Bill Gates prior to being awarded the Legion of Honour at the Elysee Palace in Paris last month.

Seattle has a rich history of big giving that goes back to the middle of the last century. As a communications officer at the Gates Foundation, Local Wonder listener Anne Martens knows a lot about philanthropy but she wanted to know more about the role giving has played in Seattle's past. We sent KUOW's Marcie Sillman to report the story.

The year was 1962, and Seattle was basking in the afterglow of the Century 21 World’s Fair.

Tens of thousands of people had traveled to Seattle, enticed by the fair’s visions for a jet-age future, symbolized by a 605-foot tall architectural marvel called the Space Needle.

The fair also tantalized many Seattleites, who dreamed they could transform what had been, up to that point, a sleepy timber town into a cosmopolitan city to rival San Francisco or New York.

Among those dreamers were Bagley and Virginia Wright.

Virginia was a child of the Pacific Northwest, heir to her father Prentice Bloedel’s timber empire. She studied art history in New York City, where she met her husband, Bagley. In New York, the Wrights hung with an artsy crowd; Bagley was a journalist and Virginia worked in a contemporary art gallery.

When the couple moved back to Seattle in the mid-1950s to raise their children, they found this outpost in the Pacific Northwest to be “a cultural dust-bin.”

Virginia Wright got involved in efforts to build up Seattle Art Museum’s contemporary exhibitions, recruiting a cadre of fellow arts enthusiasts to aid her cause. Bagley Wright swapped journalism for real estate development; he was part of the group that built the Space Needle. It made perfect sense that he be the go-to guy to figure out what to do with the fairgrounds when the big party was finally over.

“After Century 21 ended,” he recalled in a 2009 interview, “my job was to find some way of using the buildings that were left.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Virginia and Bagley Wright. ", "fid": "136505", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201705/wrights.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum"}]]For Bagley Wright, a theater company was one obvious solution. In New York, he’d been an avid theater-goer, and to his mind, any sophisticated city needed a professional company.

A half century later, his baby, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, is housed at Seattle Center, the site of the World’s Fair, in a building that bears Wright’s name.

The Wrights, and many of their peers, were convinced that building strong cultural institutions—museums, theaters, an opera company—would help mold Seattle into the metropolis they envisioned. Well-heeled residents helped to fund those institutions that are now firmly entrenched here.

“I was on the board of the Symphony,” Bagley Wright recalled in 2009. “I can’t remember if I was on the Opera board. I was president of the board of PONCHO"—Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations. "Not because I enjoyed it, I can’t bear it. But I needed money for the Rep and the only way was PONCHO.”

By the early 1990s, Seattle was home to more than a half dozen professional theater companies, the Opera, Symphony and Pacific Northwest Ballet, along with a thriving art museum.

“If you look around Seattle, we wouldn’t be the city we are, the region we are, without philanthropy,” says Tony Mestres, President and CEO of the Seattle Foundation. One of the oldest community-based philanthropies on the West Coast, the Foundation manages more than a billion dollars for 1,200 donors and businesses.

Mestres says in addition to creating institutions, many of the mid-20th century philanthropists considered it their civic duty to give back to the have-nots who were falling through the social and economic cracks; cracks that became more apparent as Seattle grew richer.

[asset-images[{"caption": "In this March 2012 photo, Charles Simonyi, the only civilian to visit the International Space Station twice, poses for a photo next to a space suit similar to the one he once wore at the Seattle's Museum of Flight's new space gallery, which is named after him. The Microsoft billionaire is still obsessed with space, but has no plans to take a third trip.", "fid": "136506", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201705/AP_120327154734.jpg", "attribution": "Credit AP Photo/Ted S. Warren"}]]

“The cracks have evolved into great crevasses, canyons, and we have real systemic challenges,” Mestres explains.

Those challenges—homelessness, educational inequities, racism—have pushed philanthropists to rethink how and where they invest their money.

That’s exactly what drove Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda to start their own foundation in 2000.

“We had a belief as a couple that all lives have equal value,” says Melinda Gates. “After we got engaged, we had a series of conversations that this was absolutely the right thing, to take the vast build of resources we earned from Microsoft and give them back to society.”

The Gates Foundation is arguably the largest private philanthropy in the world, with a $40 billion endowment. It’s involved in everything from the eradication of malaria to school reform in the United States. Although the bulk of the Gates Foundation’s funding goes overseas, in 2015 Gates awarded $300 million to Seattle area groups, from Northwest Harvest to the University of Washington. 

But Melinda Gates knows that the Gates Foundation’s local impact ripples out beyond direct grant making. A recent study commissioned by the Foundation showed it had invested 1.5 billion dollars in the Seattle area economy. That figure includes everything from direct grants to employee salaries and benefits. 

“What we’d already learned from Microsoft is that we hire employees, and what they do has a huge impact,” says Melinda Gates. “When we decided where to locate the foundation, we specifically chose to be at Seattle Center, near the fabric of the city.”

The Gates Foundation sits at the west end of Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, a thriving hub for biotechnology and global health organizations. Many of those companies are in Seattle specifically because of the Gates Foundation.

Sue Coliton, formerly with the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, says Seattle has become a center of innovation when it comes to philanthropy.

“Think about what Microsoft has contributed, via employee contributions, money given through the corporation,” Coliton says. “Plus the centers of activity that exist because of the philanthropy’s involvement with international health. They exist because Gates is here.”

Of course, before the Gates Foundation, there was Microsoft. Dan Rathbone, 33, moved to Seattle 10 years ago to take a job with the software giant. He stayed for the quality of life, particularly the cultural offerings.

Rathbone says he never could have imagined that he’d fall in love with ballet, but that’s what happened. His passion for the art form drives his charitable giving. Rathbone sees a wide chasm between the salaries he and his tech colleagues pull down, and those in the nonprofit arts world.

“Philanthropic giving is a way to correct the fact that some things are more highly rewarded in the economy than others,” Rathbone says.

But most of Rathbone’s fellow millennials do not give to big arts institutions. Seattle Foundation President Mestres says these days, potential philanthropists are more focused on causes.

“The new generation is blending social consciousness with professional achievement and commercial success in a new way,” Mestres believes. “Most impact-driven philanthropists are thinking about how to make investments that stimulate systems.”

In an era where government funding for social issues is dwindling, that could be good. But if you run one of Seattle’s legacy cultural organizations, the new trends in giving mean you have to compete with a growing array of worthy causes, says Ellen Walker, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s executive director.

“We are sometimes told to sit down when we raise our hand and say, 'Hey, the arts are hugely important to the identity of this city, and this region,'” Walker says. “That’s hard to hear.”

Fifty years ago, Seattle philanthropists like Virginia and Bagley Wright invested millions to develop cultural resources like the ballet, part of their push to turn Seattle into a world class city.

Decades later, Bill and Melinda Gates are exemplars of a new kind of philanthropy, aimed at creating a high quality of life for people around the world.

The big question now: how that new philanthropy will shape Seattle in the years to come?

Clarification 5/31/17 4:30 p.m.: This story was updated to clarify that Anne Martens is a communications officer at the Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation did not have editorial input in this story.