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Bullitt Foundation, a heavy hitter in the Northwest's environmental movement, will wind down its giving

Hal Bernton and Evan Bush, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

SEATTLE -- The Bullitt Foundation, an agenda-setting funder of the Northwest environmental movement, plans to wind down a quarter-century of grant-giving that has pumped more than $200 million into efforts ranging from restoration projects on the Green River to climate activism, as it pushed the region toward a greener future.

The foundation, which traces its roots to a storied Seattle family, will give away most of what's left of its endowment during the next five years.

"The board decided, right from the start, that we did not want to be here in perpetuity," said Denis Hayes, the Bullitt Foundation's executive director, who also said the foundation was nearing the point when "we must pass the torch to the next generation of environmental philanthropists."

Once the grant-giving ends in 2024, the foundation plans to continue to award its annual prize for environmental leadership, and also lease office space at its Seattle headquarters -- the six-story Bullitt Center -- that has gained international recognition for its ecological design.

Bullitt, which had less than $82 million in net assets in 2017, is a relatively small foundation yet has played an outsized role in shaping the regional environmental agenda.

Much of that is due to Hayes, who organized the first Earth Day and led a solar-research institute in President Jimmy Carter's administration. At the Bullitt Foundation, he has helped bring Northwest environmental leaders together to discuss where the movement should go, how to get there and how to diversify its ranks to include more communities of color.

 

"They've really challenged organizations to think about racial equity and racial justice," said Joan Crooks, CEO of the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters.

The foundation's grants typically range from $40,000 to $120,000, often seed money for groups that, once they passed muster with the Bullitt Foundation, had an easier time persuading other donors to chip in.

"It's like Warren Buffett buying stock; if they support an effort, it tends to move other money," said Alan Durning, the founder of Sightline Institute, which received a startup grant of $20,000 from the foundation in 1993 when he was working out of his Seattle bedroom. Today, Sightline, an environmental policy group, continues to receive Bullitt Foundation support, but that money is a now a small part of a $2.2 million budget for an organization that has grown to employ 20 people in three cities.

Through the years, the Bullitt Foundation has spread dollars across a broad swath of the region ranging from Alaska to Oregon and east to Idaho and Montana. Since 2016, the foundation has focused more narrowly on what Hayes calls the "emerald corridor" that stretches from Vancouver, B.C., to Portland. It is a region that he hopes could become a global model for equitable, sustainable urban development -- a vision that still seems far away as the Northwest grapples with an epidemic of homelessness.

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